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POLITICS TRIES TO ROPE IN EXHIBIT ON WEST

Conservative senators are hinting they may try to cut funds to the Smithsonian Institution, beloved for collections ranging from rocks to rocket ships, because they believe two museum projects unfairly portray the nation's westward movement.

Echoing recent right-wing efforts to halt federal aid for offensive art, the new battle focuses on an exhibit of art of the old American West and a television production on Spain and the Americas.The critics - both Westerners - complain that the projects present overly negative views of white settlers and that the museum has a liberal political agenda.

With millions of dollars at stake, Smithsonian officials say they aren't promoting a political message, but fulfilling a museum's duty to present varied points of view.

The dispute recalls a battle that raged in Congress in 1989 and 1990 over whether government funds for offensive art should be cut, as Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., and other conservatives insisted they should.

Congress last fall dropped a yearlong ban on National Endowment for the Arts grants to allegedly obscene art, deciding to leave the question to the courts.

For many museum defenders, the issue is the First Amendment's protection of free speech.

"We're back at the problem of the intersection of the First Amendment and Congress' right to control spending," said John Hammer, director of the National Humanities Alliance, a coalition of cultural groups.

"Who should decide what is a balanced or appropriate way to present an exhibit?" asked Laura R. Handman, a director of Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts. "That's a judgment better left to curators and historians, not politicians."

Leading the charge against the Smithsonian is Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, a gruff 67-year-old known mostly as a defender of his home state and of higher military budgets. Stevens said he wants public debate over how the museum - a part of the government - should bring history and culture to its visitors.

"The Smithsonian thinks it must be the toadstool on which revisionists can stand," he said last week. "That's OK if it's a private institution, but I think of the Smithsonian as a place where we really demonstrate the truth."

Joining him is Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., who said he believes the exhibit on art of the frontier depicts a "terribly distorted, negative and untrue statement about the settlement of the West."

The exhibit, "The West as America: Reinterpreting Images of the Frontier, 1820-1920," will be at the National Museum of American Art in an extended run through July 28. It contains 164 paintings, photographs, prints and sculptures from such artists as Frederic Remington, Charles Russell, George Caleb Bingham and Albert Bierstadt, who created images of the West created then persist today.

But it's not the art that irks the lawmakers, it's the accompanying text.

The commentary argues that those artists depicted the westward movement as a glorious, divinely ordained enterprise in which settlers tamed a lush, fertile wilderness. In the process, the settlers brought civilization to the American Indians who lived there - or triumphed over the cruel savages who resisted.

Ignored were the massacres and deprivation that were the lot of many who moved west, and the environmental plunder that resulted.

Museum officials argue that this view of the westward movement has been taught by many historians for decades.

"We're not really taking a historical point of view that is radical or eccentric or even avant garde," said Elizabeth Broun, director of the art museum.

But that has not been enough for Stevens and Gorton, who first voiced their objections last month when Smithsonian Secretary Robert McC. Adams testified before the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Stevens criticized the exhibit on the West and a five-part television series the Smithsonian is helping produce called, "The Buried Mirror: Reflections on Spain and the New World by Carlos Fuentes." The series, still in production, is being financed mostly by a Spanish publishing firm, but the Smithsonian is contributing $250,000 in non-federal money.

Fuentes, 63, is a Mexican citizen and award-winning author who has been critical of the United States. The documentaries, to be broadcast next spring, will track the history and culture of Hispanic America during the last 500 years.

Stevens called Fuentes "a non-citizen" and a "Marxist Mexican writer," and said he understood Fuentes would describe U.S. treatment of American Indians as "genocide."

Adams called Stevens' description "grossly uninformed," but Stevens remained adamant.

With the Smithsonian raising money from endowments, museum services and other sources - for net income of $70 million last year - Stevens challenged the institution's request for a $46 million boost in its $311-million budget.

"It's time we used some of those (museum-raised funds) to support the institution if it can waste money like this," he told Adams. "Let's give the taxpayers a little bit of a break."

Museum officials say they have nothing to apologize for.

"We start with no agenda," said the art museum's Broun. "We like to present a thought-provoking show."

Stevens and Gorton are vague about how strenuously they will pursue the issue. But Smithsonian officials - joined by advocates of the arts, museums and civil liberties - are watching nervously to see if attempts to slash the Smithsonian's budget are made.

"One never knows what will catch the imagination of the media, politicians and the public," said Edward Able, executive director of the American Association of Museums.