Big MAACC Attack

Re-evaluation, redirection ahead for Bill Nigut's arts group

A year ago, Hormuz Minina made a trek familiar to anyone who's toiled in the hand-to-mouth world of small, nonprofit arts organizations.

As chairman of the board of Eyedrum, the avant-garde art and music collective on the edge of downtown, Minina often visits people who could lend assistance to his hardscrabble group. On this occasion, it was Bill Nigut, the former WSB-TV political-reporter-turned-arts-advocate who heads the Metropolitan Atlanta Arts and Culture Coalition.

Minina told Nigut that, in order for Eyedrum to grow, it needed to hire a full-time administrator to oversee the more than 300 art openings, video screenings and live shows the all-volunteer center hosts each year. But that's not possible, Minina explained, for a group whose entire annual operating budget, not counting rent, is under $15,000.

"What you need is a champion, and I will help find you one," Minina recalls being told. He left the meeting encouraged, expecting a follow-up call — ideally to arrange a meeting with a potential patron.

A year later, Minina says he still hasn't gotten that call. Nor, he says, has he seen much evidence of the support that MAACC claims to provide to the community of perpetually struggling arts organizations across metro Atlanta.

"What has MAACC done with their money?" Minina asks. "They've done studies and they have a website, but what's come of it?"

Minina isn't the only local arts leader who seems to have lost patience waiting for the anticipated trickle-down of increased funding, corporate support and public involvement from the efforts of MAACC, which was launched a little more than two years ago with great fanfare and expectations.

The local Artnews Internet bulletin board has been peppered in recent months by questions about the organization's effectiveness; complaints that MAACC's website, Atlanta Planit, doesn't do enough to promote small arts venues; and even sniping about Nigut's non-nonprofit-like salary of $175,000. To others, Nigut and crew have simply fallen off the radar screen.

"I thought [MAACC] was supposed to be a vehicle to promote arts events, rather than general 'arts awareness,'" says Rebecca DesMarais, director of downtown's Youth Art Connection, an arts education program affiliated with the Boys and Girls Club of Metro Atlanta. "Its mission is rather fuzzy."

Shift to the other end of the cultural food chain, however, to local politicians who control the funding purse strings, and it would appear MAACC has been going gangbusters — building relationships, raising awareness and putting bugs in all the proper ears.

"I'd say they've just met just about every expectation I had for generating regional cooperation and discussion about the arts," says Fulton County Commissioner Nancy Boxill, considered the leading arts advocate on that board.

So how come the big difference in opinion about the job MAACC has done? Part of the problem, according to Nigut, is a widespread lack of understanding about MAACC's mission.

"Early on, I realized this job isn't about being part of the arts community," he says. "It's about representing the arts community to a broader constituency, so I've spent much of my time visiting with elected officials, corporate executives and foundation representatives."

Which means that Nigut hasn't been as visible to artists themselves, although he has met with dozens of arts organizations across the metro area.

It also means that he has focused on the big picture of regional arts advocacy, rather than getting involved with finding quick solutions for individual groups. Therefore, when folks such as Minina have come asking for help, they sometimes leave disappointed, something Nigut says he regrets.

Cobb Commission Chairman Sam Olens, who chairs the Atlanta Regional Commission, says Nigut has been successful operating on this larger scale.

"If the only way to measure MAACC is whether a certain group has gotten a check or a grant, then it's not working," he says. "But if the idea is for greater government support and increased public awareness for the arts, then it's done a good job."

For instance, Olens says, the Atlanta Opera has agreed to become a full-time tenant of the performing arts center opening later this year at the Cobb Galleria Centre. The county also has been in talks with the Atlanta Ballet, the Alliance Theatre and the National Black Arts Festival about programming events at the new arts center, all of which Olens says likely wouldn't have happened without Nigut's networking skills.

In addition to maintaining an online search engine for arts events, MAACC has made available an address database of 40,000 local arts supporters and, this past fall, launched pARTicipate!, an arts component to the much-maligned Brand Atlanta campaign that itself has received mixed reviews.

And for the past two years, the group has sponsored a "leadership class" that brings corporate executives together with arts leaders, a program that gets high marks from arts participants. Nigut also says he plans to encourage those executives to join local nonprofit boards, such as Eyedrum's.

MAACC was born in late 2003 as an initiative of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce to build bridges between the arts community and business and government leaders. The group received annual funding pledges of $100,000 for each of its first two years from the city of Atlanta and Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton, Gwinnett and Clayton counties. The Woodruff Foundation kicked in an additional $1.5 million, and MAACC has picked up a number of smaller grants, but the group has no sustained funding source beyond this year.

"I've heard a lot of people saying, 'What's MAACC done for me?'" says Jan Selman, executive director of the Arts Leadership League of Georgia and former chairwoman of the Georgia Council for the Arts. "But for Nigut to really help the arts, he needed to be talking to the people who can lend support. Now that he's got these relationships built with the movers and shakers, I'm expecting that we'll see some real movement on his part."

But will it come soon enough?

Last November, the heads of five of Atlanta's best-known nonprofit theaters visited Nigut to deliver a wake-up call after a pretty lousy season at the box office.

"My understanding is that MAACC was formed to raise the bar generally for corporate support, and it's doing that, but it's moving very slowly," says Lisa Adler, co-director of Little Five Points' Horizon Theatre. "We wanted Bill to realize that all this work may not matter if some of these arts groups aren't around in another year."

Message received, says Nigut. "I get that there are artists doing good work who are frustrated by the lack of attention. It's not enough just to raise awareness. We have to figure out how to help."

In response, Nigut's board — including Mayor Shirley Franklin and local business leaders — hammered out a strategic plan that emphasizes a push to bring audiences into local arts venues.

Most significantly, the plan calls for the establishment of a permanent public funding source for the arts — possibly a local sales tax. Nigut says he won't wait to get all five counties on board but will forge ahead where support is strongest, which likely means Atlanta.

In the meantime, Nigut says, he'll make a better effort to reach out to the arts community, such as inviting more communication from artists. "If someone says, 'I don't know what Nigut's been up to,' that's my fault," he says.