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Mind the gap

The Woodruff Arts Center's $320 million endowment practically guarantees the success of some arts institutions in Atlanta. But what about the others?

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The evening of the performance, a breast slipped out from beneath a tunic and the dancer danced on. When the tardy Maus arrived, shocked patrons were storming out.

Outraged letters followed to newspapers and the Corporation for Olympic Development in Atlanta; when Maus visited a CODA official a few days later, he was told the Mexican breast incident had put the Cultural Olympiad in a tight spot. "You know, I could lose my job over this," the man complained. Maus recalls that when he realized the bureaucrat was serious, he exploded with indignation. "I said, 'If you think this is a real problem, then you deserve to lose your job!' "

Ask Maus what is holding Atlanta back from taking its place among the nation's great cultural capitals and he'll place much of the blame on those who control the purse strings and approve programming choices for the city's largest arts organizations kowtowing to those with too-conservative mindsets.

Too Euro-centric; too safe to support anything particularly daring or potentially shocking; too caught up in catering to the same shrinking group of aging, conservative patrons. They're the same reasons he says he quit the board of the directors of the High Museum a few years ago.

"The powers that be believe Atlanta audiences are unsophisticated," he says. "After a while, you start becoming depressed, thinking, 'My God, is Atlanta never going to go beyond what it's done for the last 20 years?' We have a fantastic potential we're not taking advantage of."

Over the last few years, the city's arts scene has seemed to be in a Wile E. Coyote free-fall: As the Olympics left town, it was clear that, in the international imagination, Barcelona compares to Atlanta in much the same way that Picasso's "Guernica" compares to the Poker-Playing Dogs. Our own biggest arts festival died a pitiful death after 44 years of steady growth when it made the risky jump downtown from Piedmont Park. Atlanta's other multi-disciplinary event with a national profile, the National Black Arts Festival, continues its ongoing struggle to stay afloat.

And, of course, our talent exodus hit a well-publicized fever pitch as we lost arts leaders faster than crucial pennant games: Chris Coleman of Actor's Express, High Museum Director Ned Rifkin, Alliance Theatre's Kenny Leon, Fulton County's Sanford and, in a particularly rancorous departure, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra maestro Yoel Levi. It's well known that several of them criticized their former adopted city for its stinginess in supporting the arts as they headed out the door, apparently happy to firebomb that bridge behind them.

For the most part, however, their replacements have invigorated the Atlanta arts scene with the promise of new ideas and energy. And the city beat all expectations when four local artists were chosen for the prestigious Whitney Biennial in New York. Other events on the horizon offer similar hope: next year's opening of the new Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia, a $200 million symphony hall planned for Midtown, Theatrical Outfit's plans to overhaul its space.

Still, closing the arts gap demands a change in how the arts community raises money.

"While I think well of Atlanta audiences, its arts leaders haven't really learned how to reach outside the obvious channels for money," Sanford says. "They all go after the same darn people."

In fact, says Brooks, the ex-GSU professor, the ultimate answer isn't to be found in big corporations but in big-hearted arts lovers with big bank accounts. "Atlanta is obsessed with corporate philanthropy, but the low-hanging fruit is private philanthropy," he says. His research has shown that while corporate donations account for a mere 4 percent of all nonprofit funds raised nationally, they add up to nearly one-third of charitable giving in Atlanta.

That isn't because Atlanta companies are more generous than elsewhere, but because local individual donors haven't learned how to open their checkbooks, Brooks says.

Make no mistake: The money's out there, as evidenced two weeks ago when Home Depot tycoon Bernie Marcus splashed down $200 million to buy Georgia a jumbo-size aquarium. Imagine what a consortium of small arts groups could do with manna from heaven like that if they'd gotten to Marcus first. Of course, it doesn't work by coercion or the hard sell by those with the outstretched hands. World-class philanthropic leadership is more spontaneous, less predictable because it starts with the giver, not the receiver. It's a Robert Woodruff being moved to support the shared passion of a group of hometown folk killed in a plane crash or a Ted Turner wanting to spend a cool billion to help the world or a Bernie Marcus deciding his adopted city needs a tourism boost that doesn't involve luxury skyboxes.

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