By Maria Saporta
Despite numerous challenges facing artistic organizations today, the arts and culture are critical to metro Atlanta’s economic development goals — particularly when appealing to a creative workforce.
That was the underlying message that Ben Cameron, program director of the arts for the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, shared during his visit to Atlanta last week to make the keynote speech at the annual Metropolitan Atlanta Arts Fund luncheon.
Cameron is considered to be one of the most innovative thinkers when it comes to the arts and technologically driven changes in our society.
“You know if the arts are in peril, the entire economy is in peril,” Cameron said. “If you care about local economic activity in Atlanta, you must care about the arts. If you care about education, you must care about the arts.”
Over the years, there has been an ebb and flow to such a message. When the Arts Fund was created nearly 20 years ago, it grew out of the Metro Atlanta Chamber’s Business-Arts Council, which has since been phased out.
In 2002, the Metro Atlanta Chamber created the Regional Arts Task Force, which led to the creation of the Metro Atlanta Arts & Culture Coalition — bringing together local companies and metro counties to rally behind the arts.
That coalition, which had been on shaky ground, now has joined forces with the Atlanta Regional Commission, and the hope is that there will be a greater emphasis on the arts when it comes to regional planning as well as community and economic development.
But there is much work still to be done. The new Forward Atlanta plan unveiled by the Metro Atlanta Chamber set innovation as one of its key economic development goals. But the words — arts and culture — were barely mentioned as being a necessary integral part of having an innovative economy with a thriving creative class.
Still, discussions are under way between arts and business leaders to integrate the development of arts and culture within the various Forward Atlanta initiatives.
“I’m devoted personally to do whatever I can to help the business community understand the value of arts and culture,” said Virginia Hepner, president of the Woodruff Arts Center and former chair of the Metro Arts & Culture Coalition. “We have got to be a greater part of moving Atlanta forward to improve our educational outcomes and our economic development outcomes.”
Cameron, who has been a national arts leader for a couple of decades, was extremely complimentary of Atlanta’s arts scene.
“Atlanta has always been a great theater city,” Cameron said in an interview while he was in Atlanta. “Your symphony is fantastic. It’s a great, great, great arts community.”
Then Cameron started rambling off names of some of Atlanta’s leaders in the arts — Susan Booth, Kenny Leon, Vince, Anthony, Chris Coleman…
He singled out Lisa Adler, co-founder of the Horizon Theatre Co., for being forward-thinking about how the arts must adapt and be resilient during this age of competing technologies.
Sometime in the early to mid-2000s, Adler explained to Cameron that the mission should not be creating great plays. It should be connecting audiences with great plays. In other words, a theater company can create the best plays imaginable, but if there is no audience, how can it be living up to its mission.
“It’s not an easy time for the arts,” Cameron said. “Foundation giving is down, public giving is down. Share of charitable dollars for the arts is diminishing.”
But the biggest crisis facing the arts is not funding or finances. The biggest issue is staying relevant to audiences who have more and more choices on how they spend their time.
According to a recent study, “audiences were over-scheduled and exhausted,” Cameron said. “After decades of growth, our audiences are dwindling.”
It does not help that ticket prices have been escalating and that there are obstacles that stand in the way of attending events — from time, to transportation to parking. But now more than ever, arts leaders are beginning to view “technology as competition” where you can “download culture on demand,” Cameron said.
All that is leading to a fundamental “recalibration” of the arts in our country. Key to that recalibration is engaging arts patrons and having more interactive experiences with audiences.
Lisa Cremin, director of the Metropolitan Atlanta Arts Fund, said the past economic downturn has been “a rough ride” for many cultural organizations.
“Over the past few years, people’s attention spans and pocket books seemed to shrink at the same time,” said Cremin, who has helped countless arts organization steer through this period. Since its inception in 1993, the Arts Fund has made $9.2 million in direct grants and another $942,000 in management consulting grants to arts organizations.
In fact, 2012 is the final year of the four-year Atlanta Arts Recovery Initiative, which has awarded $4.1 million to small and mid-sized organizations with budgets of under $2 million a year.
“The arts and culture are essential to our cities, our communities and our souls,” Cremin said at the lunch, adding that it was key to — “invest in the arts; invest in the city; and make it a region and a place where people want to live.”
In his closing comments, Cameron put it this way.
“This is the time to stop being an arts supporter and to start being an arts activist,” Cameron said “This activism must spring from your love of Atlanta.”
Let’s hope our business and government leaders are listening.