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Atlanta's blue period 

But is there hope for public arts?

Pity the poor Atlanta Bureau of Cultural Affairs. After surviving eight years under Bill Campbell -- a man who, consensus holds, didn't give the proverbial rodent's hindquarters for the city's arts community -- the beleaguered bureau welcomed in the most arts-friendly mayor this city has seen in ages ... only to see half its grants budget slashed by a desperate City Council late last month.

Most of the money was restored a week later when local arts leaders turned out in force at City Hall. But the temporary scare was not exactly how Camille Love had imagined the new, culturally enlightened Franklin era would begin.

"It's been a horrendous experience the past few weeks," the bureau director says wearily as she recounts programs she's had to cut in order to reduce her overall budget by 20 percent and hang on to the $540,000 in grants that are parceled out to arts organizations, many of which have been suffering already.

Gone is the annual Montreaux Atlanta Music Festival in September. Ditto the small Art in Education project, which had allowed schools and social service agencies to hire artists-in-residence. Another likely victim is A Day in the Park with the Arts, a modest, kid-oriented program that visits neighborhood parks. Classes at the city-operated Southeast Arts Center have been suspended because all three instructors have been laid off. In total, the bureau lost six full-time employees and three vacant positions.

There may, however, be an unexpected bright spot amid all the gray skies. With Campbell gone, there finally may be the political will to revive the city's long-ignored public arts program.

What public arts program, you may ask? Exactly; that's the point. Most large cities in western states boast long lists of public sculpture and site artwork commissioned from nationally recognized artists. Think of Chicago's whimsical cows. Or, closer to home, Charlotte's walking tours of its public artwork.

Not that Atlanta hadn't taken steps to create its own public arts program. A decade or so ago, the city agreed to set aside 1 percent of the construction budget for any new facility it built to be spent on artwork to beautify the property. Adopted, but never actually applied. In the very definition of lip service, the city never even established a mechanism by which department heads could set aside the mandated 1 percent of public art money. Nor was anyone put in charge of the project.

Ironically, the only city operation that initiated a strong public arts program was Hartsfield Airport, which was specifically exempted from the 1-percent set-aside, but which has won several awards for its ambitious visual arts installations.

Instead, Atlanta has relied on other organizations to decorate its public spaces: Fulton County; MARTA, with its individualized subway stations; property owners and private foundations; and the city's biggest benefactor, the deep-pocketed Corporation for Olympic Development in Atlanta, which sprinkled sculptures and murals across the city leading up to the '96 Games.

And the few pieces of artwork that the city has installed on its own have been allowed to fall into disrepair as there has been no one assigned to their upkeep, says Bill Gignilliat, an attorney who sits on the board of the Metro Public Arts Coalition, an advocacy group.

The city's only large-scale public arts project of recent years, the now-notorious All-Star Balls, was an unmitigated disaster. Conceived as a fund-raising partnership between baseball's All-Star Game and the Bureau of Cultural Affairs, the collection of large, painted spheres failed to attract many private sponsors. Worse yet, because of poor site selection, most people were unaware of the project's existence until after it was declared a bust.

But even more troubling is the idea that the city's moribund public arts program may have lost out on up to $2 million in funds while Campbell was in office.

Bureau Director Love calls such criticism "crying over spilt milk. ... You've got to lick your wounds and move ahead."

Helping that effort is the city's Master Plan for the Arts, finally approved last fall. That document put in place, for the first time, the necessary mechanisms for collecting the 1-percent set-aside. As a result, the city's new municipal court building will be the first construction project in many years to incorporate public art.

That is, unless the cash-strapped council sees the public art set-aside as too large a drain on city finances and does away with it before it has a chance to be realized.

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