Don't let the spiky hair, the colorful tunics and the quirky eyewear fool you. Far from the capricious free spirits who float above the grimy quotidian world of commercial blood, sweat and tears, artists and art folk are a beleaguered, worry-plagued community.
Worry about money is par for the course in the arts, where it is often bureaucrats and corporate titans who seem to hold the purse strings when it comes to funding or not funding. Every day is a struggle. There's never enough.
But things appear to be taking a turn for the better. With so many studies suddenly recognizing that without exposure to the arts, students don't get into elite colleges, and that without a vibrant arts scene, a city's mojo suffers, the nonarts community is beginning to come around. Culture isn't just life-affirming, mind-expanding and ennobling; it can also get Brittany into Harvard and entice smart, ambitious people to move to your city. Ca-ching.
It is undeniable that with all the real and anticipated growth in the city with the Beltline and development of the Peachtree Corridor, the expansion of the High Museum and the forthcoming Santiago Calatrava-designed Atlanta Symphony Center, Atlanta has realized that, along with economic growth, it is necessary to grow the arts or risk becoming a podunk megamall. Because, let's be honest, most towns already have a Bed Bath & Beyond and a Wal-Mart, so why come to ours?
The need for events and institutions to bring people to Atlanta is something many Atlantans realized a long time ago when trying to lure friends from New York, Los Angeles or even Austin, Texas, to visit: The refrain inevitably was, "Whaddya got?" And the answer was not always great.
So maybe it's the promise of new beginnings that spring brings, but there have been some positive signs lately that Atlanta's art scene is seeing its fortunes increase with a rash of grants, awards and giving.
On March 21, Mayor Shirley Franklin convened a press conference to announce her Arts and Culture Funding Task Force's recommended formation of a Cultural Investment Fund that would award $10 million annually to fund the arts in the city. The money would most likely come from a percentage of a new or existing city tax. The city currently spends about $4 per citizen annually on the arts, and that figure would jump to $21.
Art Papers Editor in Chief Sylvie Fortin was at the press conference and is optimistic about both the city's recent arts growth and the mayor's commitment to that growth.
"I have complete faith in her," she says of Franklin.
The mayor didn't hesitate from one press conference attendee's question about implementing the fund: "When someone said, 'Who's going to do this?' she said, 'I will!'"
Evidence of change in Atlanta's orientation in thinking about the arts comes in smaller increments, too. After its 2006 exhibition was canceled when anticipated Fulton County funding fell through, the ambitious Art in Freedom Park project may live again. On March 19, Atlanta City Council passed a resolution acknowledging Freedom Park as an Atlanta Public Art Park, "for the purpose of introducing the arts to the citizens of the city of Atlanta."
AiFP founder Evan Levy is optimistic about "this major acknowledgment from the political structure that Atlanta has the capacity to rethink opportunities for cultural engagement."
And it's not only the beneficence of government that will make the city's art scene flourish.
Recently stepping up to the plate in that regard is the Charles Loridans Foundation, already an arts supporter in the city, which announced Feb. 26 the award of $15,000 and $10,000 grants to seven Atlanta artists.
"This is the first time we have given awards to individual artists," says Loridans Chairman Robert G. Edge. The group singled out both established and emerging artists for awards in a welcome gesture of encouraging new voices without forgetting the valuable contributions of pioneers.
Those awards come on top of the $200,000 the Loridans Foundation gave the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia to support a Working Artists Program benefiting three area artists: Don Cooper, Danielle Roney and Larry Walker.
It is also heartening to see smaller organizations doing their part to support the city's cultural fabric. For the past three years, the Atlanta Gallery Association has hosted a kind of "hurrah for us" audience-building series of events and openings. But this year, it's doing something different. At this spring's ATLart event (May 1-31), the AGA will donate some of its proceeds to Atlanta's public high school art programs.
The AGA's managing director, Lydia Ivanditti, says these programs "were an easy choice because their funds for art programs have been dramatically reduced and because it will cut across all lines of race, color, creed, etc. Everyone benefits."
Both the AGA and the Loridans Foundation commitment of funds to the city's schools and artists recognize a lack in our city's arts funding and make a bold effort to do something about it, in however small a way. It would be wonderful to see more of Atlanta's corporations and institutions take the same initiative.
That's because the arts may make good business sense and help kids get into better colleges. But the arts also have an inherent value worth noting. Without a growing arts scene, a city lacks something ephemeral that money can't buy: a soul.