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Officials in Cobb County, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta, voted to cut all county arts funding in late August, after initially moving to pass a resolution to restrict funding to organizations and programming that “advance and support strong community and family-oriented standards.” The anti-arts vote sidestepped the issue of free speech guarantees by eliminating support to the arts across the board. It came after productions of David Hwang’s M. Butterfly and Terrence McNally’s Lips Together, Teeth Apart at Theatre in the Square in Marietta sparked stormy controversy between members of the county’s Board of Commissioners, the local arts community, gay rights activists and antigay factions.

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The proposed amendment to the Cobb County’s Cultural Affairs Policy stemmed from reports that the McNally play promotes gay lifestyles, although the play features no gay characters and the production received no negative audience response. It was in fact selected the best show of the season by the theatre’s patrons in their annual award ceremony. But commissioner Gordon Wysong – who did not see the play – proposed the restriction, adding that future programming should be taken into account before any grants are awarded. The chairman of the commission, Bill Byrne, supported the restrictions, citing his experience at Theatre in the Square the previous season, when he and his wife were so offended by the material in M. Butterfly that they left before the final curtain.

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The controversy raged in the Atlanta suburb for much of the summer, with arts advocates accusing the commission of censorship. Theatre in the Square artistic director Michael Horne defended his theatre’s programming, noting that it produces a wide range of plays, and that “we didn’t get here by doing bad work or work that’s out of touch with the community.” Suspension of its county funding would represent a loss of about five percent of the theatre’s operating budget. Last year, the theatre received nearly $41,000 from the county’s $123,000 arts fund.

While county commissioners were still deliberating the outcome of the proposal by holding two public hearings, they passed a second measure declaring that “gay lifestyles” are incompatible with community standards and in support of “established state laws regarding gay lifestyles.” Although the intent of this measure was to prohibit the extension of domestic partnership benefits to county employees – a reaction to the city of Atlanta’s recent decision to do just that – many members of the community saw the two proposals as intrinsically related.

After gay rights groups threatened legal action against the county if funding restrictions were aimed at arts groups or projects with homosexual themes, the county Board of Commissioners voted to eliminate all county arts funding – and redirect the $123,000 annual appropriation to be used by local police.

Exhibiting the offensive 

On another front, Martin Mawyer and the Christian Action Network – whose evangelical anti-NEA fervor prompted a lobbying campaign for total agency defunding because of the Whitney Museum’s “Abject Art” exhibit – continued their attacks in Washington right up until recess. In late July, the Christian Action Network assembled a display of photographs of “offensive” art works allegedly funded by the NEA and sent invitations to every member of Congress to view the exhibit in the Capitol building, but the showing was banned before anyone arrived. Rep. Philip Crane (R-Ill.) had reserved the room, which is under the jurisdiction of the House Ways and Means Committee, but permission was withdrawn by Rep. Sidney Yates (D-Ill.) and Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) when they determined that rules on lobbying in the Capitol would be violated if the exhibit were allowed. Later, House Speaker Thomas Foley (D-Wash.) closed the exhibit down after 15 minutes in a House annex room, which Mawyer claimed had been booked through Rep. Crane’s office, but which Foley’s staff said was never confirmed.

In a statement released by Mawyer on the day of the exhibit, he vowed that “the Christian Action Network will continue to monitor the NEA’s funding practices and continue to expose those artists and works of art which are patently offensive to most Americans.”

Just as the furor over Mawyer’s accusations were beginning to die down, the NEA faced another controversy. In early August, newspapers reported that three California artists were giving away most of a $5,000 NEA grant to illegal immigrants in the San Diego area in a project called “Arte-Reembolso/Art Rebate.” Flyers accompanying the bills stated, “This $10 bill is part of an art project that intends to return tax dollars to taxpayers, particularly ~undocumented taxpayers.’ The art rebate acknowledges your role as a vital player in an economic community indifferent to national borders.”

Subsidized giveaway 

By giving the money away in $10 bills, the artists said they were making an artistic and political statement about “the interaction of physical space with intellectual space and civic space” and demonstrating the economic role illegal immigrants play in southern California.

The project received NEA funding from the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego, as part of an exhibit called “La Frontera/The Border,” one in a series of exhibits in a four-year project at the museum titled “Dos Ciudades/Two Cities,” which received a $250,000 NEA grant that was matched three-to-one with state, city and private funding. According to the museum’s director, Hugh Davies, the NEA financed only the four-year project and did not know about the money giveaway. Republican Congressman Randy (Duke) Cunningham of San Diego was quick to respond with outrage. “I can scarcely imagine a more contemptuous use of taxpayers’ dollars,” he wrote to the NEA, while NEA spokesman Josh Dare told the press that not only did the agency know nothing about the project in advance or fund it specifically, but “these three artists are very adept at pushing people’s buttons.”

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Officials in Cobb County, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta, voted to cut all county arts funding in late August, after initially moving to pass a resolution to restrict funding to organizations and programming that "advance and support strong community and family-oriented standards." The anti-arts vote sidestepped the issue of free speech guarantees by eliminating support to the arts across the board. It came after productions of David Hwang's M. Butterfly and Terrence Mc
2021-07-13 03:14:15
More hits from the right Essay
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