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Arts funding ends on high note

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A funny thing happened on the way to 2003 becoming the annus horribilis that many had predicted for the arts community following the post-9-11 donor slump.

The year actually turned out not to be half-bad. Charitable giving still has not fully recovered overall; a study last year by Epsilon and Barna Research Group, an association of fundraising professionals, found that people are more distrustful than ever about how nonprofits spend money. But one anonymous donor with deep pockets helped support -- and in some cases, save -- dozens of local arts groups in 2003.

Last December, when the Metropolitan Atlanta Arts Fund received a $2.5 million check from the mysterious "Kendeda Fund," it quickly shelled out $1.5 million of that windfall to eight of the largest independent arts groups, including the struggling Atlanta Opera and Atlanta Ballet. This spring, another $1 million was doled out to 28 medium-sized and small organizations inside and outside the Perimeter, from the seat-of-the-pants 7 Stages to the growing Gwinnett Philharmonic.

In past years, the Metro Arts Fund has handed out about $300,000 to fewer than 10 groups. So far, only one of its 2003 beneficiaries appears to remain in critical condition: Plagued by personnel problems, New Jomandi Productions cancelled its current theater season.

And, only two weeks ago, the teetering Atlanta Contemporary Arts Center received $220,000 from an anonymous donor. A Contemporary spokesman says the money will be used to eliminate the center's outstanding debt, create a cash reserve and for repairs to its building complex.

The surprise windfall arrived on top of a $150,000 gift for debt reduction from the Metro Arts Fund and a $110,000 Warhol Foundation grant, turning 2003 into a good year for the Contemporary.

This year was surprisingly strong in terms of public funding for the arts as well. Despite the departure of Executive Director Betsy Baker, the Georgia Council for the Arts managed to increase its statewide grant program to $3.5 million, announced last summer, up from the $2.5 million it gave out a year earlier.

Likewise, the Fulton County Arts Council was able to maintain its level of annual funding at $3.4 million, only a year after Commission Chairman Mike Kenn had attempted to slash arts grants. (Kenn's resignation came as good news for Fulton arts fans this year.)

But, as in late 2002, the big news in the arts community is the ongoing formation of the Atlanta Regional Arts & Culture Leadership Alliance. The new organization grew out of an initiative spearheaded by Mayor Shirley Franklin and the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce to bring together the elected leaders of the five central metro counties in support of the region's cultural offerings. With former WSB political reporter Bill Nigut as director and a still-forming 20-member board boasting top elected officials and business leaders, the alliance is positioned to be the region's pre-eminent arts advocacy organization. Its mission includes raising public arts awareness, coordinating arts education and helping promote cultural events.

Down the line, the alliance's biggest challenge will be to push for the adoption of a new dedicated tax to generate funds to support local arts groups. But that's a story for another year.

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