Atlanta arts: World class or mediocre?

By guest moderator David Ibata

The Metro Atlanta Arts & Culture Coalition estimates the region’s 1,740 cultural nonprofit organizations generate more than $502 million a year in revenues; 15,000 related businesses employ 62,000 people. Yet many local arts organizations struggle. Ben Cameron urges art lovers to be activists. And cultural leaders address the strengths and weaknesses of the arts here.

Modern culture needs arts activists

The following are excerpts from a December keynote address to the Metropolitan Atlanta Arts Fund Luncheon

By Ben Cameron

In 2006, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation convened more than 700 artists, managers and administrators in 22 meetings in 14 cities to ask: What are the most pressing issues you face?

Two years before the economic downturn, we heard about audience erosion in every field – decline of subscription and single-ticket sales, rising churn and audience turnover, with as much as 75 percent of an audience being there for one event of the year and not coming back.

We heard audiences were overscheduled and exhausted. Forty-two percent of men and 55 percent of women said: “I am too tired to do the things I want to do.” The No. 1 answer to how do you look forward to a free evening was not going to the museum, a play, movie or dinner with friends. The No. 1 answer was: “I want a good night’s sleep.”

Three years ago, I was at a conference in New York. Somebody said: What would we do differently if we thought the moment we are in is equivalent to the religious reformation of the 15th century? What if we are in the arts reformation? The religious reformation was made possible by technological reinvention. The printing press meant suddenly everyone could have a Bible. If you nailed something on a door in Germany, it could be produced en masse and be all over the continent in days.

The religious reformation questioned the necessity of intermediation in a divine experience. Why do I need a priest to intercede for me with God? It’s a question that’s finding direct parallel in what we hear in many places: Why do I need a professional artist to have a creative experience?

This moment of reformation is an invitation for us to think more expansively beyond where art sessions have been. Progressive organizations are asking new questions: How do we engage audiences?

Forward-thinking organizations are surrendering space to flash mobs and raves and turning it over for festival formats to vibrant communities of participants, knowing that a lightly facilitated touch produces the best allegiances and most remarkable results of all.

This is the time to stop being an arts supporter and start being an arts activist. The voice of the arts professional is perceived as too self-interested to be heard. It is the bank president, it is the real estate agent, the stay-at-home mom whose voices can be heard when the artist’s voice cannot be. Arts activists lobby. They go to city hall. They write letters to the editor. Arts activists give their time. They serve on boards. They offer their best counsel. They give generously and increase their gifts every year, and they urge people to do the same.

The arts invite us to come together with people unlike ourselves and look at our fellow human beings with generosity and curiosity. God knows we need it now.

Ben Cameron is program director for the arts at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.

Video of Ben Cameron’s speech can be viewed at: A full transcript is at:

Public, corporate support is lagging

 Excerpts follow from an Atlanta Press Club Dec. 13 panel discussion, “Arts in Atlanta: Mediocre or World Class?” Panelists included Greg Burbidge, arts and culture program coodinator, Atlanta Regional Commission; Tom Key, executive artistic director, Theatrical Outfit; and Stanley Romanstein, president, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

Q: How would you grade media, business and community organizations for support of arts in Atlanta?

Burbidge: (Atlantans are) pretty generous: $7.4 billion a year in philanthropic giving, which puts us third on the list right behind Los Angeles and San Francisco. But if you ask, how much do we give to the arts, the answer is 1.9 percent … fully 50 percent below Charlotte, Nashville and Orlando. … Less than 2 percent goes to the arts. The rest goes to churches, health care and education – private schools, colleges and universities. … (Per capita) that’s 8 cents per person. Minnesota is at the top of the list, at $5.86 per person.

Romanstein: Most cities have a triangle of support: Public support, tax dollars; corporate support, whether it’s foundations or just corporate giving, and private support – individuals. We have virtually no public support. We have limited, very thin corporate support; of the top 25 publicly traded companies in Atlanta, 10 of them don’t give anything to support the arts at all. So the three-legged stool only has one leg. Despite that, we have an amazing arts community in Atlanta.

Key: There is a spirit of newness and freshness that I find in Atlanta – that we can do it this way, not because it’s been done this way before, but there’s room for innovative thinking.

Q: How well do Atlanta-area audiences support the arts?

Romanstein: Our audiences have grown each year over the last three years at a rate of about 3 percent. … Quite often when somebody says to me, “When I go to the symphony, it’s a lot of old people.” My return question: “Did you go on a Thursday night?” If you go on Thursday night, it’s our oldest and most traditional audience. If you go on Saturday night, it’s a lot of college kids in sweatshirts and jeans. It’s a very different atmosphere. We have actually seen the audiences of the Atlanta Symphony grow in numbers but trend downward in age. So the numbers are there, and enthusiastic support is there. I don’t think there’s a question, at least from my standpoint musically, that there’s an audience.

Q: How do you feel about the dwindling of local arts criticism?

Key: I need to have that dialectic with theater critics in my work and in my thinking. It’s an important relationship. And I think what’s very harmful is not good work getting bad reviews, because the good work will endure. What I do think has been very harmful in Atlanta is bad work getting good reviews, so that audiences feel really confused.

Romanstein: We are living in an age in which everybody is an authority on everything. You go to a concert, and people now trust more what somebody says on their Facebook site about what they saw at your theater than they will listen to a theater critic. … Particularly the 20-something crowd is not interested in what any authority has to say. They are interested in things that have been invented by their peers. If it appears on Facebook, Foursquare or any of those (sites), then it has validity.

How arts impact local economies

Bloomberg News

It is easy to think of art as a luxury. It enriches our minds and lives, and it allows us to express ourselves to the fullest, yet it is not essential to brute survival. We value it, but beyond all measure. Art is priceless.

Perhaps these are reasons that assessments of economic activity often simply overlook the art world.

Consider, though, a few cold calculations: Americans spend about $14.5 billion a year on the performing arts alone — from opera, dance and symphony concerts to circuses, magic acts and Las Vegas shows — a 2011 study by the National Endowment for the Arts found.

And according to data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, a branch of the Commerce Department, in 2009, the performing arts, together with museums and sports activities (the bureau has traditionally grouped these into one sector), contributed $70.9 billion to the U.S. gross domestic product. In that same year, the motion-picture and sound-recording industries added $59.8 billion, and publishing contributed $147.7 billion.

In other words, art does have a dollar value. It’s just one that analysts haven’t fully added up. So it is welcome news that the bureau will now measure the creative sector’s specific effects on the macroeconomy. Thanks to a new partnership with the National Endowment, bureau researchers using government and private data will research how each part of the art world contributes to the economies of individual states.

For instance, a preliminary study has found that performing arts contribute more value to states with large and diverse economies than to smaller states. In California, Colorado, Georgia, Texas and New Jersey, every additional dollar generated by the performing-arts industry adds $1.25 or more to gross state product. In Wyoming and South Dakota, in contrast, each dollar contributes only about 86 cents. That’s because in the less-populated states, many things need to be imported from elsewhere — lighting, for example — for the show to go on.

Even if the effect is greater in more populous places, artistic efforts consistently stimulate the local economy. This lends some evidence to the discussion about whether innovation and new ideas can contribute to economic growth at least as much as the investment does. Such debates will be enriched by the new better data to come.

No doubt economists and scholars of all kinds will find many other ways to puzzle over the numbers as they come in. It’s safe to assume that, in general, the hard data will demonstrate that art is a bigger economic player than we thought.

2 comments Add your comment

Jesus Christ crushes NWO, DBMs

January 17th, 2013
2:41 pm

Atlanta arts: World class or mediocre?

Which one is more important to today’s artists, the quality of their work or the size of their pay checks?

If today’s artists are primarily concerned with the quality of their work, as genuine artist are, Atlanta arts are world class.

But if artists are primarily concerned with the size of their pay checks, which has been trending since integration, Atlanta arts are mediocre.

If artists are not that black or white but somewhere in between, Atlanta arts are a total failure.



January 17th, 2013
12:15 pm

The Arts Community needs to look for ways to be more accessible to the average Atlantan. Simple things like keeping the High Museum open on weeknights or considering more matinee performances of the symphony. As much as I hate to say it I think organizations have too much of an inward focus and need to be more aware of what the general public my respond to.

As a person who is somewhat engaged and the member of two local museums I cannot support everyone. The Arts Community musts seek ways to expand their support base instead of expecting a few of us to support everything – there’s jus not enough to go around.