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Atlanta's underfunded arts community could get a break 

Artists such as Karen Tauches, a 14-year veteran of the scene who hosts openings at friends' houses and considers herself "more like a rock 'n' roll artist," are pretty clear about their standing in the city.

"Atlanta's not known as an art town," Tauches says. "We're a corporate town."

As a result, artists who want to get a foot up are expected to be creative in a kind of highbrow way – without the benefit of local government support that other, more art-tolerant cities enjoy.

"It's a double standard," she says. "You're supposed to make art at this international, expensive level – like it's no good unless it's manufactured and clean, it's in a crisp, white space, and it gets pressed in Art in America or something."

For years, artists and arts activists have bemoaned Atlanta's bottom-of-the-barrel arts budget. Proof of the city's underfunded cultural scene became more pronounced earlier this year, when a national Americans for the Arts study showed the wide disparity between what Atlanta contributes to its arts and culture organizations and what other, similarly sized cities and counties do. Only Anchorage, Alaska, and Orange County, N.Y., give less.

Yet Atlanta is near the top of the list in several categories – for instance, how much arts patrons spend in the community, how many full-time jobs are created as a result of that spending, and, ironically, how much of that money is funneled back to the city in the form of taxes and other fees.

It might be time for the city to start giving some of it back.

A task force created last year by Mayor Shirley Franklin said the city should more than quadruple its contribution to the arts – to $10 million annually. That level of spending would put Atlanta on par with Miami, though we'd still lag behind Denver.

"I think it is extremely exciting that someone has at least come forward and stated that that kind of money is needed," says Lisa Tuttle, a member of another arts group that consults the city, the Public Art Advisory Committee. "I don't think we've hit on the solution yet, but I feel like there are more and more people at an influential level trying to grapple with this."

Still, she says, "it's sometimes frustratingly slow for everybody."

Part of that frustration stems from allegations that city officials have let tens of thousands of arts-funding dollars slip through the cracks.

Like other, more arts-friendly cities such as Philadelphia and Seattle, Atlanta has a percent-for-arts program, which is supposed to set aside 1.5 percent of city-funded construction projects – such as sidewalks, streets, buildings and parks – for public art. Arts activists such as Bill Gignilliat, co-founder of Public Space Initiative, and Evan Levy, curator of the popular 2005 public art exhibit Art in Freedom Park, claim the city has captured a fraction of that funding, to the detriment of the arts community.

Tuttle agrees that percent-for-arts deserves a closer look. She says there's been an "internal struggle" in the city over how to implement the program, and there's been no clear accounting procedure for how the cash is captured. "There are a lot of people who are pretty irate about that," Tuttle says, "and probably justifiably so."

She also says that because of confusing rules that limit the projects eligible under the program, "there's not this huge, vast amount of money that people seem to perceive."

The city's Office of Cultural Affairs, which administers the percent-for-arts funds, is now acting on an administrative order sent by the mayor, according to OCA spokeswoman Myra Reeves.

"They're working toward securing all funds that are eligible for that program," she says.

The mayor herself has hinted for years that more public arts funding is on the way. When Franklin created the Atlanta Arts & Culture Funding Task Force, she said, "A world-class arts community is essential to Atlanta's economic development. All great cities have vibrant arts communities, and public funding is a critical part of the equation."

Yet in Atlanta, the equation has been skewed. The 2007 Americans for the Arts study found that only 4 percent of contributions to Atlanta's nonprofit arts organizations came from the city. The average among 18 other midsized cities and counties was 10 percent.

To make up for the difference, Atlanta's corporate sector has stepped up. Donations from corporations comprised 85 percent of all contributions to Atlanta's arts nonprofits. Among other like-sized cities and counties, the average was 59 percent.

With the city's renewed devotion to the percent-for-arts program, two huge opportunities to collect public arts funding are on the horizon: the Beltline transit-and-trails project and the revitalization of the soon-to-be-shuttered Fort McPherson military base. In fact, artists are working with Beltline planners in the project's early stages to determine how to best incorporate public art in the 22-mile loop of light rail, greenspace and development that will one day circle the city.

"With looming massive projects like the Beltline and Fort McPherson, it is vital that the problem of adherence [to the percent-for-arts program] be solved if the city is to have a viable public art program," says artist Gregor Turk, who sits with Tuttle on PAAC and who advocated for percent-for-arts funds as a member of the Metropolitan Public Arts Coalition.

To push arts funding one step further, Turk says the city could enact a percent-for-arts ordinance that applies to private development, too. That would help relieve some of the pressure of artists and nonprofits having to rely on corporate sponsorship. It also could help offset the inclination to make art that appeals to corporate mind-sets.

"Sometimes I think that they just want middle-class art here: safe, predictable, fun, colorful," Tauches says. "But the things that make a great art town, like New York City and L.A., is the wild variety of arts and artists."

For Atlanta to be the type of city that attracts and retains a healthy creative class and continues to grow as a tourist destination, one obvious solution is to better fund the arts.

"I don't particularly think it's the government's job to support small independent artists like me," Tauches says. "It's my choice to do this, at my own sacrifice. But if they want something really unique from this place, they could support us by just sprinkling a little bit of opportunity, to make it a little easier."

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