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The National Endowment for the Arts has become a free agent in selecting art projects to be funded with taxpayer dollars, its chairman said here Thursday evening.

"I have received no pressure whatsoever from the administration affecting artistic decisions," Dana Gioia told more than 100 people in the Montante Cultural Center of Canisius College. He became the ninth chairman in February 2003.

Gioia said the censorship issue arose during the 1980s over a dozen art projects funded by the agency, most notably the Cincinnati exhibit of Robert Mapplethorpe's homoerotic photos in 1989.

In 1990, Congress imposed rules requiring the agency to take into consideration "general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public."

"Fifty million kids have been born since that Mapplethorpe exhibition," Gioia said. "I see arts funding being cut across the United States. I see millions of children with almost no access to arts education. The arts are a necessary, fundamental part of the education of children and the formation of adults, especially in a democracy."

In response to questions from the audience about the conservative tastes of the Bush administration, Gioia said he accepted the chairmanship to restore the National Endowment for the Arts to its former position of respect and has been given a free hand.

"My loyalties are to art on the one hand and to public service on the other," Gioia said. "We have not had a controversy that has not been honorably resolved. I don't have to worry about my next public position -- I came to Washington the rebuild the NEA."

Gioia was the first artist and businessman to become chairman, according to former U.S. Rep. John J. LaFalce, who introduced Gioia.

A native Californian, Gioia is a poet, critic and best-selling anthologist of poetry and commentary, a winner of the American Book Award and an influential critic. After reciting several of his poems, he received a standing ovation.


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