Fixing arts funding

Moderated by Tom Sabulis

Fulton County has long been a leader in arts funding in Georgia, but that funding seems to be in jeopardy every budget cycle. Today, a veteran theater leader calls for a sustainable source of revenue for the arts, so they are not put on the chopping block each year. In response, the Fulton County chairman says officials do recognize their importance.

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Time for sustainable arts funding

By Robert J. Farley

Recently, the Fulton County Commission made its annual foray into the non-profit arts community services and programs by proposing to slash the arts and culture budget yet again. And yet again there were hundreds of emails, telephone calls, testimonials and letters from vast numbers of arts supporters which got the commission to change its mind once again — for now.

In a mere eight months this cycle starts all over again as Fulton County Arts & Culture moves to a calendar year budget.

Respectfully, when are our elected officials going to finally recognize with some semblance of permanence the proven value of the arts to their constituents and communities?

Annually, when budgets come down to the wire, the arts become the “turkey on the chopping block.” Arts organizations have almost grown accustomed to this annual exhaustive initiative of contacting their constituents who, in turn, plead their case to their elected officials. Sometimes all or some of the funding is restored, and sometimes it isn’t. The state has previously decimated the Georgia Council for the Arts budget, and now Fulton County is precipitously close to falling into step.

I believe there is often a misunderstanding of the power of the arts as an agent of economic development, the quality of lives our citizens lead; and, similarly, a dangerous disregard for the importance of the arts in education.

The arts are fundamental to our very humanity. They ennoble and inspire us by fostering creative thinking, goodness and beauty. They help us express our values, build bridges of understanding between cultures, and bring us together regardless of ethnicity, religion or age. But just as importantly, the nonprofit arts in the United States are a business generating $135 billion in economic activity annually, supporting 4.1 million jobs and generating $22 billion in government revenue.

Students with an education rich in the arts attain higher scores on standardized tests, lower dropout rates and inspired attitudes about service to others. An investment of seed support in the arts generates so much more by creating jobs, growing tax revenues, promoting tourism, educating our children and advancing our creative-based economy.

Atlanta can never be the world-class city it strives to be without a world-class arts community.

For many non-profit arts organizations, the constant reduction of public funding will not necessarily close their doors. But who will suffer the consequences? Community and educational outreach programs may become a thing of the past, and constituents will see higher ticket prices, declining senior and student discounts, and the elimination of free tickets and programs for underserved citizens.

Translation: less diversity, and the elite “haves” will have far greater access to the arts than the “have nots.”

I urge our elected representatives to genuinely listen to the citizens they are sworn to represent. Rather than habitually putting the arts on the “chopping block” year after year, perhaps sustainable funding sources at the local, regional and national level is a conversation that can result in a win-win for all. I, for one, would welcome that conversation.

Robert J. Farley is co-founder and Artistic Director of the Georgia Ensemble Theatre & Conservatory in Roswell.

Restored funding remains a priority

By John Eaves

Every other Wednesday, as a member of the Fulton County Commission, I listen to requests for funding for county agencies, projects and institutions. During our most recent budget process, some of the most ardent and most vocal advocates for their cause were supporters of arts organizations in Fulton County. All of the commissioners heard the requests of organizations supporting maintaining funding for both visual and performing arts.

A common theme was displayed on signs prominent in that crowd: “ARTS = JOBS.”

Consider that message delivered, and understand this: I couldn’t agree more.

Beyond the enjoyment and enhancement they provide to our lives, the artistic community represents a significant sector of our community and the region’s economy. According to the Metropolitan Atlanta Arts Fund, the Atlanta area has the fourth-largest number of arts-related businesses, lagging behind only New York, San Francisco and Nashville.

According to the Georgia Arts Council, the arts employ 100,000 people statewide. Fulton County is home to an estimated 24,000 of those positions, the third most arts-related jobs of any city in the nation. Employers run the gamut from small visual and performing arts enclaves to regional theater companies to international movie studios creating films and television shows showcasing our area internationally.

There is no doubt the arts are important to Fulton County and to Georgia overall.

This year, as we created a budget to fund programs and services in our county, county commissioners were faced with a daunting task: maintaining those services at a level of quality our citizens demand. We tried to do this in a year that saw the county respond to financial obligations to our seniors, county courts, public safety, our employees, public health facilities including Grady Memorial Hospital, local arts organizations and many other community programs.

The initial proposed budget called for significant cuts to Fulton’s arts and culture department. We could not let that stand. By a 5-2 vote approving the county’s amended 2014 budget, commissioners agreed to add $750,000 to bring that department close to its funding levels from 2013. This decision reiterated the county’s investment and continued interest in arts education, programs and facilities.

Even in tough financial times, the arts remain a priority for Fulton County. The county’s arts centers provide a vital outlet for people of all ages — to not only see photography and painting and to hear live music and experience theater, but to teach and participate in those endeavors as well. We are proud as a county to fund facilities such as Wolf Creek Amphitheatre and hope they continue to add to the lives of our residents for generations to come.

Beyond all this, I go back to those signs I saw at so many budget discussions before the Board of Commissioners: ARTS = JOBS. Message delivered, loud and clear.

John Eaves is chairman of the Fulton County Commission.

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