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No quick fixes

Help could be on the way for Atlanta's ailing arts community -- and it won't be a moment too soon updated 01-09-2003

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Picture Sisyphus, if you will, the archetypal ever-struggling schmoe from Greek mythology, endlessly re-rolling that rock up the hill. Hey, it's a living.

Out of nowhere, comes a cloudburst. Not only is his effort futile, but now his grip is slipping, he can't see his destination and he finds his sandals sinking deeper into the hungry red clay.

The Atlanta arts community can be forgiven if it collectively feels that it has pushed and strained uphill, only to look around and realize what meager progress it's made -- in attracting new audiences, in affecting public tastes, in raising community awareness of cultural offerings, in reaching a reasonable level of financial stability.

"In Atlanta, it's always been three steps forward, two steps back, where the arts are concerned," says Louise Shaw, an independent arts consultant and former director of what is now the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center.

Then came the fiscal monsoon of the past year-and-a-half. A listless economy, 9-11 and the Wall Street bubble-burst took an especially brutal toll on philanthropies, corporate giving and individual donations. Since entertainment spending typically is one of the first victims of a queasy economy, ticket sales slumped as well.

Now, just as the arts community staggers out of its rottenest year in recent memory, 2003 looks to bring more bad news: governmental belt-tightening. Last year, the Fulton County Arts Council awarded $3.4 million to local arts groups, making it the largest public grant maker in the state of Georgia, including the state of Georgia. But Fulton Commission Chairman Mike Kenn proposed cutting its allocation to the Arts Council this year by $1 million. An 11th hour reprieve came Jan. 8. Following the final public hearing on its proposed budget for 2003-2004, the County Commission voted 4-3 to recommend restoring the proposed cut. Although that's not a guarantee, indications are that when the final budget is approved Jan. 15, it will contain an allocation of $3.4 million for the Arts Council.

Cutbacks also are likely for other counties, as well as the state. In a mid-2002 decree, Gov. Roy Barnes ordered all departments to trim their budgets by 5 percent. Although Barnes promised to double the $4 million state arts budget once the economy improves, that promise leaves office with him next week. The early, unofficial word is that Governor-elect Sonny Perdue is eyeing an 11-percent drop in arts spending this year.

Well, you may ask, so what? These are hard times for everyone. Fulton County's got to cut $20 million in spending, so why shouldn't the arts be expected to make sacrifices as well? Besides, what about the concept of thinning the herd? If the economy causes a handful of theaters to go under, wouldn't the survivors be better off?

The truth is, worrying about whether the Atlanta arts community is enjoying a free ride at public expense is a little like getting one's knickers in a wad over all the lucky duckies living hand-to-mouth who aren't paying enough in taxes.

Put simply, with the exception of the well-heeled Woodruff Arts Center, local arts groups have long been living on Tobacco Road. Georgia already ranks 44th in the nation in per-capita state arts funding. And that's after years of growth in the state budget -- growth that wasn't shared with Georgia arts groups, says Jan Selman, chairwoman of the Georgia Council for the Arts.

Historically, support for cultural causes in Atlanta has been as shallow as the Chattahoochee River during a summer heat wave -- and that goes both for the masses and the monied classes. This may be a booster city, but the arts have never ranked high on the list of local priorities, as it does in many other large cities.

That's how such a prominent organization as the Contemporary can get into dire financial straits -- its current debt stands at a worrisome $148,000 -- after a year of watching some of its private grants wither away.

The notion that weeding out weaker groups might somehow bolster the arts scene as a whole is even more flawed. Half the small, neighborhood theaters in metro Atlanta could shutter tomorrow, and it's difficult to imagine how that might benefit larger theaters like 7 Stages or Actor's Express. In defiance of Darwinian theory, these two groups can notch one artistic triumph after another, yet still struggle to make ends meet. Actor's Express revealed last year that if its run of Company had not been a moneymaker, the critically lauded theater would have gone belly up.

Instead of being held back by a glass ceiling, the Atlanta arts community has spent decades trying to avoid falling through rotten floorboards.

While the current economic malaise has served to underscore the terrible fragility of the Atlanta arts community, the leading victims may surprise you. It's the mid- to large-sized groups that may be hurting most, Selman says, because of their hefty payrolls, long-term programming commitments and higher production values.

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