Atlanta arts leaders and artists say there’s a lot to celebrate — but something is missing
By Maggie Lee
There are easily hundreds of arts organizations in metro Atlanta. But if they’re looking for a bit of public funding, they’re looking in a state that’s either last or near-last in per-capita funding for the arts.
That low ranking is so well known in the arts world that when it came up at an Atlanta Press Club arts economy panel on Tuesday, someone in the audience piped up with a footnote about how Georgia might be last or perhaps 49th for funding its arts agency, depending on how you count some figures from Kansas or Arizona.
But there’s no question Georgia is near the bottom.
“I think we need to … start telling the story of what we mean to GDP, what we mean in terms of dollars invested in our communities and what we mean in terms of full-time hires, ” said Lara Smith, managing director of Dad’s Garage theater.
The arts don’t have the same place in public policy as some other industries.
One thing that makes arts in Georgia different from some other places — and makes the arts different from some other causes — is that metro Atlanta and Georgia lack one single organization speaking out in favor of bringing Georgians dance, visual art, music, theater, all the arts. And arts leaders know it.
There are something like 75 municipalities in metro Atlanta alone, said Doug Shipman, president and CEO of the Woodruff Arts Center. (He didn’t mention it, but he might have added that every city is in a county so there may be more than one potential government partner in any given place. And there’s MARTA, and the BeltLine, and other agencies which fund the arts. And corporations also support the arts.)
Every arts organization, like his, he said, pretty much advocates for itself because there is no umbrella group.
He said there’s an “opportunity” for such a group.
“It probably takes a philanthropic intervention, it probably takes somebody to say, ‘This is an important capacity that’s going to serve everybody,’” Shipman said.
It’s common enough for trades or interests to have advocacy groups. And some groups do seek public support — city, county or state money. But there are other things that trade groups can do, like be a place for professionals to meet each other, share business leads, educate the public and possible private sponsors about what they do and why.
Smith said that in addition to her full-time job, she has had to figure out how to advocate at all different levels of governments.
“It’s different at every single one,” Smith said. “The rules are different, the times are different, who you need to talk to is different. And so, then it becomes so much about who you know, and it becomes so specialized, which I can navigate. But then how do I translate that knowledge and those relationships to another human being?” Smith said.
That fractured government structure isn’t just related to arts, it’s related to everything, said Camille Russell Love, the executive director of the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs in Atlanta.
She pointed out that several times the city of Atlanta has flirted with the idea of a one-tenth of a penny sales tax to fund arts in the city. That requires the city deciding to ask the state Legislature for permission to hold a referendum on the question.
“But the two to three times the legislation has moved to the state, there’s always been some issue that had nothing to do with the arts that got in the way of it moving forward,” Love said.
Contrast that with a similar concept, though on the scale of the state, rather than a city.
Boosters for Georgia’s wild spaces got some dedicated funding through the state Legislature and through a public vote last year. Through the “Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Amendment,” a portion of sales taxes on outdoor goods (like tents) is now set aside for buying new public lands or fixing up the land Georgia already has. It’s not a new tax and right now it’s not necessarily a lot more money than the legislature might have spent anyway. But it does give signal that public land is important and gives it a bit of insulation from budget cuts.
The campaign was the work of a coalition of groups including Georgia Conservancy, The Nature Conservancy, The Trust for Public Land, Park Pride, The Conservation Fund and the Georgia Wildlife Federation.
Not one of them is “the” single outdoor group in Georgia — no such thing exists. They each have somewhat different goals, and they don’t all work in the same places. But they do have a lot of overlap.
And it does show how working together, groups that have a similar aim can get a significant bill moved.
The arguments are even similar: art, like time outdoors, makes life better. And both amenities create jobs and attract tourists with their money.
There are about 20,000 full-time equivalent arts jobs in Fulton County alone, according to the latest Arts and Economic Prosperity study, a 2015 report that depends on a wide survey of nonprofit arts and culture groups. According to the same report, the industry spent about $619 million in Fulton alone that year.
Shipman said there’s not the same place in public policy for arts as there is for other industries, like transportation, technology, sports or the convention business.
“But we really still see arts as an add-on on top of that [other industries,] as opposed to one of those big industries that are employing a lot of people,” Shipman said.
Some people might argue that Georgia’s film tax credit amounts to support for the arts. And in some ways, it does benefit nonprofits — theater mostly. A well-financed Hollywood or commercial set design gig, for example, makes it easier to afford to stay in Atlanta and also work in local theater.
But that’s not all the arts.
Artist and scholar Fahamu Pecou graduated from Atlanta College of Art in 1997, and he said he’s seen the arts economy evolve since then. There’s a greater attention and focus on it, he said, as well as a bigger concentration of creative people either moving here or staying here after college.
“In this influx of new energy that we’re seeing in the city,” said Pecou, “We’re seeing a lot of people create opportunities and create spaces for exhibition, create programs, and just bringing new ideas to the table, which I think enriches the city overall and enriches everybody’s experiences.”