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Georgia County Sparks Furor

Decision to end arts funding draws national attention in debate over gays and the arts

THE small city square just 18 miles north of Atlanta looks like a Norman Rockwell painting, with old men and mothers sitting on park benches watching the children play in the lush grass. But in the past month, angry demonstrators marched on Cobb County's Marietta Square, and the historic city which once served as Sherman's headquarters became a battleground pitting the homosexual community and arts supporters against the religious right.

The battle started over $40,959, a tiny chunk of the county's general budget earmarked for the Theatre in the Square, an acclaimed playhouse in Marietta, Ga.

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Some residents had been grumbling about the use of taxpayers' money for the arts since the grants program had been created some five years ago. In early June, Gordon Wysong, one of Cobb's first-term commissioners, received a complaint about using county funds to promote ``Lips Together, Teeth Apart,'' at the Theatre in the Square. Nominated for a Pulitzer in 1992, the play made references to homosexuality.

Though Mr. Wysong had not seen the play or read a script, in early August he proposed limiting county funding to those artistic programs reflecting ``traditional community standards.'' Those standards, Wysong says, are under assault from a gay-rights agenda that is gaining ground in the area. `Community standards' debated

``The play is irrelevant,'' Wysong says. ``It's my duty to protect the safety, health, and welfare of Cobb County. Community standards, as they have evolved over thousands of years, have never endorsed or promoted homosexuality or the homosexual lifestyle.''

While none of the other commissioners had seen the play either, they supported Wysong's resolution to cut off funding. The arts community, as well as gay groups, responded with cries of censorship. After several weeks of controversy, Bill Byrne, chairman of the commission and a former marine, proposed sidestepping the dispute by cutting off all funding for the arts.

``We are committed to reducing spending,'' Mr. Byrne said. ``The proper use of tax dollars serves every member of our community.''

The commission met on Aug. 24 to consider Mr. Byrne's measure. More than 250 people crowded outside the meeting room and protesters carried signs reading ``KKK - Kobb Kounty Kommission'' and yelled ``Two, Four, Six, Eight - Separate Church and State.'' Amid the chanting, the commission voted 5 to 0 to eliminate all funding for the county arts programs.

Less than one-tenth of a percent, $110,000 of the county's 1994 general budget, had been awarded to various arts programs. Byrne announced that the arts money will be redirected to the Public Safety Department to buy video cameras, police dogs, training, and other items.

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Reaction to the commissioners' move has generally been favorable in Cobb County. A recent poll sponsored by the Marietta Daily Journal showed that 50 percent of residents approve of the decision, while 38 percent disapprove.

``I commend the commissioners for upholding family standards,'' says the Rev. Nelson Price of Roswell Street Baptist Church, the largest congregation in Cobb County. ``Theater should feed the aesthetic taste and inspire and uplift rather than glamourize sexual distortion.''

But gays and many artists are outraged by the funding cutoff. ``It's ironic that the commissioners say they want to protect the welfare of Cobb County when what they have done is polarize the community and create an atmosphere of intolerance,'' says Jon Greaves, an organizers of the Cobb Coalition, a gay and lesbian group.

Jeri Pearson, a longtime Cobb resident and president of the Theatre in the Square's Premiere Club, adds, ``The commissioners' vote reinforces the image of Cobb and the South as a bunch of hicks and rednecks.'' Cobb move watched across country

The Cobb County controversy has national implications. Ginny Terzano, a spokeswoman from the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, says, ``The decision to cut arts funding in Cobb has prompted serious concerns for arts groups across the country and will increase the level of national debate on appropriate sources of funding.''

Gay and artists' groups across the country have joined the fray. The Citizens Coalition and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation launched a national boycott urging businesses and organizations not to hold conventions in Cobb County. Teresa Nelson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, says her group is contemplating a legal challenge to the cutoff.

Meanwhile, arts organizations in Cobb County try to cope with the loss of money as best they can.

The day of the commission vote, the technical director of the Theatre in the Square draped the marquee in black to signify the death of arts funding in Cobb County. The Theatre in the Square lost $40,959, the largest scheduled grant. But that amounts to only a small fraction of its 1994 budget of $800,000.

By contrast, the county cutoff has cost the Cobb Symphony Orchestra 16 percent of its budget. Some of the other groups losing funds include a classical music ensemble, a children's chorus, a children's museum, and a children's theater.

Withdrawal of local funding could jeopardize state and federal grants, artists say. Groups are scurrying for alternative sources from individuals and corporations. But Cobb County Arts Commission chairman Elva Dornbusch notes, ``Some of the smaller programs might not make it.''

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