A community divided Funding: Charlotte, N.C., a city known for its tolerance, finds itself deep in controversy over public funding of the arts.

April 20, 1997|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN COLUMNIST

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Hoyle Martin is sitting in the lobby of the Adam's Mark hotel, one of a dozen showpiece buildings in the gleaming central business district of this New South metropolis.

"People tell me it's the biggest thing to hit Charlotte since I don't known when," Martin says. "People say they have never seen anything like it."

There's more than a touch of pride in the man's voice. There's satisfaction, the sort of gratification a person feels when he thinks he's fought the good fight and won.

Martin, a fit-looking 69-year-old black man dressed in a blue sweat suit and running shoes, doesn't look like the most controversial man in Charlotte these days. He looks like somebody's sprightly grandfather, which in fact he is.

Still, he has hurried over to the hotel this morning to explain to an out-of-town reporter why he was the only Democrat on Mecklenberg County's nine-member board of commissioners to support a resolution cutting off funds to arts groups that expose viewers to "perverted forms of sexuality."

The resolution, originally drafted by Martin and later revised by one of his Republican allies on the commission, would end the county's $2.5 million contribution to the Charlotte-Mecklenberg Council of the Arts & Science, a quasi-public group that funds more than $11 million worth of arts projects annually.

Instead, arts groups will have to go directly to the commissioners to petition for funds, which will be approved only if they find that the projects conform to "traditional family values."

The commissioners' action, triggered by a local theater company's refusal to cancel a production of playwright John Guare's "Six Degrees of Separation," whose central character is gay, thrust Charlotte into the national spotlight, with stories of the incident appearing on the wire services, in the New York Times and on National Public Radio.

It also rekindled a controversy that first flared last spring, when the company staged a critically acclaimed local production of "Angels in America," Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize-winning play about AIDS and gay life in America during the Reagan administration.

Arts groups immediately denounced the commissioners' act as an attempt at government censorship of the arts. Gay-rights advocates complained they were being singled out as scapegoats by the religious right. Business leaders, worried about protecting Charlotte's image as a progressive banking and finance center, called for a campaign to unseat the commissioners in the next election.

And the Charlotte Observer, the city's leading newspaper, warned of a growing strain of intolerance among county elected officials and urged voters to pay closer attention to local candidates for office in the next election.

Questions for the city

The uproar has thrust the city headlong into the national debate over public funding of the arts and the responsibility arts organizations bear to the public they serve.

Should taxpayer dollars be used to support artistic activities some people may find offensive?

What are the "community standards" of a diverse city like Charlotte?

Whose "traditional family values" are to be upheld?

Who decides what is "indecent" and what is acceptable?

Until recently, these were questions most Charlotte residents were content to leave to the city's Arts & Science Council, which assembled panels of experts, artists and local citizens to make recommendations about funding policies.

In addition to the $2.5 million the council received from Mecklenberg County, the city of Charlotte contributes about $2.1 million and the council raises about $5.7 million privately from its annual fund drive.

But now the arts council will lose about a fifth of its annual budget. And the commissioners, through their own funding decisions, will in effect be deciding what Charlotte's "community standards" are and which "traditional family values" it will enforce.

It is a prospect that some Charlotte elected officials contemplate with anxiety.

"This is a sad day in this community," said commission chairman Park Helms, a moderate Democrat who opposed the resolution. "Please watch us and please forgive us for what we are about to do."

Meanwhile, Hoyle Martin, a native of Brooklyn, N.Y., who moved to Charlotte in 1961 and has been active in local politics for nearly three decades, seems less surprised that his Democratic colleagues disagree with him on arts funding than that his views about gays have put him at the center of a contentious national debate.

"This just tells me the gay community has a strong block in this community," he says, shaking his head.

"I think everyone has the right to observe his or her religious beliefs," says Keith Martin (no relation to Hoyle Martin), who directs the Charlotte Repertory Theater.

"But they don't have the right to impose their own religious beliefs on others. That's what concerns me."

Two controversial plays

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