Originally published in The Nation.
OF ALL THE FAN LETTERS OUT NORTH Contemporary Art House has ever received, the most surprising has come from a former adversary. Shannon McDade, a member of the Alaska State Council on the Arts, had visited the theater to see June Bride, a one-woman show by Sara Felder about an old-fashioned lesbian Jewish wedding. Juggling knives and reciting poetry, Felder took her audience on a 105-minute journey from her childhood to the traditional breaking of the wine glass under a wedding canopy.
Until that night, McDade had opposed public funding for Out North, an Anchorage theater run by two gay men. But Felder’s performance made her a convert. “I truly did not want the show to end,” she wrote in a letter to the theater. “I was enjoying myself so much that I wanted to know what happened after the wedding, what are they doing now, and did they get the Rabbi’s brother to donate sperm?” In gratitude for her free ticket, McDade enclosed a check for $100. The theater’s directors still keep a photocopy.
For fourteen years, Out North has been winning admirers like McDade not just for tackling challenging issues such as sexuality, breast cancer and black male rage but also for fostering honest audience discussions. Out North also sponsors residencies for visiting artists and runs a creative writing and theater program for at-risk children. For playing a “leading role” in the state’s cultural and economic development, the Alaska legislature awarded it a special commendation.
But those accomplishments haven’t stopped the radical right from agitating against the theater—particularly against the several thousand dollars it receives each year in city funding. “Out North Theater is a homosexual theater,” says Art Mathias, former chairman of the Christian Coalition of Alaska. “I don’t believe that I should have to pay for their activities with my tax money.” Last fall, Mathias’s group led a lobbying campaign to convince the Anchorage Assembly, equivalent to the city council, to yank Out North’s funding. It worked; the assembly eliminated the $22,000 it was planning to give to the theater company. “We don’t want to use tax money to pay for something that the whole family can’t go to,” assembly member Ted Carlson said at the time.
If this has echoes of the National Endowment for the Arts controversy, there’s a reason. Bolstered by their successes at the federal level, conservative activists have discovered that arts funding is an issue ripe for exploitation in local communities too. While Robert Mapplethorpe’s photos or Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ are distant threats for most Americans, it’s easier to whip people up about controversial exhibits and performances in their own hometowns. “The symbolism is strong whenever you mix public money with religion and sex,” says Bob Lynch, president and CEO of the Washington-based Americans for the Arts. What’s more, the strategy dovetails with the religious right’s shift from high-visibility national campaigns to less publicized local ones. And state and local governments are where the money is. They provide more than $1 billion in arts funding annually, compared with $100 million from the federal government, according to Lynch.
Current statistics on challenges to local arts funding are hard to come by. In 1996 researchers at People for the American Way documented 137 challenges to artistic expression in forty-one states and the District of Columbia the previous year. Eight percent of those challenges dealt directly with government funding. In one incident, the local Christian Coalition chapter in Clearwater, Florida, tried to stop the production of Angels in America, Tony Kushner’s award-winning gay fantasia, at a theater that received city funds. In response, the Clearwater City Commission passed a resolution asking the theater to be “sensitive to and aware of community standards in booking performances.”
People for the American Way stressed that its own numbers understate the level of the problem. The religious right’s “high success rate does not reflect the more insidious effect of self-censorship,” its report said. “It is important to note that the most devastating impact of the culture war may well be the art never produced, the budding ideas squelched.” For example, in Columbus, Ohio, a local experimental art gallery removed part of an exhibit after a board member worried that it would threaten state and local government funding. The work involved was digital photography dealing with violence, gender and power.
THE EXACT NATURE of the arts funding struggle varies from place to place. In San Jose, California, for example, a group of Christian activists sued the city over a $500,000 tax-funded statue of the “plumed serpent” Quetzalcoatl. The plaintiffs, who were represented by the conservative U.S. Justice Foundation, claimed the city was violating their religious freedom by honoring a non-Christian deity that was worshiped by Aztecs and Mayans until the sixteenth century. In late 1996 the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the statue was a secular tribute to Latino culture and could stay in the park.
But railing against Aztec gods is the exception. Just as at the federal level, the more common strategy is to attack homosexuality. Last fall in Texas the San Antonio City Council eliminated $62,000 in funding to the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center in retaliation for sponsoring a lesbian and gay film festival. Council members were lobbied heavily by a coalition headed by the Christian Pro-Life Foundation, a self-styled crisis center for pregnant women. Also involved was the local Christian Coalition chapter.
While the more discreet Alamo City Men’s Chorale continued to receive funding, the Esperanza Center was targeted for its outspokenness on queer issues. “That group flaunts what it does; it is an in-your-face organization. They are doing this to themselves,” said Mayor Howard Peak.
According to George Thorn, co-director of the New York-based Arts Action Research, it would be dangerous to write these struggles off as unrelated incidents. “This is not just someone standing in the shower saying, ‘Gee, I think I’m going to attack gays and lesbians today,'” says Thorn. “It’s a strategy by the radical right to move from the federal to the local level.”
And these attacks are part of a larger political strategy, which begins with the election of “stealth candidates” to local office. “They’re schooled during the election to espouse no ideology. After the election, out comes the ideology,” Thorn says. What follows are efforts to reduce arts funding, often accompanied by other elements of the conservative agenda: social-service cuts, attempts at library censorship or zoning decisions that favor big developers. “We make a mistake if we see it only as an arts issue,” Thorn says.
That was the case in Charlotte, North Carolina, where a newly seated right-wing majority on the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners took on a whole set of issues, including sexual counseling for teens. As part of their conservative agenda, the commissioners went after a heterosexual, married, Republican theater producer and managing director named Keith Martin.
Martin manages the twenty-two-year-old Charlotte Repertory Theatre, which presents a variety of plays each year. Martin’s company performs the classics, and it also offers plays dealing with incest, sexual violence and alcoholism. About five years ago, it performed the musical Falsettos, which features three couples of different sexual orientations and one confused boy. The reaction in Charlotte, a polite city of 470,000? “Not a peep,” Martin says.
So Martin thought he was on relatively safe ground when he added Angels in America to the company’s 1996 season. Knowing that the play had caused problems elsewhere (including Clearwater), Charlotte Rep spent two years developing an educational program to accompany the show. It sponsored seminars on controversial theater and the local AIDS crisis; brought in Kushner to talk about his work; and invited local clergy to discuss spiritual themes in the play. “We did the whole thing to shed light, not heat,” Martin says.
Predictably, the religious right threatened to shut down the production, claiming that a seven-second nude scene involving the medical examination of an AIDS patient violated North Carolina’s indecent exposure law. To avoid any last-minute problem, Charlotte Rep obtained a court order protecting its First Amendment rights, and the play went on as scheduled to sellout crowds. On closing night, Martin assumed the controversy was over.
What he couldn’t have predicted was the upcoming elections for the county Board of Commissioners. In an election ignored by progressives (who were working to defeat Senator Jesse Helms), voters quietly swept in a five-member conservative majority. The swing vote was Democrat Hoyle Martin, who made his predilections known after the election when he talked to the Charlotte Observer about homosexuality. “If I had my way, we’d shove these people off the face of the earth,” he said.
IT DIDN’T TAKE LONG for the commissioners to turn their attention to arts funding. Rather than singling out one theater, they proposed cutting their entire $2.5 million allocation to the Arts & Science Council, an umbrella group that distributes arts funds and has supported Charlotte Rep. Championing the vote was the national conservative group Focus on the Family.
“We have a list of standards, things that we don’t believe in,” says GOP commissioner Bill James. “One of those things in the South is that we don’t want to promote homosexuals. In Charlotte, North Carolina, the conduct that they engage in is illegal, and you cannot expect that government will provide you with special rights for behavior that society has determined is criminal.”
The threat to free speech—and to Charlotte’s business-friendly image—brought together an unlikely coalition of artists, lesbians and gay men, and corporate executives. Many of them spoke at a packed commissioners’ meeting in April 1997. “What you said is: The Constitution won’t let us arrest these people, so let’s go outside the law and burn a few crosses on the lawns of their sympathizers,” said NationsBank special counsel Joe Martin, the brother of North Carolina’s former Republican governor. The commissioners wouldn’t relent; they voted 5 to 4 to cut the arts council funding.
Keith Martin says the cut has forced Charlotte Rep to scale back a violence-prevention program in the public schools, eliminate matinees for senior citizens and cut ticket subsidies for students. But the theater continues to produce controversial works. Since the funding brouhaha, Charlotte Rep has presented Mark Eisman’s The Guy Upstairs, which questions God’s existence, and Clyde Edgerton’s The Floatplane Notebooks, which includes a masturbation scene involving a disabled Vietnam vet and his nurse. “It was naïve to think that by cutting public funds to Charlotte Rep, it would prevent plays like Angels in America,” Martin says. “They have their own income streams.”
Elsewhere, though, others may not be so bold. As local governments feel the pressure not to subsidize provocative art, some impresarios will decide that survival is more important than social commentary. In New York last month, the Manhattan Theatre Club announced and then retracted cancellation of a production of Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi, a play depicting a gay Christ-like character, following pressure from the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. How many directors will go one step further and decide, in the name of placating a city council, not to bring in the next McNally or Kushner? The most damaging effect of the new funding paradigm might be the absence of those works we’ll never know we’ve missed.