Interview with Pat Williams

Bad at Sports

Interview with Pat Williams

By Bad at Sports September 11, 2013

Bad At Sports is a weekly podcast about contemporary art. Founded in 2005, the series focuses on presenting the practices of artists, curators, critics, dealers, various other arts professionals through an online audio format.

Pat Williams served Montana as a US congressman for nine terms (1979–1997). During his tenure, he was the chairman of the House committee with fiscal oversight of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and one of the most vocal champions of federal arts funding. When the NEA came under attack in 1989 for subsidizing what some legislators such as senator Jesse Helms considered sexually explicit art, Williams led the fight to save the agency.

On June 12, 2013, Patricia Maloney joined Representative Williams and his son, Gallery 16 director Griff Williams, to discuss this volatile chapter. A recurring thread was the need to fight again to protect the interests of artists and art audiences, for good reason: the NEA currently faces severe budget cuts as it is operating without a director. Lost on its opponents is this fact: for every dollar the agency spends in a community, twenty-six dollars in economic activity is generated. How do we make them realize this? 

It was an honor to defend the arts and the NEA because one doesn’t often have a real opportunity to protect freedom of expression in America.

Pat Williams: The drama surrounding the NEA began with its birth in 1965. It took years for the federal government to authorize this little agency, and it finally did so when Lyndon B. Johnson was president. Ironically, one of the matters that delayed the creation of the NEA was that Republicans—I’m a Democrat, by the way—were concerned that the federal government would try to censor art using the NEA as its instrument. Then years later, the Reagan Republicans did try to use the NEA as a tool for censorship. I entered the struggle in the early-to-mid-’80s. Although it wasn’t easy, it was an honor to defend the arts and the NEA because one doesn’t often have a real opportunity to protect freedom of expression in America.

Patricia Maloney: In creating the NEA, President Johnson said, “We fully recognize that no government can call artistic excellence into existence…Nor should any government seek to restrict the freedom of the artist to pursue his own goals in his own way.”1 Yet the NEA has been attacked countless times by efforts to do precisely that.

PW: That’s correct. I must say, though, I like the controversy. It’s beneficial to America, and it’s time for another fight about artistic policy. It’s a worthwhile fight: whether or not the NEA should have a heavier hand in deciding what art, what groups, what artists should be funded. America ought to run the risk once in a while of mirroring itself, in determining whether or not we really value the arts and to what degree we value them.

Through the NEA, each American contributes about sixty cents per year to that discussion; Germans cough up about thirty-five dollars per capita. Do we really care about the arts? And if so, why don’t we, to use the cliché, put our money where our mouth is?

PM: Thirty-five dollars per capita probably equals a week’s worth of coffee in San Francisco. I want to discuss the history of the fight: It took place amid tremendous activism around the AIDS crisis alongside advocacy for multiculturalism and representation of a plurality of voices and positions. To what extent was the attack on the NEA an effort to repress these voices, to deny representation for these segments of the population?

PW: A great deal of the drive to eliminate the NEA had to do with suppression. For the far Right, it also had to do with membership. That sounds mundane, but I believe that the hard Right came into its current prominence with its opposition to the NEA.

Do we really care about the arts? And if so, why don’t we, to use the cliché, put our money where our mouth is?

PM: Patrick Buchanan rallied at the time “for ‘a cultural revolution…as sweeping as [the Right’s] political revolution in the ’80s’ to counter the ‘openly anti-Christian, anti-American, nihilistic’ art and culture [that was then] in evidence.”2 And Samuel Lipman, publisher of the New Criterion, “called for the NEA to champion ‘the great art of the past, its regeneration in the present and its transmission to the future. This would mean saying yes to civilization.’”3 Was there really fear that the NEA was a threat to civilization?

Griff Williams: The Right absolutely believed it was going to be the demise of this mythological America that they perpetuate. The values the Right pretended to have were vehemently opposed to the public discussions in the ’80s around multiculturalism and the AIDS crisis and what it meant to be gay, lesbian, and transgender. In some of the floor speeches and debates about the NEA, the vitriol from Dana Rohrabacher, Bob Dornan, and Jesse Helms was real. If it was manufactured solely as a political argument, these guys really sold it to the American public. The histrionics around the belief that a static image hanging in the Corcoran Gallery of Art could bring down Western civilization are comical, but it was truly the argument they were peddling.

PM: How did these few individuals fuel this tremendous fight and create a palpable sense of threat? How did they gain so much traction?

PW: Primarily because Jesse Helms was a media darling, even if, frankly, most of the media that covered him thought he was a crackpot. But when I took on saving the NEA, I did it alone. I could not get liberals from San Francisco or New York City to help me. I ended up with one cosponsor on my legislation to protect and defend the NEA without having to create censorship. The spine of the Congress began to stiffen only when artists wrote to their representatives and senators to say, “This is critically important to us and to this country.” I then received overwhelming support for the legislation, but it took more than a year, and it was not an easy year for me.

PM: Why did you, a congressman from Montana, lead this fight, even if you are a liberal Democrat? In cities like New York and San Francisco, cultural production makes an incredible impact on the economy, creating jobs, tourism, and concurrent effects. Why was there no support from these cities?

PW: There was, eventually, and it was very strong in places like Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, and New York, the latter two being aggressive defenders of the arts. But here’s why: if the NEA died this afternoon, art in San Francisco or Chicago would survive; would it survive in Montana? The NEA is extraordinarily important to us. There’s a place in eastern Montana called Poker Jim Butte, the site of the summer Shakespeare in the Parks festival. People trek there from hundreds of miles away and sleep in their tents for two or three days. The NEA is responsible for that, and without it, there’s very little Shakespeare-in-the-park out our way.

PM: In 1990, you introduced legislation to preserve the NEA. All of these anti-obscenity clauses were attached to it—like standards that would force the NEA to refuse to fund anything that seemed obscene—as well as the diversion of funds to states’ arts organizations. But your legislation not only preserved the NEA, it also got rid of the anti-obscenity clauses, and after all the fighting, it was approved 382 to 42, an overwhelming majority. How much negotiation and backroom deals did that support require?

PW: It was all done very transparently. We had a lot of hearings, and the Republicans and the Democrats in those days could get along, even about something like this—can you imagine? The far Right was unwilling to compromise. But a lot of moderately conservative (for those days), valuable Republicans—and I say that as a partisan Democrat—came together, alongside me and my colleagues, and said, “This agency is worth saving. It shows that America is willing to fund artists, even if they tell the truth about us.”  

CSPAN video clip of an exchange on the floor of the US Congress, June 1990, between Reps. Pat Williams (D) MT and Bob Dornan (R) CA. 

PM: This is from a Heritage Foundation statement in November 1990: “Congress’s refusal to set even minimal standards for such ‘artists’ demonstrates an unwillingness to accept responsibility for how taxpayers’ money is being spent…[The proposed amendment] forbade the agency to fund ‘depictions of sado-masochism, homoeroticism, the sexual exploitation of children,’ and other works deemed ‘obscene’ by the community standards definition established by the US Supreme Court in 1973. The new bill abandons even these minimal standards. Now the NEA will have no specific content guidelines.”4 Who did they think should be creating the guidelines?

America needs a fight about the NEA.

GW: You’ve often made this argument, Dad, about the NEA: The genius of it is the peer review process. The NEA has always been remarkable in arranging peer review panels to judge the merits of applications. You don’t want elected members of Congress, who have no art background, deciding what is art and what isn’t. None of the icons of this debate—Mapplethorpe, Serrano, or Wojnarowicz—received any money directly from the NEA. So the histrionics from the Heritage Foundation or Jesse Helms, saying that taxpayers’ money is going to fund this particular art, is false. If a community wants to fund Shakespeare and its local museum programming, then by default it has to let arts professionals make the decision about what’s valuable and what isn’t.

PM: To return to reviving the fight: How do you propose we begin a new battle to demand funding for individual artists?

PW: You need to catch people’s attention, with something happening; then a member of Congress can strike at it. I don’t know any members who want to create a fight, but it’s well worth doing. I don’t know if I would do it when the far Right is ascendant in the House, as they are now, but America needs a fight about the NEA.

There is no policy for the arts in America. There is no real funding stream for the arts, with the exception of this little arts agency that frankly can’t do much. That’s why the furor over it is so odd. But it is important. The NEA has long lists of wonderful [artistic achievements] that have enlivened America, that have made us consider ourselves in ways we’d rather not and entertained us in manners we never thought possible.

PM: What is the most effective way that we as artists and art audiences can reach our representatives and make an impact on them? We don’t have the financial clout of other special interests. How do we get our voices heard, so that they see the value that art has in our lives?

PW: Artists were silent for a long time during the Helms amendment on censorship. But once artists understood that their profession was in trouble, they sent more mail to Congress over two years than it had ever received. More people go to art galleries and museums than go to all of the National Football League and Major League Baseball games combined. [The art audience] is an incredible force.

If artists and people who love the arts decide that they want to have a new policy that truly supports the arts—even if it means paying another fifty cents apiece, which would almost double the current arts funding—then they could make an enormous difference. The truth is that I didn’t save the NEA. I just was stubborn enough to stick around until the artists started writing letters and calling their members of Congress.


  1. Margaret Quigley, “The Mapplethorpe Censorship Controversy: Chronology of Events; The 1989–1991 Battles,” Political Research Associates,, accessed August 13, 2013.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Heritage Foundation, “The National Endowment for the Arts: Congress Avoids Responsibility,”, accessed August 16, 2013.

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