A proposed amendment to the 1989 Solid Waste Disposal Act has a lot of artists seeing red -- and yellow and orange for that matter. Bill S.1112, introduced by Sen. John Chafee (R-R.I.) and currently in committee, calls for a ban on "the use of cadmium as a pigment and the importation of products containing cadmium as a pigment."

For some in the art world, the possible ban on the chemical represents nothing less than the end of beautiful paintings. "If we didn't have cadmium, it would be devastating to the art industry," says Sherry French, a New York art dealer who is exhibiting a "Waiting for Cadmium" show at her gallery to raise public awareness on the issue. "Cadmium paints are the brightest tones of the warm colors, red, orange, yellow and green.

"You wouldn't be able to paint van Gogh's 'Sunflowers' without cadmium," says French.

"There's no pigment that can replace cadmium," agrees Robert Merrill, chief of conservation at the National Gallery of Art. "You're talking about a range of colors. {Cadmium paints} are some of the most permanent colors. They don't deteriorate, fade or darken."

The bill aims to control the disposal of hazardous heavy metals and to reduce the risk of artists coming in contact with the substance, which has been shown to be toxic in certain forms, both problems that artists dispute. "The only way you can get poisoned by the paint is to eat the stuff," says Merrill. "I'm for protecting the environment, but I'm against banning it" for artists.

"I would like to see artists' pigments exempt from the cadmium ban," says French. "The cadmium in artists' pigments is cadmium sulfide. If it's heated to over 1,000 degrees, then it's very toxic. Our point is that very few people burn their paintings."

"There're a lot of myths surrounding cadmium paints," she says. "But the tests show that they're virtually insoluble to human tissue."

That's not enough to convince Jay Young, a chemistry, safety and health consultant. "The cadmium sulfide argument, it's a good try," says Young. "In other words, if a substance is soluble in water then it is more likely that its toxic characteristics will be effective in the victim. However, there are many substances that are not soluble in water to any extent that are highly toxic.

"With respect to cancer, from the information I see, it definitely is a carcinogen to animals ... and therefore a suspect carcinogen in human beings," Young says. "The trouble is that you're going to get it on your hands... .

"When I balance the risks and benefits, I come out on the side of banning the cadmium because the risk is too high in my own mind," says Young. "I support it."

On the Hill, the artists have at least one fervent ally. Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) last week wrote a letter to Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), chairman of the toxic substances subcommittee, expressing his concern about the proposed ban. Domenici said Friday that he became aware of the importance of the issue after a recent meeting in Sante Fe with constituents. "Even though New Mexico is a small state, we probably have per capita more artists than any state in the union," he said. "Santa Fe is the third largest commercial art center in the U.S. behind New York and Los Angeles. I hear from my artists frequently ... and the ban on cadmium pigments was brought to my attention."

In his letter to Reid, Domenici suggested that artists be exempt from the ban on cadmium, as is the practice in Sweden. "Professional artists are acutely aware that many of the materials they work with can be toxic," said Domenici. "I am confident that they are well aware of the precautions needed to work with these materials and that they do their best to handle these materials with responsibility and care."

New Art Staff & Space

New starts: Lee Hall has been named director of the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Hall most recently held the position of senior vice president and director of the Division for the Arts and Communications at the Academy for Educational Development ... Ford's Theatre has appointed Michael Gennaro as managing director. Gennaro comes from New Brunswick, N.J., where he was general manager of the George Street Playhouse.

Last Monday saw the opening of the Mexican Cultural Institute at 2829 16th St. NW, former site of the Mexican Embassy. The institute was inaugurated in a ceremony attended by Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari. The facility has a 180-seat auditorium, two art galleries totaling 3,800 square feet, a music room, conference room, reception and banquet rooms and a reference library. There are currently three exhibits on display: "Masters of Mexican Art," "Five Contemporary Mexican Painters" and "What the Sea Left Me," featuring the work of contemporary photographer Lourdes Almeida.