Robert Lynch, chief executive officer of the National Assembly of Local Arts Agencies (NALAA), credited expedient politicking with creating the recent fuss over obscenity at the National Endowment for the Arts, which threatened the agency's very existence.
Lynch is unpretentious, humorous and engaging but committed - a good salesman for the arts. Speaking at a luncheon for local arts leaders sponsored by the Salt Lake City Arts Council at the Art Barn, Lynch said timing was also a factor in the escalation of public interest."The whole thing came along at a quiet time in the world," he said. "A year and a half ago no one paid any attention to the arts, but in the Mapplethorpe photographic exhibit and Serrano's controversial Christ, Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., saw his chance, and gave unlimited time to the `issue.'
"Actually, Serrano has said he did not intend blasphemy . . . but rather a wry commentary on the ways society abuses the cross, such as the Ku Klux Klan burning it in its racial attacks."
Through Helms' distortions and such far-right organizations as Donald Wildmon's American Family Association, "good people were manipulated by those who knew better, to think totally false things about arts funding," he said.
"The American Family Association is a $5.2 million a year business, which exists purely for lobbying and mailing. It sends out letters to a huge list of people concerned about decency. The AFA foments an atrocity a week, one of which was the NEA, blackballing the agency as a source of pornography that must be stopped. The AFA pitch is always for two things: send the enclosed protest card to your congressman, and send me a check so I can continue this fight."
Wildmon also generated a list of members of Congress and how they voted, and a vote for the arts was to be construed as a vote for pornography; indeed, the implication was that pro-arts was anti-Christian.
Wildmon circulated the following distortions about the NEA:
He implied that the NEA had lots of money to give and that the arts are totally funded by government. ("Why should your tax money go to support pornography?") In fact, the percent of federal support toward its budget that any arts group receives is so small that it's often incalculable on a calculator. Such token funds from the NEA are valued mostly for prestige and recognition factors.
"About $500 million in arts support is awarded by local and state governments annually, whereas the NEA will spread its $174 million for the next fiscal year across all the states," Lynch explained. "That budget is less than the nation spends on its military bands. It would only buy about 1 foot of a nuclear submarine. It comes out to a little over 50 cents per person nationally."
Wildmon planted the strong implication that all money given out by the NEA went to obscenity, whereas only 10 or 12 grants among 80,000 total since 1966 even raised investigators' eyebrows.
He fostered the image of the NEA as profligate, giving out money recklessly with "no strings attached." True, the agency has not prescribed the precise manner in which organizations must spend their grants, nor will it be constrained to do so in future. "But the process of applying and qualifying by peer panel approval is so strict that little could get by without being found out. Those are the `strings attached,' " said Lynch.
However, reason prevailed. The reauthorization of the NEA for three more years passed handily, with grants to be allowed without their recipients signing anti-obscenity agreements - a step the agency itself instituted in reaction to criticism. But if a work is judged to be obscene after the fact, the organization must return its grant money.
"Actually if it had not been for that `raging liberal,' as the far right characterized Sen. Orrin Hatch, the Endowment might have gone down the drain," said Lynch. "The NEA owes a lot to Hatch's firm stand."
Lynch feels that despite winning this skirmish, the NEA will be obsessed with self-censorship from now on. "Though the Democratic majority who helped pass the authorization found there had been no violation of freedom of expression, everyone expects that there will be no more Mapplethorpe or Serrano affairs," he said. "The agency is in a lose-lose situation; it is attacked by both conservatives and liberals, for different reasons."
Letters written by arts supporters helped resolve the crisis, said Lynch, but voters are nonetheless pushing for change; they feel the Republicans are motivated by greed and the Democrats are feckless. "The controversy was not really about freedom of expression," he said, "but about money and votes. The idea was to bash government waste, and foment fears and hatred over the issue of values."
To assist the NEA in the difficulties it faces in America, local arts councils can build relationships, exert leadership and show how the arts can strengthen values and combat problems in our society, said Lynch.
"There is massive work ahead in communication, our story has not been told. Arts are important to a community's economic development and livability, and can offer alternative programs and enlivening action, to cope with crime and rehabilitation, and as a deterrent to negative things.
"NALAA is a private, non-profit organization, whose mandate is to lobby for and support local councils," Lynch explained later. "Our budget is $700,000 a year, which comes from earned income, including dues, grants from the federal government, fees for services, and contributions from foundations, corporations and individuals.
"We do not give out money; the NEA gives money, but we give services - workshops and training, information through our quarterly magazine, books and computer data base. We advocate the arts, working for their visibility, and sponsor National Arts Week."
Lynch estimated there are about 3,000 arts councils in the United States, two-thirds of which are private non-profit, and one-third city arts councils such as Salt Lake City's. "Of those 1,000 councils, 700 are NALAA members, including about 20 in Utah," he said.
He held the Salt Lake City Arts Council up as a full gamut example of what arts councils should be doing, with a model ethnic festival, its successful Brown Bag summer concert series, community news letter and calendar, valuable grants program, and leadership position in the state.