The great arts battle of the 1990s seems to have shifted. For the last year and a half, the arts community has been tangled in a bruising, sometimes ambiguous debate about freedom of expression vs. obscenity, a fight that has been played out in both the courts and the legislative process. But with a war raging, the real estate market collapsing and banks tottering, the biggest issue now seems to be the almighty greenback.

Last week the White House revealed a proposed fiscal 1992 budget that freezes funding for the National Endowment for the Arts at $174 million. Across the Potomac, Gov. L. Douglas Wilder's budget plan calls for a 54 percent cut in the Virginia Commission for the Arts budget over the next two years. And now the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities faces an $827,000 cut under Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon's proposed budget, in addition to the $700,000 already cut in the beginning of the fiscal year.

Enough is enough, says the D.C. Arts and Culture Task Force, an advocacy group led by several of the city's prominent arts activists. The group has issued a call to arms, and it all begins tonight with a public forum with Dixon and key city council members at 6:30 at Lisner Auditorium.

"This a gathering of everyone we could try to get," says Bill Warrell, one of the organizers, who is also executive director of District Curators and co-chairman of the D.C. Downtown Partnership Arts District Team. "There will be a lot of people there in areas other than the arts -- a lot of the business community, property owners -- because these cuts will impact everyone."

"People are beginning to realize the role that the arts have played in relationship to what they do," says Washington cultural activist Peggy Cooper Cafritz, who also served as chairman of the mayor's arts and culture transition committee. "{Businesses} on 14th Street realize that if the theaters weaken, there's going to be fewer patrons. The pediatricians understand that the kids who they see are going to be at greater risk. The education people realize that Duke Ellington {School of the Arts} has the greatest college placement in the city."

In response to the earlier cuts, the D.C. Commission on the Arts had cut several of its programs, from 10 to a more manageable three: arts for education, grants-in-aid and a public art and festival program. Both Cafritz and Warrell believe the ripple caused by the newest proposed cut would extend much further. "When it comes down to it, there are so many organizations and artists in this city who are hinged to the survival of what I believe is one of the most efficient agencies in the city government," says Warrell.

What might actually come out of this forum is anyone's guess. The organizers are encouraged by the fact that Dixon is attending, and Cafritz points out that it was the mayor who suggested the idea of a public forum in the first place. While Cafritz says the group will make specific recommendations to the D.C. Council, including transferring some recreation department money to the arts commission and wooing more private donor support, no one is really expecting the mayor's office to suddenly reduce the budget cuts. As Warrell says, "If the people who make the budget decisions leave {the forum} understanding how much the arts mean to the city, that would make me happy the following day."

Hanks Lecturer Chosen

American Council for the Arts President Milton Rhodes has announced that New York University President and former congressman John Brademas will be the 1991 Nancy Hanks Lecturer on Arts and Public Policy. The lecture, named in honor of the former National Endowment for the Arts chairman (1969-70), will take place March 20 at 6:30 p.m. at a Washington location to be announced. It is free and open to the public.

Brademas, who represented Indiana's 3rd District in the House from 1959 to 1981, is highly regarded in arts circles as one of the architects of the legislation that created the NEA. He recently co-chaired the independent commission created by Congress to review the NEA's grant-making procedures.

Past Nancy Hanks lecturers were historian Arthur M. Schlesinger (1988), D.C. lawyer Leonard Garment (1989) and poet Maya Angelou (1990).

Freer Auditorium's New Name

The auditorium of the Freer Gallery of Art will be named the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Auditorium when the renovated Smithsonian museum reopens in late 1992.

The Smithsonian Board of Regents announced the decision last week in recognition of a $1,040,000 donation from Katharine Graham, chairman of the board of The Washington Post Co.; the Philip L. Graham Fund; the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation; and the Island Fund in the New York Community Trust. The gift will be used to update the auditorium's technical systems and architectural details.