Leaving Town Alive

John Frohnmayer was a trial lawyer in Oregon who successfully pursued the job of chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts during a time when the Endowment was under fire in Congress and elsewhere for funding exhibits which powerful people regarded as obscene or blasphemous. He went to Washington confident that he could persuade the critics that supporting the arts through government grants was healthy and necessary to the public good.

Frohnmayer was soon embroiled in further controversies. He found that support for arts funding was uncertain in Congress and in the White House. Claiborne Pell in the Senate and Sidney Yates in the House were steady supporters who had used their clout to sustain funding for the NEA despite the attacks led by Jesse Helms in the Senate and Phillip Crane in the House, but the enemies of funding for the Endowment gained strength each time the budget came up for annual approval. President George Bush gave personal encouragement to Frohnmayer, but he had other priorities and his support was never strong. Meanwhile, Bush’s aides were chiefly concerned with making sure that the Endowment would bring no further embarrassment to the president, and Frohnmayer was forced to accept several aides whose chief duties were to report on his activities to Bush staffers and to make sure that he provided no funds to suspect individuals or organizations. Not surprisingly, Frohnmayer developed a siege mentality and felt that he was being spied on.

Frohnmayer’s management was often a center of controversy. Grants to individual performance artists which he approved created fresh difficulties. Without a political base of his own, Frohnmayer lacked the resources for applying counter-pressure against those who wished to curtail the activities of the Endowment or close it down altogether. In the end, he managed to please no one. Artists felt he was insufficiently supportive of them, the Endowment’s enemies thought he was too soft on obscenity and sacrilege, the president’s aides believed he had failed to keep the Endowment free from controversy. His book raises a number of questions, most important the question of whether funds for the arts or humanities supplied by the government can ever be free of political pressure and not subject to someone’s ideas of political correctness.