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Atlanta's arts organizations brace for crisis 

Last fall, when Congress was grappling with the first of several bank bailouts, Buckhead art dealer Alan Avery came to appreciate that the current recession is different from others he’s faced in his 27 years in business.

“There have been weeks when I didn’t have a single person come into the gallery,” says Avery, who represents such well-known artists as Chuck Close and David Hockney. “That’s the first time I’ve ever seen that happen.”

Sydney Ellis, director of marketing for 7 Stages theater in Little Five Points, is also familiar with that sinking feeling.

“We opened our first show last fall on the same day there was no gas in Atlanta,” she recalls. “That seemed to set the tone for the entire season.”

Kim Patrick Bitz, founding executive director of the Atlanta Coalition of Performing Arts, recently decided to launch a 25th anniversary e-mail fundraising campaign for his organization, which operates the AtlanTIX half-price ticket booth.

In its first three weeks, the campaign collected just $380.

“We’d expected a few thousand,” says a stunned Bitz.

Nearly every member of the Atlanta arts community has a similar anecdote illustrating when the impact of a slumping economy made itself felt. If Flora Maria Garcia looks worried, it’s because she’s heard most of them.

Garcia is CEO of the Metro Atlanta Arts & Culture Coalition, a publicly supported entity whose mission is to advocate for better funding and recognition for local arts organizations and increased public awareness of cultural offerings.

Last fall, when Garcia first began hearing horror stories, she quickly surveyed every arts group on MAACC’s mailing list. The results were dismal.

“I’ve been doing this for 27 years and never seen it this bad,” says Garcia, who came to Atlanta a year ago from Dallas.

Of the 159 groups that responded to the survey, nearly 60 percent reported a decline in revenue over the previous 12 months. More than half reported lower ticket sales. More than a quarter of the respondents said they had been forced to cut programming to save money, and nearly 40 percent said they expected to end the year in the red.

That was in November. MAACC is now compiling the results from its latest survey, and the news appears to be even worse than before.

“Over the next year, I predict we’ll see a number of organizations fold,” says Garcia. “We’ve got 450 organizations in the metro area. That’s a lot of mouths to feed.”

Almost on a daily basis, she says, Atlanta wakes up to a fresh indicator of the hard times to come. Here’s a partial list:

The Atlanta Ballet opened its season in October with Swan Lake. Ticket sales for the world’s most famous ballet ran 30 percent lower than expected.

In December, Atlanta’s Theater of the Stars canceled a planned production of the Broadway musical Tarzan after reportedly losing $500,000 on previous shows, and announced it will cut its 2009 budget by as much as half.

In late February, the High Museum announced a series of pay cuts, layoffs and staff furloughs. The next day, the Alliance Theatre was forced to cancel a Stephen Sondheim revue after its New York-based backers failed to raise funding.

Earlier this month, Georgia Shakespeare canceled the annual Shake at the Lake in Piedmont Park because the company couldn’t afford to stage the free production.

Just in the past week, the Shakespeare Tavern announced that financial constraints have forced the cancellation and replacement of A Little Night Music, which calls for a cast of 10 actors, with The Mystery of Irma Vep, a two-person show.

The past year also saw the closing of the Jewish Theatre of the South in Dunwoody, Neighborhood Playhouse in Decatur, and Theatre Gael in Midtown.

All of this can make it sound as if the crisis in the arts is simply an issue of box-office interruptus or a falloff in consumer spending. The real problem is much larger and more dire, Garcia says.

“Corporate giving is down, private foundations have seen the value of their endowments fall nearly 40 percent, and individuals are holding onto their money and not going out as often,” she says. “Across the board, every revenue stream for arts organizations is being hurt by the economy.”

That goes also for government funding, which is typically one of the first legs of the financial stool to be kicked out from under nonprofits. Atlanta’s Office of Cultural Affairs, which handed out $565,000 in grants this past year, has trimmed funding to $465,000 for the year to come. The city has cut all funding for the 31-year-old Atlanta Jazz Festival, which had to fall back on private sponsorships. Organizers of the Memorial Day event say the festival’s survival will depend on this year’s concessions income.

Funding from the Fulton County Arts Council dropped less significantly over the past year, from $2.7 million to $2.5 million, but Susan Weiner, executive director of the Georgia Council for the Arts, says state funding is falling.

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