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Artful dodgers

In tough times, museum patrons are hard to find

It was the best of times, then, in rapid succession, it was the worst of times. That's been the last two years in a nutshell for the Contemporary Arts Center of Atlanta.

The nonprofit gallery and studio complex notched its best year ever in 2000, taking in a best-ever $820,000 in revenues. Then the recession crept in, the economy began sliding into the crapper, terrorists toppled the World Trade Center, anthrax samples started arriving by mail, our Air Force launched a large-scale landscaping makeover in Afghanistan ...

Last week, the Contemporary was forced to lay off two employees and restructure its small remaining staff in the teeth of a financial slump that is hitting many local arts organizations hard and shows no sign of immediate improvement.

The 29-year-old arts center also has decided to put off a planned exhibit of terrain photographs that was to open later this month, in order to avoid the cost of bringing the various artworks to Atlanta. In its place, a show by local artists is being planned. The Contemporary likewise won't be importing lecturers from out of town for the time being, but will rely on homegrown talent to keep costs down.

"For a period, you think, 'Well, we've got to work harder and do better,' but then you realize you've got to make some changes on the expense side," explains Director Sam Gappmeyer.

The first bit of misfortune beyond the center's control was the failure of the annual Coke grant to materialize, understandably because of that company's own troubles.

"Coke has been very good to us," Gappmeyer says. "Historically, they've given us $25,000 a year, but we didn't get a grant from them in 2001."

While last year's economic downtown and the events of Sept. 11 and after still are taking their toll on retailers large and small, the tough times are especially hard for visual arts organizations, which typically depend more on contributions for their operating budgets than on box-office receipts or concessions sales.

Last month, the High Museum cut 19 mostly lower-level employees and is reportedly scaling back some programming budgets, even as it's planning a major expansion of gallery space on the Woodruff Arts Center campus.

The Hammonds House museum of African-American art was forced to delay creating a new job — ironically, a fund-raising position — it had expected to add last month, says Director Edward Spriggs. He's also had to limit overtime hours for his full-time staff of three. The museum's operating plan actually envisions five employees.

"We were feeling a crunch before the recession hit," says Spriggs, who did away with the organization's newsletter last spring to cut costs. The museum typically receives 60 percent of its annual operating budget directly from Fulton County, which has its own financial woes.

Spriggs says he's noticed that many corporations have rethought their contributions since Sept. 11, gearing funding toward kids' programs and education rather than subsidizing exhibitions. When belts are tightened, "visual arts is seen as a frill," he says.

Even some performing arts groups are suffering. Del Hamilton, founding director of the Seven Stages, says he and his board decided not to launch its annual fall fund drive following Sept. 11.

"We haven't come to an agreement over how to ask our supporters for money — it just didn't seem appropriate then," he explains. The group will be forced, however, to find an acceptable approach very soon if plans to stay afloat, although, as Hamilton says matter-of-factly, "We're not expecting fruitful results."

In its last fiscal year, which ended in June, the celebrated theater collected between $25,000 to $30,000 in individual contributions, he estimates. Six months into its current fiscal year, the group has received less than $4,000. That's bad news for a theater specializing in edgier work that doesn't pull in huge crowds.

So far, Hamilton's cut one part-time job, trimmed hours for other positions, but has hung on to his six full-time staffers. Rather than skimp on programming, Seven Stages' response will be to do more work in hopes of earning more off ticket sales and will be relying heavily on dedicated volunteers to help pull the theater through the rough patch.

"The situation is dire, but it's been dire in the past," says the stoic Hamilton.??