Unlikely arts guru

Nigut's political past expected to help Regional Arts Alliance

With the continued GOP'ization of suburban Atlanta as a backdrop, it's easy to see what a canny move it was last week for the newly formed Atlanta Regional Arts & Culture Alliance to hire WSB/ Channel 2 veteran Bill Nigut as its first executive director.

As the area's best-known political reporter, Nigut is familiar to local office-holders and powerbrokers. For him, they're just a speed-dial away. He's a pitchman and cheerleader for the arts, and his on-camera authority and behind-the-camera connections to Atlanta's broadcast community are invaluable assets.

But the real genius in the choice of Nigut may lie, ironically, in his relative lack of arts credentials. While an unabashed promoter of the arts, he's never run a gallery or directed a dance troupe. Which means there's no way he'll be mistaken for that creature of conservative imagination, the snooty, public-trough-gorging cultural dilettante.

If that seems like a minor point, consider that the past two chairmen of the Fulton County Commission both wanted, at various points, to slash — or entirely abolish — county arts funding. Consider that, a decade ago, Cobb County actually did abolish arts grants for several years. Then consider that Nigut's long-term job description includes persuading local politicians to help sell a new regional tax to help support arts organizations.

Still serving out his remaining days at WSB, Nigut is understandably reluctant to discuss events that far in the future of his new position. But it must have weighed in the minds of the Alliance board members who selected him.

Instead, Nigut's initial task — beyond firming up his staff — will be to give the Alliance a strong voice, to establish the organization as "the arts umbrella group," as he puts it.

As far as the arts community itself is concerned, much of that work was done late last year, when Mayor Shirley Franklin lent her presence and clout to the Atlanta Regional Arts Force. An unprecedented effort by the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce to bring together top local business leaders and the chairmen of all five innermost metro counties, the task force spent eight weeks exploring ways to give the arts an ongoing boost.

The result was the creation of the Alliance, which initially will be funded out-of-pocket with $100,000 each in start-up money from the city of Atlanta, and Fulton, DeKalb, Cobb, Gwinnett and Clayton counties — and by a $750,000 grant from the Woodruff Foundation. The county chairmen and Franklin remain on the Alliance board, so Nigut, who also served on the task force, won't need to spend any time on introductions.

"My concern was that we'd get some great person from Houston or someplace, who'd take two years just getting to know people," says Sean Daniels, artistic director of Dad's Garage Theater, who's also an Alliance board member. "We don't have that kind of time."

What Daniels is alluding to — and fellow arts leaders are keenly aware of — is the worrisome financial slump in which many local arts groups find themselves. With charitable giving down and a Bush-whacked economy doing a number on ticket sales, many longtime arts groups are hanging on by their fingertips. Just in the past month, Jomandi Productions announced the cancellation of its already abbreviated fall season due to money woes.

As for Daniels, even a Graham Chapman script can't measure the level of surrealism he'll undoubtedly feel when he, a usually T-shirted smart-ass, sits down to breakfast this week with Atlanta Journal-Constitution Publisher Roger Kintzel to share thoughts on how to promote public arts awareness on a region-wide basis.

That fits with Nigut's short-term goal to "create buzz" for the arts, to convince people that cultural enrichment isn't just for tuxedoed operagoers or lefties in Birkenstocks. He's reaching out to local opinion leaders — "people who have the public ear, but who aren't often heard from on the subject of the arts" — to help him spread the word. But Nigut isn't counting on his old employer to give him free airtime.

"Folks may be hoping that I can open the door to newscast time, but WSB isn't about to run more arts stories," he says.