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Leaving Town Alive

Confessions of an Arts Warrior


Brimming with optimism, John Frohnmayer journeyed to Washington, D.C., in 1989 to serve a cause he believed in deeply: the arts in America. Appointed by President Bush to be chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, he was abruptly fired two and a half years later in a storm of front-page controversy.

Leaving Town Alive is Frohnmayer's lively and startlingly candid account of his trial by fire in the brutal world of power politics. Taking over the NEA amid the uproar about Robert Mapplethorpe's sexually explicit photographs, Frohnmayer stood at the center of the emotional debate over public funding for the arts. On the left were staunch defenders of free speech and the artists whose confrontational works came under attack. On the right were Jesse Helms and the fundamentalist proponents of traditional values.

At first Frohnmayer assumed that he could negotiate anything and that everyone had the best interests of the country at heart. He was wrong: the White House, for instance, just wanted the problem of "offensive art" to go away, while right-wing fund-raisers wanted to keep the issue alive as long as possible. In the end, Frohnmayer's harrowing education changed him. He entered the fray a First Amendment moderate; he emerged a free-speech radical.

John Frohnmayer had an insider's view of Washington during the Bush years, and he writes with remarkable frankness about the bitter battles over the government's involvement in the arts. Passionate, witty, and wonderfully readable, Leaving Town Alive is, finally, an eloquent plea for the liberation of American culture from the narrow concerns of partisan politics.

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