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News: Fulton County rejects proposal to slash arts funding (updated)

Ripped dollar bill  Economy Concept Image

Ripped dollar bill  Economy Concept Image

The Fulton County Commission today unanimously swatted down a proposal that would have eliminated major funding for the Fulton County Arts Council.

Dealing with a deficit that could reach as high as $114 million, Interim County Manager David Ware recently proposed a 32 percent reduction in funding of the Department of Arts and Culture, from $1.48 million to $1 million. His idea was to use that money to lease a jail in Union City to take some of the burden off of the overcrowded Fulton County Jail.

Arts administrators and patrons filled the meeting, many holding signs supporting the arts. In all, 48 people signed up to speak before the commission, most of them regarding the proposed cut in arts funding. Among those who spoke were Tom Key of Theatrical Outfit, Lisa Adler of Horizon Theatre, Rachel May of Synchronicity Theatre and Jeff Watkins of the Shakespeare Tavern. All were given a maximum of two minutes to express their thoughts.

Kristen Gwock, Horizon Theatre’s marketing manager, emphasized the economic impact of local arts groups, saying that in Marietta Square, without Theatre in the Square and Atlanta Lyric Theatre performances at the Strand Theatre, businesses are hurting.

Chris McCord, director of Moving in the Spirit and an alumnus of the youth-oriented dance troupe, told the commissioners that the organization changed his life. “I am standing in front of you because of the arts,” he said. “Moving in the Spirit taught me about resilience. I need you to know that learning those skills saved me. I lived in drug-infested neighborhoods. I had plenty of opportunities to get involved in mischief. It was because of what I learned that I was able to tell people about positive affirmation. Without it, I would be dead or in jail.”

Earlier in the week, arts organizations sent out appeals to alert people of the meeting and encourage them to contact their commissioner.

When the proposal came up for a vote, it was unanimous: 6-0 against Ware’s suggestion. But some of the commissioners expressed reservations, especially William “Bill” Edwards, who feels that metro Atlanta’s arts reach doesn’t extend much outside of downtown. “We are not touching everybody,” he said. “Some artists have not set foot outside of I-20.”

Commissioner Joan Garner, who said she was swamped with phone calls and emails before today’s meeting, seconded the motion to reject the cut after Commissioner Rob Pitts introduced it.

“I think this proposal takes money from an unrelated area,” Garner said. “We have an obligation to think of the big picture. We have to look at all communities, all areas, all kinds of needs. If we were living in ancient Greece, we wouldn’t want to live in Sparta. We would want to live in Athens and its vibrant culture. Let’s find money in the criminal justice department.”

Adler, the artistic director of Horizon Theatre, was pleased with the turnout. “Everybody brought different kinds of messages about the value of arts,” she said. “I have never been as thrilled in all my years doing this to see six commissioners vote. It felt like a victory for the arts today.”

Daniel Summers Jr., marketing manager of the Center for Puppetry Arts, was also relieved at the vote. “Everyone came out, with reservations or not, that this wasn’t fair, to take a budget from one department and move it somewhere else,” he said.

The move doesn’t mean there won’t be future fights for funding, especially with talk of doing away with the Arts and Culture budget altogether next year. “I think we fought to see another day,” said Key, artistic director of Theatrical Outfit. “I am glad it wasn’t cut, but we just have to keep fighting. Commissioner Darnell said that none of these departments are sacred. Personally, I do what I do because I think it’s sacred work.”

Among the organizations that receive funding from Fulton County are Atlanta Ballet, the Atlanta Film Festival, Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Alliance Theatre, Center for Puppetry Arts, High Museum of Art, Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia, National Black Arts Festival, Shakespeare Tavern and WonderRoot.

Fulton County has long been Georgia’s most robust and dedicated government supporter of the arts, often handing out more grant money locally than the Georgia Council for the Arts disburses across the whole state. In 2002, the Fulton County Arts Council awarded $3.4 million in “contacts for services,” its term for arts grants. Last year the county’s grant package was less than half that amount — $1.48 million — with warnings from commissioners that arts groups shouldn’t expect that much next year.

As ArtsATL reported in October, the state of Georgia has abysmal funding for the arts. According to the National Assembly of Arts Agencies, Georgia ranks dead last in state funding for the arts this year  at only $586,000, which works out to 6 cents per resident. Alabama, by contrast, has budgeted $3.5 million, which is 74 cents per resident and ranked 23rd in the country.

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