No one got much satisfaction in 1990.

Not Jesse Helms, who wanted to abolish the National Endowment for the Arts or hand it a list of no-nos. He had to make do with a law that admonishes the agency to apply "general standards of decency" in awarding grants -- whatever that means.

Not the arts community, which felt besieged and befuddled through much of the fight to reauthorize the endowment. NEA supporters came away with a mixed bag of legislation so hastily assembled that not even its sponsors were certain what it said. But arts advocates knew they didn't like the decency language or a provision shifting a greater percentage of NEA money to state arts agencies.

When the battle on the Hill drew to a close, Helms vowed to fight on in the next legislative session. The arts community was left to wonder how to be better prepared. Arts activists were divided over how to react to the decency provision and to the NEA itself. They were unsure whether NEA Chairman John Frohnmayer was friend or foe, whether the NEA was viable or defunct.

James Fitzpatrick, chairman emeritus of the Washington Project for the Arts, contended that the NEA needed to rebuild confidence but that its position had improved dramatically. Gone was a controversial requirement that grant applicants sign a pledge to comply with anti-obscenity language in the fiscal 1990 appropriation. Gone was legislation forbidding the endowment to fund "obscene" works, including depictions of homoeroticism or sex acts. (And in Cincinnati, a jury acquitted the gallery and its director, who had each faced obscenity charges for exhibiting the controversial Robert Mapplethorpe photographs that had helped to inspire the legislation.) The fear of "the imposition of the censor's hand" was over, Fitzpatrick said.

But not everyone agreed. People for the American Way declared 1990 to be "the year of the censor" and warned that "1991 promises no respite." New York theatrical producer Joseph Papp and the Pacifica Foundation -- after rejecting NEA funding in 1990 to protest the anti-obscenity language -- objected to the new decency language so strongly that they refused to apply for 1991 NEA grant money. Other arts advocates demanded that Frohnmayer take a stand on the decency provision by pledging that grants would be judged exclusively on artistic merit.

As that debate took shape, Frohnmayer in November surprised and alarmed many in the arts community by vetoing a grant to New York City artist Mel Chin. It was the first time he had rejected a grant that had the approval of the NEA's advisory council. This time, decency wasn't an issue. The proposed grant was for a work with an environmental theme.

At a special December retreat, council members took Frohnmayer to task for failing to notify them of his plans to reject the grant. One asked whether he had succumbed to political pressure. Frohnmayer said his decision was based only on aesthetic considerations. A few days later, he announced that he would reconsider the grant and indicated that he was likely to approve it.

At the council meeting, Frohnmayer promised that he would not reject grants on decency grounds, concluding that grant review panels would apply general standards of decency as a matter of course. That afforded a measure of comfort to some in the arts community. Fitzpatrick said Frohnmayer's decision "takes decency off the screen" as an issue.

But some arts groups feared the chairman might be playing a semantic game. One lobbyist observed that Frohnmayer had previously sidestepped the obscenity question by citing "public appreciation" of the arts when he rejected controversial grants. "Frohnmayer has to do more than just talk," said Charlotte Murphy of the National Association of Artists Organizations. "His actions have consistently spoken louder than his words, and he has too often shown himself to be unwilling to take the high road."

Predictably, Frohnmayer's decision riled NEA critics on the Hill. An aide to Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) charged that Frohnmayer was essentially ignoring the new NEA legislation. Endowment supporters hoped that the energy behind the issue had dissipated.

Far more significant to the endowment in the long term is the shift in funding to the states, according to Fitzpatrick. That change diminishes the endowment's stature and signals that it is going to be "less potent" as the representative of the arts in Washington, he said.

In the current fiscal year, the new legislation will divert an additional $11.6 million in grant money to state arts councils and "underserved" constituencies -- that is, rural and inner-city areas. The state arts agencies get $31.5 million, 27 percent of grant money. In fiscal 1990, those agencies got 20 percent of grant money, or $21 million.

As a result of the shifts, the NEA has reduced dollar amounts of individual awards. Virtually all programs got less grant money to distribute than expected. The folk arts program got $2.8 million, a 15.2 percent reduction. An arts education category was cut 14.5 percent. An interdisciplinary program that has produced some controversial grant proposals suffered a 13 percent cut.

In the current financial climate, many council members were concerned that states would trim their arts budgets and use NEA money to supplant -- rather than supplement -- state funds. Frohnmayer said the legislation does not preclude that result.

Assessing the legislative changes at the retreat this month, advisory council members were surprised and dismayed. "There's obviously a mistake here," said architect Ray Kingston. "{This} was done, I think, almost accidentally." Council members asked whether Congress could not revise the legislation. "I get a little nervous when we talk about opening this genie's box again," Frohnmayer said. But council members -- who are forbidden to lobby Congress as a group -- agreed that they would like to see the issue addressed in the endowment's 1992 appropriation.

Despite Kingston's assertion that the shift was "a mistake," the idea of shifting funds to the states was disseminated -- if not originated -- by the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies last spring, at the height of the NEA controversy on the Hill. The proposal was quickly perceived as a betrayal and a power play at a time when the endowment was particularly vulnerable. While NASAA quickly distanced itself from it, many council members remained bitter. Council member Bob Johnson, a Florida state senator, suggested that some retaliation might be in order, such as moving to have NASAA stripped of its tax-exempt status because it engaged in political activity.

Frohnmayer pleaded with council members to work for peace in the arts community rather than "airing the laundry of past grievances." But Johnson countered angrily, "We didn't start this war." He warned that the endowment's future is on the line. "If you don't accept leadership ... we will sacrifice that role to another organization," he warned.

Members of the council agreed that the endowment needs to find some way to claim a leadership role. "If nothing else comes out of this retreat," said council member Roger Mandle, deputy director of the National Gallery of Art, "... it's the need to come together and figure out exactly where we stand so that we can exhibit leadership."