By Maria Saporta and Dave Williams
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed is seeking state approval to create a dedicated funding source for arts and culture.
Reed said Tuesday the city of Atlanta will ask the General Assembly to authorize a referendum to raise the sales tax by one-tenth of a penny to provide a permanent source of arts funding.
In an exclusive editorial board meeting with Atlanta Business Chronicle, Reed said Atlanta’s arts organizations – particularly the smaller nonprofits – perennially struggle to stay afloat because they don’t have a steady source of funding. He described some of them as being on “life support” and in need of public funding.
“What Atlanta needs to become the city we want to become is a source of funding for the arts that comes every year no matter what,” the mayor said. “Everybody has been talking about arts funding for at least 15 years.”
Virginia Hepner, president and CEO of the Woodruff Arts Center, has been working with the city of Atlanta on the arts funding plan.
“I am thrilled with this possibility and delighted that the mayor is focused on support for the arts,” Hepner said through a spokesman on Tuesday afternoon. “It’s exciting because by using just a sliver of public funding, we can leverage the massive private investment that’s already been made to build arts and culture organizations over the years. It will help sustain many deserving arts and culture organizations across our whole community.
Atlanta has the leeway to increase the sales tax because the transportation sales tax referendum city voters approved overwhelmingly last November will increase sales taxes four-tenths of a cent. If voters agree to another one-tenth of a penny, Atlanta’s sales tax would increase to 9 percent.
“Let’s put it up for a vote on the November ballot,” Reed said. “Everything we have done in this space, we have gone to the voters for voter approval.”
Reed said the legislation will be modeled after an arts tax in Denver that is bringing more than $50 million a year into arts organizations in the Colorado capital’s metro region. The Denver arts and cultural tax first passed in 1988, and it was renewed in 2016 by voters in the seven-county region to last until 2030.
“While this won’t be metro wide, it will be that beginning,” Reed said. “We are satisfying a problem that we have not had the means to solve.”
If approved, the Atlanta arts funding proposal would raise an estimated $10 million to $15 million annually, he said.
The tax would help bolster the arts and cultural economy in Atlanta, which the mayor said is a growing part of the city’s workforce. He said the number of people working in creative fields in the Atlanta region will total about 100,000.
Meanwhile, the mayor said his administration has already been supportive of the arts. “We have doubled our arts funding in the city of Atlanta,” he said, adding that the city also has made a $1 million contribution to the Woodruff Arts Center for its recent $110 million campaign.
The proposed legislation to ask for the referendum to go before voters in November would coincide with Atlanta’s mayoral and city council elections.
“I really want to see the politicians who are against funding for the arts,” Reed said.
Dave Williams covers state and local government for the Atlanta Business Chronicle