Before last month the names Holly Hughes, Tim Miller, John Fleck and Karen Finley barely registered a blip on the national art scene radar. Their type of art -- performance art -- is usually relegated to small clubs in major urban centers. But the National Endowment for the Arts decision to overrule a peer panel's recommendation that they be awarded grants has thrust them into the national spotlight. Last week the four announced plans to appeal the NEA's decision, and the upcoming battle will no doubt keep their names in the media for a while.

None of this could have been predicted by Jan Rothchild in December as she sat in d.c. space, chewing her nails and watching the snow pile up on the Washington streets. Rothchild, who runs a local production company called Pushing the Limits, had booked Hughes into d.c. space for two shows and was getting worried that no one would show up. "There was a huge snowstorm that night but 75 people showed up," said Rothchild, who is presenting Hughes again next month at Dance Place. "We realized that if this many people came out in a snowstorm, there must be a larger audience for her."

Sitting in the club that night watching Hughes, who has described her own work as "feminist satire" and "openly lesbian," were a few folks who were taking notes. According to Rothchild, it was that performance that the NEA peer panel attended to make its decision to recommend Hughes for a grant. "We were told that they were coming," she said. "They warn you ahead of time so you can notify the artist. We didn't really even notice them."

Now Rothchild has ambivalent feelings about the past month's events, recognizing that controversy usually generates intense interest in a product or person (take note of 2 Live Crew's soaring album sales of "As Nasty as They Wanna Be," the high prices commanded by Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs and the number of people flocking to the theaters to see Andrew Dice Clay in "The Adventures of Ford Fairlane").

"I've gotten a lot of phone calls... . People are calling and saying they want tickets," she said. "But it's getting crazy. I hate this focus on {obscenity}. It's so demeaning to the artist. I think it's dangerous. I just want to present this stuff because I think it's good."

Deborah Reilly, spokesman for Dance Place, which is being rented by Pushing the Limits to present the show, said she had one call last Friday from a man who was angered about the Hughes appearance. "He wanted to know if we had given due consideration to the nature of the work and tried to {point out} our location in the proximity of Catholic University as something to be aware of," she said. The caller asked if Dance Place's board of directors had thought about whom they were renting their space to.

"The decision for rental is made by myself, and what we are looking for are people who can professionally produce artists of high quality -- that's the criterion," said Carla Perlo, founder and director of Dance Place. "Now whether you like that work or whether you like that particular artist or not does not say to me whether or not it should be considered one of high or low quality.

"The bottom line is: If you want to see the performance, pay the ticket price," Perlo said. "No one is saying you have to go."

Citadel's Close

Things are winding down to a close much sooner than anticipated at the Citadel Motion Picture and Video Center, which announced last month that it would be shutting down and was booking events only through October.

The facility, which is on the market for $11.5 million, will be closing "probably sooner than everyone thinks," according to production director Doug Donaldson. Some sources say it could be as soon as the middle of next month.

The closing of the city's only sound stage large enough for feature film work might make it a little harder to attract film business here, according to Crystal Palmer of the Mayor's Office of Motion Picture and Film Development. "It was a great asset to have in terms of marketing the city, so we're certainly going to miss it," she said.

Donaldson said there are several rock concerts still planned for the facility, which sometimes also is rented out for fund-raisers and parties. An art deco diner on the street level has already been closed. Only the warehouse section of the building will remain open.

"The weird thing is, every {outside producer} in the world comes in here and says 'It's too bad, it's a shame because we need this. Washington needs this,' " said Donaldson.