NEA 4 in Context

The performance work of Karen Finley, John Fleck, Holly Hughes, and Tim Miller, funded in part by the US government, came under attack in the early ’90s for its frank treatment of themes of gender, sexuality, subjugation, and personal trauma. In 1990, their work was defunded by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) after Congress amended the statute governing federal funding for the arts to include considerations of “general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs of the American public.”

In 1993, in a partial settlement out of court, the NEA agreed to pay the four artists (known as the NEA 4) sums equal to the amounts of the grants that had been revoked. The artists accepted the funds but continued to litigate against the so-called “decency clause” arguing that it was unconstitutional and in violation of First Amendment rights. They asserted that their work had been defunded for political, not artistic, reasons. In 1998, nearly a decade after the fact, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the “decency clause,” finding that it was “advisory” not “obligatory” language.

In the wake of these events, the NEA ceased funding for individual artists, choosing to reallocate that money to organizations that were deemed better suited for dispensing funds to individual artists. This development had an immediate impact on the ways in which many artists conceived of sustaining their practices, which has, in turn, impacted forms of artistic production and the accessibility of certain venues to certain kinds of artistic practices. In particular, the impact on solo performance and popular attitudes towards performance art (historically an art form that resisted commodification) has been profound and largely overlooked.

Some artists, like Tino Sehgal and Marina Abramović, have, of late, reimagined the rules for commodifying performance as its own kind of conceptual art practice. However, for many artists who do not have the same kinds of access to the venues and platforms on which superstars like Sehgal and Abramović stake their conceptual claims, funding for ephemeral art practices remains elusive.
NEA 4 in Residence + Performing Beyond Funding Limits” is curated by Travis Chamberlain, Associate Curator of Performance and Manager of Public Programs at the New Museum.


This program is made possible, in part, through the support of the New York State Council on the Arts and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.

Education and public programs are made possible by a generous grant from Goldman Sachs Gives at the recommendation of David B. Heller & Hermine Riegerl Heller.

Support for the exhibition is provided by the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation.

Additional funding is provided by Martin and Rebecca Eisenberg, the Fundación Almine y Bernard Ruiz-Picasso para el Arte, and the Robert Mapplethorpe Photography Fund.

The accompanying exhibition publication is made possible by the J. McSweeney and G. Mills Publications Fund at the New Museum.

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