Update: Georgia Senate Appropriations Committee restored funding for the Georgia Council for the Arts on Tuesday. The budget now has to be approved by the full Senate and by the House-Senate conference committee before going to Gov. Sonny Perdue for his signature.
“Georgia is in a race for the bottom.”
So said a community leader during a panel discussion this past week.
Although the topic of the discussion was not the arts, it might as well have been.
Last week, the Georgia House of Representatives passed a $17.8 billion state budget that would totally eliminate the Georgia Council for the Arts. That would give Georgia the dubious distinction of being the only state in the country without a council for the arts.
“It’s an embarrassment,” said Carol Tomé, Home Depot’s chief financial officer and past chair of the Metropolitan Atlanta Arts Fund. “Arts enrich our communities.”
It’s not as though Georgia had bragging rights before the proposed elimination of the Georgia Council for the Arts. The council’s annual budget has been $2.52 million, which put Georgia 47th among the 50 states in per capital spending for the arts. In his budget, Gov. Sonny Perdue had proposed cutting that budget to $890,735.
Yes, Georgia is in a race for the bottom. We apparently have not been satisfied by ranking 47th. We want to be dead last.
What’s worse is that if the House budget goes through and the council is eliminated, the National Endowment for the Arts has sent a letter saying that Georgia stands to lose nearly $900,000 in federal arts funding.
It’s not too late. The budget now is in the hands of the Senate and later it will be forwarded to the governor. The misguided move to eliminate the council can still be reversed.
The arts community is doing all it can to keep Georgia from hitting rock bottom. A grassroots campaign to reach legislators is underway, and demonstrations and marches also are being planned.
Flora Maria Garcia, CEO of the Metro Atlanta Arts & Culture Coalition, said the elimination of the arts council could be devastating, not just in big cities but throughout the state.
Arts organizations in small rural counties that have little access to funding would be the ones hurt the most by this,” Garcia said, adding that much of the council’s funding goes towards arts education programs. “It’s not very much money, but the impact is huge.”
Garcia’s predecessor, Bill Nigut, said there’s a disconnect.
“Clearly the problem is that no one seems to be able to make the case on the importance of the arts to the legislature,” Nigut said. “They continue to not understand that this is important for our economy.”
Penelope McPhee, president of the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, said the council is an essential element to Georgia’s future.
“If Georgia is going to be a great state, we need to have great arts throughout,” she said. “The arts need state funding, local public funding and local private funding.”
Camille Love, executive director of the City of Atlanta’s Office of Cultural Affairs, was a bit more blunt.
“It is unfortunate that the legislature has not learned the value of arts and culture, especially in education,” Love said. “How ignorant do they want us to be? How under-exposed do they want Georgia to be?”
It was a common refrain among art lovers.
“I can’t even believe it’s a possibility,” said Tom Key, the Theatrical Outfit’s executive artistic director, about the possible elimination of the council. “If we want to take a step forward for young people and their education and for the state’s economic development for the future, we have got to sustain and hold on to the Georgia Council for the Arts.”
Ken Bernhardt, the new chair of the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau who is a marketing professor at Georgia State University’s business school, said he appreciates the state’s financial squeeze and can understand the need to temporarily cut the council’s funding.
But Bernhardt said that eliminating the council would be a “disaster” for Georgia.
“It just screams the wrong message to the rest of the world,” Bernhardt said. “The arts are very important in attracting companies to move to Georgia. To be the only state in the country without an arts council, then other states would use that against us.”
Consider the facts. If we eliminate the council, we would lose $900,000 in federal funds, we would hurt the education of our children, we would damage our economic development efforts, we could destroy several struggling arts organization, and we would reaffirm our national reputation as a backwards state.
Coincidentally, while state legislators are considering cutting out the Georgia Council for the Arts, they also are weighing an excellent piece of legislation that could be a significant boost for the arts.
The proposed legislation would permit each county to pass up to a penny sales tax that could be used for the arts as well as other economic development and quality of life initiatives.
It would be the first time counties in Georgia could split a penny sales tax for a multitude of initiatives and would give each county tremendous flexibility on how to invest the revenue.
But Garcia said that if such legislation were to pass, it could not take the place of the Georgia Council for the Arts.
“It is not an either or situation,” she said. “These are two completely different ways to support the arts in Georgia.”
Although the sales tax legislation has strong bipartisan support, the bill has had its ups and downs working its way through the legislature.
“We are still very committed to moving this legislation forward,” Garcia said. “We have been very pleased with the bipartisan level of support that we are getting for this legislation. The reception has been very positive.”
Georgia has a choice on what kind of state it wants to be.
Will it be a state in a race for the top? Or will it be a state in a race for the bottom?
Let’s hope we make the right choice.