For Art's Sake - MAACC mystery

Visual arts community unclear about Nigut's role

When I ask local artists and curators to comment on how Bill Nigut is doing as CEO of the Metropolitan Atlanta Arts and Culture Coalition, I'm generally met with dumbfounded expressions. Business leaders may know what Nigut is up to, but almost everyone I spoke to on the arts side doesn't have a clue.

Maybe Nigut's doing great things, notes an especially democratic woman artist. But you'd never know it by listening to the deafening silence coming from his office about what, exactly, the coalition is doing. In October 2003, after 20 years as a WSB-TV/Channel 2 political reporter, Nigut became CEO at MAACC, an organization formed to serve as a bridge between the arts and business communities.

But for many in the arts community, Nigut has come to symbolize the enormous divide between the arts and business, and how talk about supporting the arts can often represent a real leap from action. Even the most noble desires to change the face of culture in Atlanta can become mired in the kind of well-intentioned bureaucracy that the coalition seems to represent.

Nigut's much-publicized $175,000-a-year salary, part of the $826,824 in anticipated expenditures for the organization (according to a Fiscal Year 2006 Budget Outline) probably wouldn't be such a bone of contention if people more clearly understood what MAACC does (beyond fostering networking between business and arts representatives in two Arts Leadership Training Programs, creating the Atlanta PlanIt website, and promoting the arts in the November weekend marketing event pARTicipate!, designed to draw attention to the plethora of art venues in the city).

But Nigut earns more than Susan Booth, artistic director of the Alliance Theatre, more than John McFall, artistic director and CEO of the Atlanta Ballet, and more than the executive directors of the Atlanta Opera and the National Black Arts Festival. And these are institutions that generate actual works of art to show for their efforts.

Since Nigut hasn't proven to the visual arts community that any real benefits are forthcoming, it's hard for people to feel optimistic.

And there are some troubling indications that, despite Nigut's interest in the arts (specifically, the performing arts), his stated focus of "representing the arts community" needs to be more of a two-way street.

The arts community needs to know what the coalition is up to. Also, Nigut should look beyond his personal investment in the performing arts as a former actor and spouse of playwright Janece Shaffer. Isn't it fundamental to know the community you are professing to represent?

At a March 3 symposium sponsored by Business to Business magazine, Nigut led a discussion with arts representatives, including the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center's Executive Director Rob Smulian, and the Alliance's Susan Booth. Nigut got some interesting conversation flowing and generated some excitement in the crowd. There seemed to be a sense that business leaders want to make Atlanta a culturally rich city.

But there were troubling signs as well. Nigut was able to rattle off the current productions at the Alliance. But when he came to Smulian, he had to ask about the Contemporary's current exhibition. When the conversation turned to getting children into art venues, Nigut joked about the difficulty of taking his 9-year-old daughter to the Contemporary.

It didn't seem like an especially funny joke. Does Nigut think the Contemporary is inappropriate for young audiences? Unfortunately, the idea that contemporary art is scary, controversial or offensive is a common view of art novices.

But that shouldn't be a view espoused by a man whose stated mission is to represent the arts community to politicians and corporations. If Nigut is going to play a role in representing arts institutions, such squeamishness sends the wrong message.

I thought Smulian's response was perfect. He chimed up that he takes his 9-year-old to the Contemporary.

Just for the record, I take my 5-year-old child, too.

If Nigut can show results by getting a permanent source for funding the arts via a local sales tax, or important corporate leaders onto arts boards, or businesses to make significant donations to local arts groups, then his large salary and resources wouldn't be the conversation point that they are.

For more on Nigut and the Metropolitan Atlanta Arts and Culture Coalition, see last week's News & Views feature, "Big MAACC attack," at www.atlanta.creativeloafing.com/BigMAACC.

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