Though the arts community has so far appeared to be galvanized in its bruising battle against those opposed to federal funding of potentially offensive art, a skirmish may be brewing within its own ranks.

In the past few months, many arts organizations and individual artists have begun to question the role of Philip Morris Inc., one of the largest corporate donors to the arts, in the funding game. The company, which makes Miller beer and Marlboro cigarettes, also is a major contributor to the reelection campaign of Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), an outspoken critic of the National Endowment for the Arts and a leader of the movement to change federal grant procedures. Philip Morris is also the largest corporate donor to the Jesse Helms Citizenship Center, being built at Wingate College in Monroe, N.C.

Last week in New York, performance artist Karen Finley withdrew as host of the Bessie Awards, an annual ceremony celebrating non-mainstream theatrical works, because the event is partially funded by Philip Morris. "I cannot participate in a project that makes Philip Morris look like a benefactor of the arts when they also fund the arch-enemy of art," Finley said in a statement.

And now the Washington Project for the Arts, which was elevated to hero status after picking up the Robert Mapplethorpe show last year when it was dropped by the Corcoran Gallery, is wrestling with its conscience about Philip Morris money. "I would say that within the organization people are very split about what to do," said Phillip Brookman, the WPA's director of programs. "It's something that we've been discussing for about nine months now."

The WPA received $50,000 from Philip Morris in 1989 for an exhibit titled "Recollections" and $50,000 from the company this year for "Options 90." Brookman said the money for the "Options" exhibit was secured before the organization decided to hold the Mapplethorpe show.

"We're not accepting money from Philip Morris right now," Brookman said. "We haven't approached them since we did the Mapplethorpe show and we won't approach them until we come up with a concise position" on accepting Philip Morris funding. Philip Morris officials could not be reached for comment.

That apparently is not enough for members of ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power). Last week at a WPA fund-raiser, members of the D.C. chapter stood outside the building and handed out leaflets protesting WPA's official silence on the ACT-UP boycott of Miller and Marlboro products.

"We want the WPA to publicly make a statement supporting the boycott," said Peter Thompson, an ACT-UP member and boycott organizer. "The reason why many of us feel that the boycott is not going anywhere is because these larger organizations like the WPA are being bought off. They're not saying this has to stop." The boycott is being supported by homosexual groups in 16 cities, but so far no major arts organization has publicly endorsed it, according to Thompson.

"What's happening with the WPA, here they're telling people to go out and work against Jesse Helms's reelection," said Thompson. "You go to their bookstore and they have information on how to defeat Helms, but they won't take a stance themselves."

According to Marilyn Zeitlin, executive director of the WPA, a public statement from the organization concerning the boycott is not necessarily forthcoming. "This is not a decision that will be made lightly and won't be made unilaterally," said Zeitlin. "It's a matter of board concern and staff concern. ... Our board meets in September and it will certainly be discussed then."

"I think that this debate is good as long as artists realize that other artists are not the enemy," said Holly Hughes, who, along with Finley, John Fleck and Tim Miller, was recently denied an NEA grant even after a peer panel approved her work.

"There's a couple choices," said Hughes from New York. "Take the money and don't say anything, don't rock the boat. I feel that's what the WPA is doing, although I say this knowing that they are heroes {for exhibiting Mapplethorpe}. I respect the position of people like Karen Finley who won't take the money. I'm proposing another choice: Art organizations should take the money but should also {speak out} and try to bring pressure on Philip Morris to stop funding Jesse Helms."

"What I deplore is that we're being fragmented instead of being unified against the issue, which is survival and integrity {of art institutions}," said Zeitlin.

"The most important thing is that this money received from Philip Morris has never been used as hush money," said Charlotte Murphy, chairman of the National Association of Artists Organizations, which has five local arts organizations, including the WPA, as members. "But NAAO would never go to Philip Morris {for funding} because it would be divisive among my board. I don't want to create a divisive situation within my own organization."

All of this talk and the potential of inter-arts squabbling scares some, but excites others. As Hughes said, "There isn't a consensus right now but this debate is very healthy because it's not business as usual in the art world and that's fine with me."