By Maggie Lee
Atlantans packed a room at the Woodruff Arts Center on Monday night for a performance that can only happen every four or so years — Atlanta mayoral candidates bidding for the votes of art lovers.
There is no question Atlanta begets and attracts artists, even inspires art. It exports hip hop to the world, Tyler Perry is turning an out-of-business fort into a film studio, the city is the setting for an award-winning TV show that shares its name.
But official Atlanta could do better by art and artists, according to nine mayoral candidates who spoke to a packed 425-seat auditorium at an arts-themed forum.
The benefits of art aren’t in question: it makes life better, it brings folks together, it’s enjoyable, it builds community, it sheds light on the world for children and adults both. Heck, it even means jobs.
But if everyone agrees art is a good thing, they differ some on their funding ideas.
(As an explainer, some of them mention a “tenth of a cent.” That’s a sales tax that the city could levy with the approval of the state Legislature and voters. It would be set aside just for art and culture.)
Here are some of the candidates’ ideas about art and money, in no particular order.
Cathy Woolard, former Atlanta City Council president said that she’d convene the creation of an arts and culture plan for the city and said she’d work the Legislature for the tenth of a cent. And she pitched a housing idea too: “I will offer a one hundred percent tax credit per unit to any commercial apartment owner that will give a one-year residency to an artist so they can work and live for free in a building and produce art for us,” Woolard said.
Vincent Fort, who just left the state Senate to work on his mayoral bid, said that he would give consideration to the tenth of a penny. He said Atlanta needs to realize arts are a good investment. He said he’s heard from artists about an intersection of arts and gentrification — artists make their own neighborhoods so trendy that they’re priced out. “We have to make sure that’s artists, when they come to Atlanta, when they make Atlanta prosper, they need to be given due consideration in housing and other things,” said Fort.
Former Atlanta COO and longtime Bain and Co. partner Peter Aman said that arts and culture need reliable funding, in good times and in bad. “We’re going to have the tenth of penny for arts and culture and for green space and then we’re going to look at other sources of revenue like a parking tax. We’re going to look at surface street and other parking taxes so that we can get those who come into the city to help pay for some of our initiatives,” said Aman.
City Councilwoman Mary Norwood said she would lobby for the tenth of a penny and that the city needs to increase its arts spending. She said Atlanta draws money-spending visitors for its great performances and festivals and will make the case that arts are an economic driver for the city. As for money: “It’s important for us to maximize our funds with public-private partnerships, with corporate donations and with reaching out to all of you to make sure that we are exponentially increasing our funding, not incrementally increasing our funding,” Norwood said.
John Eaves, who left the chairmanship of the Fulton County Commission to run for mayor, said more money needs to be spent on arts, especially on younger folks, in part as a way to divert them from the school-to-prison pipeline. “I’m pushing a concept called ‘criminal justice reinvestment,’ which will mean the consolidation of the court system, the police departments and the two jails in the city of Atlanta. Instead of putting the money into the incarceration end, you reinvest the dollars on the front end,” said Eaves. He got the biggest cheers of the night when he said he would “use those savings to construct the programs that can have a greater impact and benefit to our society.”
Michael Sterling, the former executive director of the Atlanta Workforce Development Agency, said he’d give culture a higher official profile and that budgets show arts haven’t been a priority for the city. “My plan for the Office of Cultural Affairs is take it from the mayor’s office, ask the City Council to pass legislation to make it a commissioner position that has a regularly funded budget that is vetted by the public,” said Sterling. “Then everyone’s accountable for that budget, we know what’s going to happen with that budget year to year.”
City Councilman Kwanza Hall said tickets to arts programs for the public are great, the idea of setting aside part of a car rental tax for art is great, but that the city has a persistent problem of not including in the arts the more than 125,000 Atlantans who live in poverty. As for funding, Hall said he’d like double the OCA’s budget to at least $2 million for the contract for services program and allow smaller arts organizations that win contracts to use money for operations. (Some smaller organizations don’t have the same administrative capacity as big ones.) He said he would also ask the city’s development agency to make sure that the city builds out a long-term sustainable, permanent program for affordable space for artists.
Not to be outdone, Atlanta City Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms said she would commit to triple the OCA’s budget and that the city’s spending on arts should rise overall, including in bond-financed projects. One of her proudest moments on City Council, she said, was to partner with OCA to get kids from Ben Hill Recreational Center to do a public mural. “That costs money, it takes time, it takes personnel. For every grant that’s given, there need to be 100 more given.”
City Council President Ceasar Mitchell said that “I think the most important thing we can do from a policy point of view is identify a sustainable source of revenue. I believe pursing a portion of a penny sales tax is the way to do this.” Mitchell also said that as mayor he would make sure the city government gives strong support to film production in the city and wants to work with Atlanta’s schools from kindergarten through college to make sure young people can get into the industry.