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Survey Samples 'Free Expression' in Gov't Grants

In the wake of cuts in government arts funding, as well as public outcries about their tax dollars being spent on art that they view as "pornographic," or "blasphemous," or simply, for whatever reason, unworthy of their funds, the New York City-based Free Expression Policy Project, a think tank on artistic and intellectual freedom, conducted a survey of state and local arts agencies nationwide. Heading the list of concerns was identifying the agencies' policies in support of free expression and then uncovering what, if any, procedures are in place for anticipating and handling controversies should they arise. And, most central, do these agencies impose ideological restrictions on the work of grant recipients?

The survey found that while most state arts agencies have free-expression statements, in many cases they are buried in sate law, not publicized or implemented. Indeed, a fair number of agencies that on the surface, at least, seem committed to free expression are also politically cautious in their grant-making and demand political accountability from their grantees. Very few agencies have any procedures in place to anticipate and respond to controversies.

The report concludes that it is indeed important that arts agencies openly state their support for free expression in arts funding, especially on agency websites. But more important than supportive statements is the political climate in each locale, the commitment to free expression of leadership within the funding agency and local arts community. Equally important, the report asserts, is the agency's ability to build alliances and set the stage for public understanding.

That said, the report concludes that objections to works with a feminist, gay, or anti-religious bias do not represent the majority viewpoint. Still, it behooves arts agencies to take a proactive posture in favor of artistic freedom. Such a stance is politically viable and continues to be necessary for public arts funding.

The report's recommendations are as follows: Create a free-expression policy -- or dust off one that is already on the books. Undertake educational campaigns about artistic freedom. Involve the community. Create opportunities for non-polarizing dialogue about controversial art. Anticipate and prepare for controversies -- if necessary, months in advance -- through education and outreach. Build alliances both within and outside the arts community. Keep legislators and others in the power structure informed. Invite them to openings, and thank them for coming. Have procedures in place for handling controversies, including a media communications plan.

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