Four newspapers yesterday sued the National Endowment for the Arts in federal court to force public access to a planned secret meeting of its 26-member advisory council starting Friday.
The news blackout, if allowed to stand, would prevent the public from watching, among other things, council reconsideration of NEA Chairman John E. Frohnmayer's vetoes of grants to four controversial performance artists, according to the suit filed by the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times Co., the Philadelphia Inquirer and The Washington Post.
Some members of the nation's arts community said yesterday they favored opening the three-day meeting. "There's a lot of mystery about what goes on at these sessions," said James F. Fitzpatrick, president emeritus of the Washington Project for the Arts. "It would be a great advantage for the public to see them directly." Joy Silverman of the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression said the council is making decisions "based on political and not aesthetic reasons."
Frohnmayer told reporters in an informal conversation yesterday that he favored open meetings, but then issued a statement saying Friday's meeting would remain closed.
Patrick J. Carome, a lawyer with the firm of Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering, which is handling the suit for the newspapers, said the NEA is "acting as if they're giving away private money when in fact it's taxpayer dollars."
A Justice Department attorney defending the NEA declined to comment yesterday. A hearing on the matter has been set for tomorrow morning at 9:30.