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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



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.

In the past 12 months, both the High Museum and the Alliance Theatre were forced to lay off employees. The Alliance and the Rialto Center have bled red ink lately, running up respective deficits of $1.8 million and $1.9 million — which could place their futures in doubt were it not for their affiliations with their deep-pocketed parent organizations — the Woodruff Arts Center and Georgia State University.

The Atlanta Ballet's new executive director is trying to figure out how to deal with a whopping $1.2 million debt. For nearly a decade, the troupe hadn't even carried a debt. While the 73-year-old company has engaged in preliminary talks about adoption by the Woodruff, that lifeline wouldn't be available for several years at best.

"I feel like a lot of arts organizations are hanging on by their fingernails," Selman warns.

That certainly sounds ominous, but what does it mean for the average theater- or museum-goer?

"If the economy goes on much longer, the next cuts you see would probably be in programming," says Kim Bitz, executive director of the Atlanta Coalition of Performing Arts, a membership-based support agency for the performing arts community.

For instance, groups may opt to cut their seasons short, schedule fewer performances or cancel shows altogether, a process that is already under way. Last year, the Contemporary had to put a costly exhibit on indefinite hold, while Jomandi Productions cancelled its planned staging of In the Blood by Suzan-Lori Parks — shortly after Parks won the Pulitzer Prize for drama.

We likewise could see shorter hours for museums or the elimination of community outreach programs. Ultimately, such cutbacks would limit our choices and restrict Atlanta's access to the arts.

Even more insidious would be the inevitable compromises in artistic risk-taking, as groups strive to put on tried-and-true productions in a bid to attract mainstream audiences. We could see more second-tier visiting artists, a decline in production values, smaller casts, more revival shows, less-edgy subject matter.

In short, there could come a day when we'll see lines around the High for The Art of NASCAR. Or how about a non-Equity production of Oh, Calcutta sponsored by the Pink Pony?

Such a trend might temporarily bolster the arts' bottom line, but it would offer few challenges for local patrons, discourage outside talent from settling here and send Atlanta's cultural reputation swirling down the crapper.

In their final stage of economic starvation, we presumably would see arts groups taking, as Ethel Merman sang, "that final bow." The city got a taste of that when the 44-year-old Arts Festival of Atlanta suddenly gave up the ghost out of a clear blue downtown sky five years ago. We may not need to wait that long to see the next example.

Despite riding a recent surge of interest in opera and having scant local competition, the Atlanta Opera cut loose many of its staffers this year, has racked up more than $800,000 in debt and tops the unofficial community watch list for troubled groups.

Many local arts groups resemble the wage earner who lives paycheck-to-paycheck: He seems to be doing OK until the day he lands in the hospital or needs a new transmission.

"We're scraping by," says Brian Newman, executive director of IMAGE Film & Video Center. "Like every nonprofit, we're one month from collapse and one month from greatness."

IMAGE has managed to avoid falling into the debt trap, he says, partly because of its steady income as a service provider to the local commercial film industry — and partly because, like other mid-sized nonprofits, it's become practiced at pinching a penny till Abe hollers.

Even November's much-heralded $2.5 million anonymous donation to the Metro Arts Fund is an emergency bailout that will serve only to return a few debt-ridden groups back to square one — which, as we've noted with regard to Atlanta, has never been that desirable a place to be.

For Atlanta's arts community to not just overcome the immediate financial crisis but to grow beyond its perennial also-ran status, what is needed — pardon the business jargon — is a radical paradigm shift. Throw out the status quo in favor of a new approach. Someone needs to give old Sisyphus a hand.

IMAGE's Newman and the Contemporary's Rob Smulian have met regularly to discuss just such a new approach: distant wedding plans for their respective organizations. The two arts groups have long been working on a proposal that would allow IMAGE to move into the Contemporary's complex off Marietta Street near Georgia Tech.

The marriage won't be cheap. The tab for the initial site-planning work, up to $100,000, has been covered by an anonymous gift. But there's also a feasibility study, moving expenses and legal fees for a pre-nup of sorts that will detail both groups' responsibilities.

And that's all prelude to the construction itself, whose price tag will be in the millions. The final cost ($2 million? $8 million?) will depend on the eventual site design, in turn to be determined by the ultimate success of a long-planned capital campaign, which is on hold until the economy does a 180 and happy days are here again.

In the long run, however, Smulian says, the planned "site collaboration" will provide many of the same benefits as do mergers in the corporate world: an economy of scale that comes with sharing a facility, opportunities to draw from each other's programming strengths, creating an enhanced public profile through cross-promotion.

Collaboration between arts organizations is a concept that's been picking up steam. Last year's most obvious example was the inaugural First Glance Atlanta, a two-week performing arts festival intended to showcase new work (albeit somewhat loosely defined) by more than 40 local dance and theater groups.

Although the fall event may not have provided the attendance boost some companies had hoped for, "I know it got people to go to multiple performances in a short period of time," says arts consultant Lisa Mount, who served as First Glance producer. Just as important, First Glance was able to attract top-flight corporate sponsorships, providing marketing money that might not be typically within the reach of individual theaters and dance troupes.

Foundations also are increasingly encouraging collaboration between what may otherwise be competing arts organizations. One provision of a much-heralded $1 million-plus Loridans/Trammell grant currently shared by 7 Stages, Theatrical Outfit, Actor's Express, Horizon Theatre and the New American Shakespeare Tavern is that their managing directors meet regularly to discuss common challenges.

"We believe it's essential for organizations to collaborate," says Lisa Cremin, executive director of Metropolitan Atlanta Arts Fund, which has invited local arts groups to team up in applying for annual grants.

The Arthur Blank Foundation went a step further last year, making an entire cycle of national grants available only to collaborative efforts between nonprofit groups.

Even small-scale collaborations are proving fruitful. The Zoetic Dance Ensemble, for instance, was named best arts group at this year's Abby Awards, a huge victory for a troupe so young and small. The dance group's relationships with Dad's Garage Theatre and Eyedrum gallery have allowed it to borrow performance space in which to be noticed.

For all its anticipated rewards, however, collaboration is but a small part of the equation to elevate the arts in Atlanta, especially given the current state of the economy. It's a bit like clipping coupons: Every little bit helps, but if you can't make rent, you're still out on the street.

To be fair, the city has had many recent success stories, most notably the growing national reputation of Atlanta's active theater scene. Actor's Express suffered no decline in its strong work after founding director Chris Coleman was replaced by Wier Harman. The Shakespeare Tavern managed to carry off a stunning site renovation while building a loyal following. Work is scheduled to begin soon on a dedicated venue for the revived Theatrical Outfit next door to its temporary digs at the Rialto Center. The Atlanta Symphony, purring along under new maestro Robert Spano, is on track to see the completion of a world-class performance center in 2008. And ground already has been broken for the High's ambitious $130 million expansion.

But then there are those pesky two steps back. Exhibit A: Wier Harmon has already decided to skeedaddle. Exhibit B: Jomandi, the premiere African-American theater group in a mostly black city, is on life support following a year of canceled productions, administrative turmoil and disappointing box office returns.

The dark lining in the silver cloud of success can be seen at IMAGE. The film and video center has succeeded at building the annual Atlanta Film Festival into a major event on the national festival calendar with attendance topping 14,000. At the same time, its staff went without heat for several winters because the group couldn't afford a new furnace for its drafty offices in the basement of the Tula Art Center.

So it goes with the eternal struggle. But wait. What if someone handed Sisyphus the keys to a front-end loader? He could use the extra horsepower to haul his metaphorical burden uphill, park that puppy on the peak and get on with his business.

Enter the 37 top-tier corporate executives, penthouse lawyers, clout-wielding local politicians and handpicked arts leaders who make up the volunteer Atlanta Regional Arts Task Force. It represents one of the most impressive concentrations of Atlanta talent ever assembled to tackle a single community issue.

By mid-November, when it held its sixth and final meeting, the Task Force had dispelled any doubts that it was just another blue-ribbon panel that would spit out just another Arts Blueprint, submit its expense sheets and scatter off to boardrooms around the city.

Although the Task Force didn't actually do anything, in the classic, legislative sense, even avowed skeptics admit that the wheels seem to be in motion for big changes that could transform the state of the arts in the Atlanta region.

Just last month, arts consultant Elisa Glazer was forced to issue the heavy news that Georgia Citizens for the Arts — the state's largest arts advocacy and lobbying group, whose board she chaired — had folded due to lack of funds. Still, she's optimistic about the Task Force's lasting impact.

"It's a group of people who've never come together before," she says. "In other cities, that's resulted in a different profile for the arts."

That shift in how the arts are perceived has doubtlessly already begun. As awe-inspiring as it was to behold that much Type-A energy in one room, it's what happens after all those muckety-mucks go back to the office that counts.

Support for the arts has never been a top concern of Corporate Atlanta, but the Task Force has the influence to shift that paradigm — in no small part because Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin is leading the effort.

Her city may be flat broke, but Franklin — whose first government job was running the Bureau of Cultural Affairs — ardently makes the point that local investment in the arts is an essential tool in rebuilding Atlanta's fortunes.

"The arts have enriched my life and my family's life," she says. "People want to live in a community that's enriching."

Franklin will likewise be on board this year when the Task Force morphs into an ongoing "leadership alliance," whose first order of business will be to find private donations to staff and fund a new arts advocacy agency.

The Performing Arts Coalition's Bitz has yet to be convinced that another arts-support entity is needed, especially since many of its duties — operating a region-wide arts ticketing system, providing artist networking opportunities — would overlap with those of his and other groups.

But he concedes that the as-yet unnamed new agency will have as a birthright two things that many such groups have spent years trying to capture: the ear of the local business establishment and the backing of the mayor.

"Atlanta's problem has always been the lack of arts leadership from outside the arts community," he says.

The arts leadership alliance also will guide and fund high-profile marketing campaigns to raise public awareness of regional arts offerings. Already, offers of in-kind support, corporate donations and loaned executives — as well as resumes — have been flowing in.

The keys to that front-end loader, however, are arguably being ground at this very moment somewhere in the bowels of GSU's Andrew Young School of Policy Studies. When it's released later this year, a privately funded study will recommend what form of tax- or fee-based arts-funding system would best suit Atlanta.

Would it be a special taxing district, like the one that last year delivered $37 million to more than 300 cultural institutions across metro Denver? Or a United Way funding model, like that used in Charlotte? Maybe we'd copy South Florida, which imposed a "culture tax" on video rentals and CD sales?

Atlanta is one of the few major U.S. cities that hasn't adopted some form of dedicated public funding source for the arts. It would entail a political battle, to be sure. But if there's any group that can sell such a plan to regional voters, it would be Franklin and her fellow movers-and-shakers on the Task Force.

If the arts community can hang on a while longer, there could be a break in the clouds.

scott.henry@creativeloafing.com

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Current ?financial status of select arts organizations
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Actor’s ?Express
?Est. 1988
?Employees: 6?
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? ?
? ?Annual operating budget
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$679,000??
?
? ?
? ?Debt
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$30,000??
?
? ?
? ?Income sources
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Earned: 58%
?Corporate sponsors: 8%
?Government grants: 9%
?Foundations: 15%
?Individual donations: 10%???
?
Alliance ?Theatre
?Company

?Est. 1965
?Employees: 80
?
$11.8 ?million
?
$1.8 ?million
?
Earned: ?49%
?Corporate sponsors: 24%
?Foundations: 4%
?Government grants: 2%
?Individual donations: 14%
?In-kind services: 7%
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Atlanta ?Ballet
?Est. 1929
?Employees: 49 year-round;
?141 hourly/contracted
?
$7 ?million
?
$1.2 ?million
?
Earned: ?58%
?Corporate sponsors: 4%
?Endowment: 2%
?Foundations: 8%
?Government grants: 3%
?Individual donations: 11%
?In-kind: 9%
?Special events: 5%
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?
Atlanta ?Contemporary
?Art Center

?Est. 1973
?Employees: 7
?
$674,000
?
$148,000
?
Earned: ?18%
?Corporate sponsors: 15%
?Foundations: 32%
?Government grants: 14%
?Individual donations: 21%
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The ?Atlanta Opera
?Est. 1979
?Employees: 25
?
$5.5 ?million
?
$822,000
?
Earned: ?53.9%
?Corporate: 4.2%
?Foundation: 8.5%
?Government Grants: 3.5%
?Fundraising events: 6%
?Auxiliary Organization (Friends): 0.5%
?Individual donations: 23.4%
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Center ?for Puppetry Arts
?Est. 1978
?Employees: 53.5
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$2.7 ?million
?
$465,000
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Earned: ?55%
?Cash reserve/endowment interest: 4%
?Corporate/Foundation/NGOs: 19%
?Government grants: 8%
?Individual donations: 14%
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Dad’s ?Garage Theatre Company
?Est. 1995
?Employees: 6
?
$600,000
?
0
?
Earned: ?70%
?Corporate sponsorship: 5%
?Foundation support: 11%
?Government grants: 4%
?Individual donations: 10%
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Georgia ?Shakespeare
?Festival

?Est. 1985
?Employees: 10 off-season,
?80-90 in summer
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$1.3 ?million
?
$90,000
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Earned: ?41%
?Corporate/Foundation sponsorship: 16%
?Government grants: 3%
?Fundraising/In-kind events: 15%
?Individual donations: 25%
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High ?Museum of Art
?Est. 1926
?Employees: 142.5
?
$18.95 ?million
?
0
?
Earned: ?41%
?Allocation from Woodruff Arts Center: 17%
?Contributions: 30%
?Endowment: 12%
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Horizon ?Theatre Company
?Est. 1983
?Employees: 15
?
$1 ?million
?
0
?
Earned: ?55-70%
?Corporate sponsors: 1-2%
?Foundations: 9-11%
?Government grants: 7-8%
?Individual donations: 7-9%
?Special Events: 7-9%
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IMAGE ?Film & Video Center
?Est. 1977
?Employees: 5
?
$866,000
?
0
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Earned: ?48%
?Corporate sponsors: 19%
?Foundations: 10%
?Government grants: 18%
?Individual donations: 5%
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7 ?Stages
?Est. 1979
?Employees: 8

?
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$800,000
?
$25,000
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Earned: ?40%
?Corporate sponsors: 6%
?Foundation: 31%
?Fundraisers: 2%
?Government grants: 19%
?Individual giving: 2%
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Theatre ?in the Square
?Est. 1982
?Employees: 14
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$1.4 ?million
?
0
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Earned: ?82.8%
?Corporate sponsors: 2.5%
?Government grants: 7.5%
?Individual donations: 7.2%
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Theatrical ?Outfit
?Est. 1976
?Employees: 4
?
Just ?under $700,000
?
0
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Earned: ?30%
?Corporate sponsors: 12%
?Foundations: 24%
?Government grants: 4%
?Individual donations: 30%
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Sources: ?Information provided by individual organizations. The number of employees ?is based on full-time equivalent. Atlanta Symphony Orchestra did not provide ?information. Compiled by Steven Sloan
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