Don't Support The Arts: How To Fix Atlanta’s Talent Bleed
Atlanta has always been a city in flux; a hub for change and transition. From post-Civil War reconstruction to the civil rights movement to the world’s busiest airport, Atlanta–for better or worse–moves forward. This desire for constant progress is often at odds with the desire to maintain our heritage, culture, and history.
This push and pull create a dissonance between individualism and collectivism: historic architecture is demolished to make way for cookie-cutter luxury developments that end up sitting unoccupied, unaffordable to most residents. We preference cars instead of public transit, making way for some of the worst traffic in the country. In Atlanta’s constant struggle between capital and people, capital usually wins.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
The hierarchy of “stuff” over “folks” goes on and on, and includes the creative industries colloquially referred to as “The Arts.” When someone says, “I support The Arts,” what does that actually mean? Usually, it means they are an appreciator and consumer of the creative output of artists. They go to the symphony, the ballet, a museum, they see a play, watch a film, read a book, or they go to a gallery opening, maybe (rarely) buy some art. Or, it could mean that they write a check to an arts organization to support The Arts, perhaps, not knowing where else to turn, donating to whichever institution is the largest and most visible, leaving small and midsized organizations struggling. Rarely does it involve supporting artists and their creative labor directly.
Atlanta loves the new and novel, and this carries over into The Arts. There are several granting and professional development programs and organizations for emerging artists, but once you reach a certain point in your career, support dries up. At this point, many artists are faced with a dilemma: stay and stagnate, or leave and elevate. You don’t “Make It” in Atlanta until you make it somewhere else (preferably NYC or LA).
This trend plays out across all creative mediums from fine art to film to dance to you-name-it. Atlanta excels at planting and nurturing the seeds of artistic talent, but as that seed grows and matures, we get bored with subtlety, nuance, and slowness, and look for the next shiny new thing that’s bold, exciting, and immediate. So artists leave, and we have a discernible mid-career gap in the ladder to success, which affects the entire cultural ecosystem. We lack the plethora of established, successful artists who can send the elevator back down, so to speak. By bleeding our homegrown talent to other cities, we do ourselves a great disservice. That’s why I say,
Don’t Support The Arts.
Invest In Artists.
To fill in those missing rungs on the ladder, we need to give our artists room to grow and develop, free from commercial restraints. When your primary focus is survival, there’s little room for growth, experimentation or risk-taking. Instead, artists may self-mitigate toward doing what sells, or what might get them the next $1,000 grant as they hustle from day job to day job. The result is a vicious cycle of mistrust between artists and arts funders. Artists can’t get the support they need to create their best work, so funders don’t feel like the work is up to par, so they don’t invest, so artists can’t make their best work–rinse and repeat ad nauseam.
We need to support our artists with resources, connections, and ultimately, financial investment, regardless of what they produce or don’t produce. We need a holistic approach to shift the focus from passive cultural consumption to active cultural investment and patronage without exclusionary gatekeeping and institutionalized bias. The positive aggregate benefits of a thriving cultural ecosystem extend into every nook and cranny of society. To achieve this, we need an innovative new approach that centers on artists, not just the stuff they make.
For the past several years, I’ve been working with PushPush Film and Theater to develop Seedworks, Atlanta’s first Agile Arts Lab. Seedworks is an NEA-funded, artist-driven process that combines the best aspects of a think tank, a non-profit arts incubator, a for-profit tech accelerator, an investment club, a resource network, and a public programming venue to create a self-reinforcing system designed for creative success.
While investing in actual artists, we are also accomplishing a desperately needed goal: to create a leadership/mentor class of mid- and advanced-level creatives. Sending these experienced people away just when they are most able to initiate, lead, and connect projects that provide work and training to those coming up through the ranks is a bad business policy. “Churn” is costly and retards growth. By investing in our advanced leaders, we create work for others, content for our city, and our best way to attract and showcase Atlanta’s cultural future.
Seedworks has been tested in seven cities with hundreds of artists and has proven to work. Now, we’re bringing the process back to Atlanta as a three-month to three-year Alpha program that’s free for anyone to take advantage of for a limited time. All you have to do to join is have a project you want to move forward, and a desire to participate and learn as you go. Join our Seedworks Facebook group to continue the conversation and for info on when the next meeting will be. Got a project you want to put through Seedworks or questions about how to get involved? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.