As soon as he heard the unsettling news last spring that Atlanta Lyric Theatre closed, Alex Scollon knew it was time for action. As the managing director of Actor’s Express, he has seen how difficult it is for arts organizations to stay afloat.
Knowing he needed to move quickly, he drafted a letter painting a picture of the city’s arts struggles, had other leaders sign it and sent it out to the public. While there have been no lightning-bolt donations, Scollon has heard from people that the letter succinctly explained the challenge arts organizations have been facing since the pandemic, on top of the state’s perpetual struggle for more funding.
Over the last decade, Georgia has consistently ranked last or near last in the nation in government arts funding. According to the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, for per capita legislative appropriations to state arts agencies in fiscal year 2023, Georgia tied for last in the country with Wisconsin.
The state spends 14 cents per person with an arts budget of $1.5 million. Other surrounding states had much higher numbers: North Carolina with 84 cents, Alabama at $1.28, Tennessee at $1.47, South Carolina with $2.16 and Florida at $2.71, up from $1.41 last year.
Another issue is that historically many of Atlanta’s major corporations have focused their arts donations with the Woodruff Arts Center. Last week, Intuit Mailchimp gave $1 million in grants to 10 arts organizations considered “vital” to Atlanta, including ArtsATL. Arts organizations have called for more businesses to follow that example.
Arts leaders and various funders are meeting regularly to discuss the funding issues and look for alternatives. Some are contemplating the logistics of bringing back an arts advisory council to lobby for more funding. While the state’s funding levels won’t change overnight, new approaches are needed.
An overview of funding
Each state funds arts programs differently. Budgets in some areas, for instance, include money to operate museums, provide arts education programs in the schools or facilitate international visits. Here, those programs are not included in the Georgia Council for the Arts’ purview.
Among annual government funders, the biggest in the state are Georgia Council for the Arts, Fulton County Department of Arts & Culture and the City of Atlanta Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs. Private foundations include the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta and the Woodruff Foundation.
Established in 1951 and considered one of the largest philanthropic service organizations in the Southeast, the Community Foundation For Greater Atlanta recently hired an arts director. The organization introduced Conrhonda E. Baker as the program officer for its Arts, Culture and Creative Enterprises division at a May 2023 event and will be sharing more of its long-term strategy shortly.
Ayana Gabriel-Turner, vice president of community impact for the Community Foundation, says the organization allocates $1 million to $2 million annually to arts organizations. That has doubled over the years from what used to be $400,000 to $500,000.
She’s aware of Georgia’s low ranking and feels the Community Foundation is doing its best to bring money to arts organizations.
“We are committed to being an advocate,” Gabriel-Turner said. “One of the things we want to do moving forward is figure out how we can get resources to sustain our giving, because some of the resources we received during Covid we have spent already.”
Back in 2002, Georgia Council for the Arts approved $4.5 million for arts funding — a high point for the state — but, in 2019, that budget became part of the state’s Department of Economic Development division.
According to Executive Director Tina Lilly, in addition to Georgia Council for the Arts’ FY23 operating budget from the state at $1.5 million, approximately $3 million of a total $11.4 million in American Rescue Plan funds directed to Georgia Council for the Arts will be distributed this fiscal year. This will bring the year’s state funding to $4.5 million.
The American Rescue Plan funds, however, were created to help the country deal with the financial crisis caused by the pandemic. That money will not be available next season; it’s a short-term influx.
“Georgia Council for the Arts is continuing to work alongside the arts community to not only maximize positive impacts for our economy today but to develop strategic plans that will help our arts industries and artists remain financially stable against unexpected future challenges,” said Lilly in a statement.
Over the last year, Georgia Council for the Arts has been hosting town halls and collecting survey data to gather feedback from communities and artists on how the organization can expand economic development through the arts, better reach audiences and communities, utilize arts to fortify education and strengthen Georgia’s arts sector. This feedback is used to craft a new strategic plan every five years.
“A few firsts from the 2018-2022 strategic plan were the creation of the Vibrant Communities and the Cultural Facilities grant programs, revitalizing the Teaching Artist Registry and drafting Georgia’s first statewide arts economic impact study, which we look forward to sharing later this fall,” said Lilly.
Increasing the arts budget
Despite these advances from some funders, area arts leaders have to deal year in and year out with the lack of government arts funding — and comparisons to other stated’ allocations is a bitter pill for many to swallow.
Atlanta City Council President Doug Shipman, who served as the president and CEO of the Woodruff Arts Center from 2017 to 2020, knows about Georgia’s numbers and would like to find increased funding. “How do I think Georgia can get back on track? It’s going to take a dedicated revenue source; that is what you see in other cities,” he said.
According to Shipman, the city has increased the Office of Cultural Affairs budget by $500,000 in the last two years since he, Mayor Andre Dickens and the new Council came into office. Additionally, a 2021 City of Atlanta infrastructure bond was put on the ballot and approved by voters, which included sidewalks, parks and $15 million earmarked for the arts. It has not been decided how the funding will be used. The newly assembled City of Atlanta Arts Advisory Council, formed by Dickens, will make recommendations for the funding, but Shipman said it will probably be more for capital funds than operating since it is an infrastructure bond.
“Nonetheless, it’s an infusion into the arts,” he said. “You can do budget increases at the local level if you are diligent about it.”
A partial sales tax support has long been discussed in Georgia. For purchases made in the city of Atlanta, the total sales tax is 8.9%, which is split between the city, the county, the state and MARTA. The state Legislature has said that number can go to 9.0%, and, under the Kasim Reed administration, there was a notion that the last tenth of a penny could go toward the arts. However, the state never authorized that proposal to put in front of voters.
“It would take the state to enable that usage and a vote from the constituency to approve it,” said Shipman. “I think it would be possible. There is a better relationship between Atlanta and the state than there has been in a long time, but any tax increase is tough to get through. It will take time. We have been having those conversations.”
The need for arts advocacy
What Georgia and Atlanta lack, in Shipman’s opinion, is a dedicated advocacy organization for the arts. “In Charlotte, they have formed a separate nonprofit to advocate for the arts, but I think we in Georgia have not had that central arts advocacy organization, and that makes it more difficult to lobby for policy actions.”
To get an organization such as that started, Shipman said, it would take an infusion of philanthropic dollars — a gift of at least $1 million or so. From there, the arts community could sustain it and take it forward.
Scollon agreed with Shipman that having a true advocacy group would change the game. At one time, several advocacy groups existed, the biggest of which was Georgia Citizens for the Arts. “You can track a direct line from the demise of [that organization] to the plummeting of arts funding in Georgia,” said Lisa Adler, co-founder and artistic director of Horizon Theatre. “Funding was never good, but it was a lot better than it is now. We are missing that.”
Georgia Citizens for the Arts focused on state funding; it was a citizens’ organization, not an arts organization. “It cannot be arts organizations advocating for themselves; it doesn’t work,” said Adler.
Shelley Rose was one of the organization’s executive directors from the late 1980s to the early ’90s. Save for her role, it was an all-volunteer team lobbying for arts around the state. “To have an organized effort to be able to advocate for public funding for the arts, with that, you can make more of an impact,” Rose said. “We had connections all across the state — volunteers from smaller communities with relationships with elected officials who could show the benefits of the arts.”
She recalled that during her tenure, Georgia always struggled with arts funding. The organization disbanded, and, not long after, she said Georgia Council for the Arts’ budget fell sharply. “It’s concerning and sad that our elected officials don’t recognize the important role that arts play in our lives and what they can bring to a community,” said Rose.
Vigilance in the arts community is vital
Atlanta City Council’s Amir Farokhi, who serves District 4, said it is a challenge finding support for the arts to match areas such as infrastructure, public safety and education — but it is vital. “We are not fulfilling our full potential if we are not also finding a way to support the arts and culture economy,” he said.
He was happy to see an increase in arts and culture in the city budget, but it is still dwarfed, he said, at the levels Nashville and Charlotte are funding at now. “As the city’s coffers grow their record reserves, we should be looking at continuing to invest in artists. I think our arts funding at the local and state level is always disappointing. Creativity cannot be stifled, but it can be enhanced, and we need to look for ways to enhance our creative class. Artists are succeeding in spite of public policy, and it’s something we should look hard at.”
Celise Kalke, managing director of Synchronicity Theatre, said theater and arts administrators remain hopeful one day the situation will shift or they can come up with ways to create a sustainable tax model. While no one in the arts community is happy with the level of funding, it’s vital for arts leaders to stay vigilant, soldier on and do the work that needs to be done.
“No cynicism — ever,” said Kalke. “It’s activism, conversation and working as a cohort. Thrive — and fight.”
Jim Farmer is the recipient of the 2022 National Arts and Entertainment Journalism Award for Best Theatre Feature and a nominee for Online Journalist of the Year. A member of five national critics’ organizations, he covers theater and film for ArtsATL. A graduate of the University of Georgia, he has written about the arts for 30-plus years. Jim is the festival director of Out on Film, Atlanta’s LGBTQ film festival, and lives in Avondale Estates with his husband, Craig, and dog, Douglas.