In a sign of growing uneasiness among National Endowment for the Arts panels, the chairman of the panel that reviews applications from artist-run organizations has asked the NEA to clarify procedures before the group meets Dec. 3.
Specifically, the panel wants the endowment to guarantee that "decency" will not be a criterion in evaluating grant applications despite new legislation requiring the NEA to take "general standards of decency" into account when awarding funds.
In a novel twist, the panel also asked that the chairman promise that, should any recommended grants be reduced by more than 15 percent, vetoed or amended, the group will be reconvened at NEA expense "to confer with whomever is questioning our recommendations." The meeting would have to occur before any final decision to reject a grant, the panel said in a letter from chairman Tad Savinar, a Portland, Ore.-based visual artist and playwright.
"We intend to operate in a professional manner under the guidelines presented to us, providing that there are no changes or disheartening events concerning policy, past grants, pending grants, or the Endowment as a whole between now and Dec. 3," Savinar wrote.
Savinar said yesterday that he had not yet had a response from the endowment. NEA officials could not be reached for comment.
Previously, the panel reviewing grant applications from playwrights had asked for clarification of the decency provision, but NEA spokesman Jack Lichtenstein said the endowment was unlikely to respond before the group meets Dec. 7.
Savinar said he discussed the request with eight of 10 members of his panel. His concerns have been heightened, he said, by NEA Chairman John Frohnmayer's decision last week to reject a grant despite a positive recommendation from a grant review panel and the NEA's advisory council. That grant would have funded "Revival Field," a conceptual work by New York City artist Mel Chin, who planned to use plants "to remediate an area contaminated with heavy metals."
Theater and orchestra panels are scheduled to meet today, and Savinar said he had contacted members of those groups. "Everybody is very upset although no one is calling for a boycott yet," he said.
Savinar's panel reviews applications from alternative spaces including the Washington Project for the Arts, as well as the Kitchen and the Franklin Furnace in New York, two organizations that have come under scrutiny from NEA critics for exhibiting controversial works.