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On Dec. 20, the U.S. Senate unanimously approved the nomination of Rice University music school dean Michael Hammond as new chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts -- without so much as a hearing. Needless to say, the absence of fuss from anti-art conservatives is a sign that NEA has been tamed. But though Hammond must tread lightly in the avant-garde arena, he still presides over an agency with a $115.2-million annual budget -- a significant source of patronage in our largely commercialized art industry.

Witness the recent round of NEA grants totaling about $19.4 million, awarded earlier this month and amounting to about one-fifth of the arts agency's total grant funds. The money went out under namby-pamby umbrella categories dubbed "creativity" and "organizational capacity," but in effect supported a wide array of music, theater and dance companies, architecture and design programs, alternative spaces and even poetry and art magazines. Typical grants range from the New York-based Poets and Writers Magazine ($75,000) to the Bronx Council on the Arts ($78,000), from Appalshop in Whitesburg, Ky., ($20,000) to the San Francisco branch of California Lawyers for the Arts ($30,00), from Artists Space ($22,500) to the Museum of Modern Art ($35,000, for an architectural project at P.S.1).

A large number of awards went for dance; among them were grants to the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater ($100,000), Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Co. ($50,000), the Cunningham Dance Foundation ($90,000), Dance Theater Workshop ($70,000), Mark Morris Dance Group ($50,000) and Trisha Brown Dance Company ($50,000). In all, 819 grants were given out, many in modest sums of $5,000 to $10,000 -- presumably some of that will quietly trickle down to the vanguard. A complete list can be viewed at

At the same time, NEA awarded $20,000 literature fellowships to 45 writers, for a total of $820,000. (As punishment for the likes of Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano, fellowships for artists in other disciplines were abolished in 1995). Among the more celebrated writers on the NEA fellowship list are neurotic novelist Jonathan Franzen and New York Times Magazine contributing writer Matthew Klam.

England's Prince Charles plans to institute his own "anti-award" for bad architecture, singling out what he considers the five worst buildings in Britain. Dubbed the "carbuncle" award by the London Observer -- the prince once called the National Gallery's extension in Trafalgar Square a "carbuncle on the face of a much-loved friend" -- the anti-award is designed to help promote the prince's ideas of good design, a quest that preoccupies eponymous Prince's Foundation, directed by David Lunts. Charles admitted his comments were probably "about as welcome as a police raid on a brothel" when he recently came out against building more skyscrapers in London, which he says has a "coherence and sense of scale" that could be wrecked by the addition of "giant buildings, with immense public visibility, but serving only a private, indeed, a privatized, purpose."

Two top museum curators have become caught up in the bankruptcy scandal surrounding the Houston energy company Enron, which among its many business enterprises also embarked on a multimillion-dollar art-buying spree. The Enron corporate collection was formed with the assistance of Ned Rifkin, the new director of the Hirshhorn Museum who formerly headed the Menil Collection in Houston, and Barry Walker, a curator at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts. The two museum staffers received no remuneration for their extracurricular activities, according to a spokesperson for the Houston MFA. Among the Enron acquisitions, according to a report in the New York Times, was Martin Puryear's Bower (1980), a sculpture of wooden latticework that sold at Sotheby's New York last spring for $764,750 (with premium) -- an auction record for a work by the artist. The Enron art committee was headed by Lea Fastow, wife of former Enron fiscal officer Andrew Fastow, who is at the center of the scandal. The corporate art collection should eventually end up on the auction block along with other Enron assets -- but don't be surprised, say business observers, if choice artworks end up in the hands of top company executives.

A Chicago-area Vietnam Vet may be the rightful owner of a collection of modernist works at the Jewish Museum in Prague, according to a story by Chicago Tribune art critic Howard Reich. The art, which includes works by Signac, Derain and Dufresnay as well as by Czech artists, was assembled by Emil Freund, a Prague insurance executive who perished in the Lodz ghetto in 1942. Gerald McDonald, who was baptised Lutheran and lives in Lyons, Ill., is the great grandson of Freund's sister, who had emigrated to Chicago by the early 1920s. He was found by the Tribune, which searched public records, obituaries and voter registrations. McDonald, who is waiting for a liver transplant from hepatitis, says he hopes to keep the collection together. The Czech museum has hundreds of works that it hopes to restitute to their original owners; claims must be filed by the end of 2002.

The Museum of Modern Art is letting down its curatorial guard for "Life of the City," a photographic exhibition celebrating New York City and the response to the events of Sept. 11, 2001. The show, which opens Feb. 28-May 21, 2002, has three components: a selection of 150 photos of the city from the MoMA collection; a recreation of "Here Is New York," the SoHo storefront display of photos of 9/11 that proved to be astonishingly affecting; and a special display of photos contributed by MoMA visitors that express their "relationship to New York City." Anyone can take part; photos may not be larger than 16 x 20 inches, will not be identified or returned, and must be submitted in person at the museum between Feb. 1 and May 17, 2002. The photos are to be mounted on gallery walls with pushpins and regularly rotated during the period of the show.