Atlanta Regional Commission is new home for arts and culture coalition

By Maria Saporta

It’s a new beginning for the arts in metro Atlanta.

The Atlanta Regional Commission has reached an agreement to absorb the operations of the Metro Atlanta Arts & Culture Coalition — a decade-old entity that has been a leading voice for the development and funding of cultural organizations in the Atlanta Region.

The move to fold the coalition within the ARC is being widely applauded by arts advocates in the region because it will institutionalize the support of metro Atlanta’s cultural organizations.

But arts advocates also believe there needs to be a strong role for the business community to support the development of arts and culture in the region as a way of contributing to a creative economy. And there’s concern that business leaders have not embraced the arts as part of their economic development strategy.

The topic at the June 18 luncheon of the Rotary Club of Atlanta was on the recent findings of the “Metro Atlanta Cultural Assessment.”

Doug Hooker, ARC’s executive director, highlighted four key findings. There are 1,740 arts and cultural organizations in metro Atlanta. The generate more than $502 million in revenues, and they have $1.88 billion in assets. There were 15,326 arts-related businesses in 2001 — employing a total of 62,310 employees.

“We have a very rich and deep asset base here,” Hooker said, adding that companies like IBM look to invest in communities with a strong arts infrastructure so they can hire the creative employees that they need.

One of the first main tasks that the ARC will be taking on will be the development of a cultural master plan to help map out what needs to be accomplished in the region.

The Metro Atlanta Arts & Culture Coalition evolved out of a Metro Atlanta Chamber task force that sought “to make the Atlanta region a premier center for the arts — and be recognized as such.”

The coalition was formed in 2003 with a $1.5 million grant from the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation and contributions from the City of Atlanta and the five core metro counties.

But when the economy turned sour, it was difficult for local governments to support the coalition financially.

“That became really challenging,” said Bill Nigut, who served as the first director of the coalition. “We had so may big issues then — Grady Hospital, transportation, education. It was hard to make a case for the arts when people were saying Grady Hospital was going to close.”

Flora Maria Garcia, who succeeded Nigut as the coalition’s executive director, said “the funding model for MAACC that was designed never worked.”

Both Nigut and Garcia, who has since become president and CEO of United Arts of Central Florida, said the ARC arrangement is ideal.

“This will integrate arts and culture in the long-range economic plan for the whole region,” Nigut said. “It is now being endorsed by the most significant planning agency in the state.”

Garcia said joining forces with ARC “is the best of all possible worlds because it puts arts and culture at the table equal to land-use, transportation and air quality.”

The board of the coalition will be transformed into an advisory board for the arts division at the ARC. The chair of the coalition currently is Mara Holley, Wells Fargo’s senior vice president and regional director of government and institutional banking in Atlanta.

But Garcia quickly added that there needs to be a partnership with the Metro Atlanta Chamber and the business community to incorporate the arts as part of the region’s economic strategy.

Sam Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, said his organization is more a “cheerleader” for the arts rather than one that will take a leading role to incorporate the arts in its economic development strategy.

Arts leaders, however, said there is a direct correlation between a healthy arts community and the development of a creative economy.

Another key issue for metro Atlanta and Georgia is the dearth in public funding for the arts.

“Georgia continues to be at the bottom of the barrel for public funding for the arts,” Garcia said. “Metro Atlanta’s arts organization’s continue to be under-funded and under-capitalized. That is the No. 1 problem facing the evolution of the arts in Atlanta.”

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has made arts funding in the city a priority. In the latest city budget, the mayor initially added $250,000 for the arts, and then doubled that.

“What I’m signaling is that my administration and the City of Atlanta is going to start focusing more energy and vigor on the arts,” Reed said.

But few local governments can make significant investments in the arts.

So for several years in a row, arts organizations across the state have developed a funding model that would have allowed local communities to pass a fractional sales tax to go to the arts and other economic development initiatives.

That effort had been suspended for a year while regions are focused on efforts to pass a regional transportation sales tax, but Garcia said the need still exists for the “fantastic piece of legislation.”

She also hopes that MAACC’s lobbying arm — the Georgia Committee for Growth — will continue to advocate for public funding for the arts. Virginia Hepner, who recently was named as the new CEO of the Woodruff Arts Center, is chair of the advocacy group.

“There’s a broad-based coalition,” Garcia said. “Everything is still in place to support a fractional sales tax.”

Georgia spends 40 cents per capita on the arts while Tennessee spends $1.33 per capita and Alabama spends $1.22 per capita.

One long-term observer of the local arts scene is Alicia Philipp, president of the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta.

“We desperately need a regional plan,” Philipp said of the new role of ARC. “I just worry that the arts will get lost at ARC. We all have got to be conscious that planning isn’t everything. We have got to have action.

“ARC’s support is critical because it can do the planning and bring governments to the table,” Philipp continued. “But we need to figure out how the business community can be actively engaged in the arts — especially if we are going to nurture our knowledge industries.”

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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