Atlanta's arts organizations brace for crisis 

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“I know I’m going to be cut more than 10 percent this year,” says Weiner, whose agency recently completed its own survey of arts groups across the state.

“The results were devastating,” she says. “We’re looking at a growing crisis.”

The Georgia Council for the Arts is expecting a cash infusion of about $300,000 from the federal stimulus package, but that money will be spread across the state and likely will have little impact in metro Atlanta. The only locally based granting organization that hasn’t cut its awards budget is the private Metropolitan Atlanta Arts Fund, which will soon dole out $500,000 — the same amount as last year — to a handful of lucky arts groups. But the good news is likely temporary.

Support from endowment-based organizations like the Metro Arts Fund will be the next shoe to drop, explains Karen Beavor, CEO of the Georgia Center for Nonprofits.

“Private foundation giving is still strong right now because they budget on a two-year cycle,” she says. “It’s not going to be that way next year.”
In other words, arts groups now being buoyed by private grants should brace themselves for when that money dries up as well.

The economic crisis, of course, isn’t being felt only by nonprofits. Last month, Fay Gold, the grand dame of Atlanta art dealers, surprised many in the arts scene when she announced she would be closing her gallery after nearly 29 years.

Gold, who has represented Robert Mapplethorpe, Jean-Michel Basquiat and other art world luminaries, says she will remain a private dealer with a “virtual gallery.” She had already been considering scaling back operations, but the sour economy has forced the timing.

“Our sales can’t support our overhead,” she says. “It’s hard to sit out a recession in an 8,000-square-foot gallery with five employees, and I don’t think things are going to turn around any time soon.”

DEPRESSED YET? Although the recession is likely to get worse before it gets better, that doesn’t mean arts groups should throw in the towel. But it does mean an end to business as usual, says Metro Arts Fund Director Lisa Cremin.

“My greatest fear is that arts organizations are just hunkered down waiting for this to pass,” she says. “There’s a new normal, and to do nothing is death. Adaptability is key to survival.”

Perhaps more than ever before, groups are looking for lessons among the few bright spots in the arts scene. In that case, Exhibit A would be Dad’s Garage.

“Relatively speaking, things are going well, which makes me a little nervous,” says Lena Carstens, managing director for the scrappy Inman Park theater group.

Last year, when the economy began tightening and corporate bookings took a sharp decline, Dad’s froze salaries and cut a full-time position. But individual ticket sales have remained at an astonishing 95 percent of capacity. Carstens has a theory to explain her group’s good fortune: Dad’s is fun.

“If you’re able to provide entertainment for people looking to escape their problems, they’ll come,” agrees Garcia.

It shouldn’t surprise economists that Dad’s is selling more beer during intermission. Also, Dad’s is cheap, with ticket prices running an average of $10 to $15. Performing arts groups across the city are finding that audiences are increasingly looking for a deal and shunning the highest-priced seats.

Ellis, with 7 Stages, says her organization is hurrying to apply lessons learned from the realities of the economy. The theater, which has long specialized in more serious and experimental works by contemporary playwrights, lowered ticket prices but has continued to see its box office lag by 40 percent. The group just received a grant to hire a staffer to wrangle more private support, but Ellis worries that there may not be much available money out there to wrangle.

“We’re trying to find new and innovative ways to attract audiences,” Ellis says. “We have to change everything we do.”

As difficult as it is for small or mid-sized groups to change the way they do business, it’s even harder for the largest groups.

“Arts organizations are suffering commensurate to their size,” says Joe Bankoff, CEO of the Woodruff Arts Center, which includes the High Museum, Alliance Theatre and Atlanta Symphony.

The ASO, for instance, must employ a certain number of musicians — union musicians, no less — to perform its repertoire. But there are other ways an orchestra can adapt to changing times. While still in its first season, the ASO’s new amphitheater in Alpharetta has been a hit with OTP audiences the symphony hadn’t been able to reach before.

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