Looking Back: Ivan Sygoda Reflects on the NEA Four

By Ivan Sygoda, Founding Director

While we pat ourselves on the back for getting a NEA grant, we should remember that not all that long ago, NEA grants could be fraught with controversy. Then Foundation for Independent Artists (a nonprofit corporate structure administered by Pentacle) member Tim Miller was one of the now legendary “NEA Four” (the other three being Holly Hughes, Karen Finley and John Fleck) whose individual fellowships were rescinded in 1990 by the NEA’s chairman after successfully passing through the usual peer review process. In Miller’s case, the issue was celebratory gay content. The arts community was infuriated and dispirited. The case went through the courts, and the Four eventually (1993) won settlements equal to the amount of their awards. But the damage had been done. Under pressure from Congress, the NEA abolished individual artist grants, a restriction that persists to this day. It’s a shame. The NEA vetting process had its feet in the trenches, and a national fellowship was often the first recognition that a talented emerging artist might receive. No more. Think about that as you scramble for funds and recognition.