By Howard Pousner
The setting for the first in a series of statewide community forums to develop a five-year strategic plan for the Georgia Council for the Arts was a blank, white-walled gallery, which seemed — at least symbolically — apt.
With a new place in the state government structure (under the Department of Economic Development) and a new leader (Karen L. Paty) to guide it, the GCA appears ready to gut it to the walls and start fresh.
Monday’s gathering at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia in Buckhead, the first of seven forums across the state, featured opening remarks by Gov. Nathan Deal. Deal spoke to the audience of 100-plus, mainly arts leaders and artists, with enthusiasm about the role of the arts in conveying cultural heritage, as well as its impact on the economy and (potentially) education.
Though his appearance lent symbolic support, the governor, in a brief Q&A after his talk, gave little hope of additional state arts funding.
After years of cuts, Georgia is now ranked 50th in the country in terms of its legislative appropriation to its state arts agency, according to the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies (NASAA). In July, the GCA announced grant awards of just under $1 million (derived in equal parts from the state and National Endowment for the Arts) for fiscal year 2012 to more than 100 arts organizations across Georgia.
State funding for the GCA has sharply declined since peaking in 2002 at $4.5 million. The fiscal 2012 funding of $574,000 is on par with late 1970s appropriations. In fiscal 2011, Georgia dedicated 8 cents per capita to the arts, last in the nation, according to NASAA. Minnesota, the leading state, committed $5.69 per capita.
Deal said in anticipation of post-recession revenue shortfalls, he had directed state department leaders to propose budgets cut by 2 percent across the board, though he acknowledged he has yet to review the Department of Economic Development’s proposal.
Further, he acknowledged that he was unaware of legislation that would give Georgians the option of voting, on a county-by-county basis, on a fractional sales tax for economic development projects including the arts. The bill, which would open a new stream of support for the arts beyond the GCA’s declining grants, died on the legislature’s last day during the last two sessions.
Supporters, including the Metropolitan Atlanta Arts and Culture Coalition (MAACC), have vowed to renew the effort next session. Deal predicted a similar result, given that voters will face a transportation sales tax referendum next year.
“The political reality is that this is probably not the year you could get something like that passed,” he said of the fractional tax for the arts.
His comments seemed to take some of the air out of the room. Yet the arts leaders (including Joseph Bankoff of the Woodruff Arts Center, Flora Maria Garcia of MAACC, Richard Garner of Georgia Shakespeare and Lisa Adler of Horizon Theatre) and artists remained after Deal’s exit, spending more than two hours brainstorming the Georgia Council for the Arts’ mission and five-year plan.
Paty, who since 1994 had worked at the GCA as program manager, grants director and interim director before rising to the director’s role in July, told the group that the old mission statement was too broad and that a new one should help define the council’s priorities. The statement: “Access to the arts for all Georgians with the primary responsibility to the state’s nonprofit arts industry.”
The GCA’s new leader encouraged forum participants to be mindful of limited funding and the need to move forward “within the reality of right now” instead of suggesting the return of programs (such at the Traditional Arts Program) that have been cut due to declining state support.
The ideas they spent two-plus hours voicing were all over the map, democracy in action: creating a state arts endowment fund, including the culinary arts, forging a relationship with the state Department of Education, expanding the state film production tax credit to include the performing arts, creating a union to provide health insurance for artists.
Finally, Lara Smith, managing director of Actor’s Express, one of three long-time Atlanta theater groups that launched emergency fund-raising drives this year to keep from closing their doors, proposed a reality check. Smith suggested that the GCA should limit the launch of new programs if it means further cuts to funding-starved Georgia arts organizations.
Paty didn’t speak in favor or against any proposal, saying the forums are “not the end of the conversation but the very beginning.”
In fact, there will be six more such gatherings — in Augusta, Columbus, Gainesville, Macon, Savannah and Tifton — before the GCA’s four full-time staffers (down from 12 employees) and its advisory board goes on a March retreat to settle on the mission and strategic plan.
What it comes up with will help determine how the arts council can remain relevant in 159 counties across the state over the next five years despite legislative appropriations that would appear likely to remain at or near the bottom nationally.
More on the GCA’s strategic planning: http://gca.georgia.gov.