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Embattled NEA head resigns

After three years of being attacked from the right and left as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, John Frohnmayer on Friday announced he was stepping down.

But he told his staff he would continue to fight "the lunacy that sees artists as enemies and ideas as demons."

An administration source said Frohnmayer had been told it was time to leave.

Frohnmayer had been attacked by the religious right and by congressional conservatives for financing sexually explicit artworks and performances. But avant-garde artists called him censorious for curtailing some grants _ and sued him in a case that's still pending.

Frohnmayer came onto the NEA in the midst of a battle over the NEA's support of exhibits by the late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe that contained scenes of homoeroticism and sadomasochism, and by Andres Serrano, whose art depicted a crucifix in a jar of urine.

In a letter accepting Frohnmayer's resignation, President Bush praised his appointee's "integrity and commitment" but omitted the customary expression of regret.

"Some of the art funded by the NEA does not have my enthusiastic approval," Bush wrote.

Frohnmayer's departure will remove one of the most visible targets of conservative annoyance with the administration at a time when Bush is under challenge. On Thursday, Patrick Buchanan, who is contesting Bush in the primaries, attacked the administration for "subsidizing both filthy and blasphemous art."

"We are ecstatic," said the Rev. Louis P. Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition of Anaheim, Calif., which counts 10,000 conservative churches as members.

Another of the chairman's critics, Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., smiled when told of Frohnmayer's decision. "Bon voyage," he said.

Helms often accused Frohnmayer of spending federal money on "garbage."

Some arts organizations also felt no regret at the chairman's decision. "He has left a compromised agency behind him and one which artists feel they cannot trust, especially those creating important new work," said Charlotte Murphy, executive director of the National Association of Artists' Organizations, representing 1,000 community arts groups.

But educator John Brademas, co-chairman of an independent study of endowment grant-making procedures, said in an interview last year that the White House had not protected Frohnmayer.

"When the Scuds were fired at the NEA, no Patriots were fired from the White House," he said.

Also last year, Frohnmayer defended his support for controversial works. "Art does a lot of different things," he told the New York Times. "It reflects a kind of piety and faith. But it also holds up a mirror to the dark side of human nature. . . . You confront the art, you confront the problem and that makes people uncomfortable sometimes."

_ Information from the Times library was used in this report.