Flora Maria Garcia 

New Metro Atlanta Arts and Culture Coaltion head

With the seductive rallying cry "no more planning," the new leader of the Metro Atlanta Arts and Culture Coaltion, Flora Maria Garcia promises to be more about the doing as she leads this arts advocacy group into its fourth year. The former president of the Arts Council of Fort Worth, Texas, Garcia has also had a hand in shaping Houston's thriving arts scene.

Your family fled Cuba in 1960 leaving everything behind. How has that beginning in America defined who you are today? We emigrated when I was 7 to Miami and got thrown into school there, and learned English on the fly. I think it had a huge impact on me. It teaches you that you can do anything if you have the will and the interest.

Tell me a bit about your background and how you became involved in the arts. I started out as a visual artist. My degree is in visual arts, in photography and painting. I did a double major in modern languages and art. I studied at St. Mary's College in Notre Dame, Indiana, a sister school of Notre Dame.

So I started out as an artist and didn't really have the passion to make art, and I then did an internship at the University of Massachusetts in arts administration ... that was my big "ah-ha" moment when I realized that I loved working with artists and arts organizations, but I'm really good at administrating, telling people what to do.

I think to be in arts administration you have to have a real passion for the arts; at least to be a good administrator. Because you have to really understand and be sensitive to artists and arts organizations' needs.

I'm kind of a weird hybrid of arts and business. Because after working in arts administration for about 10 years I realized that I was working with a lot of business people and I didn't have the language or skill base to be able to communicate well with them in what we needed to see happen to help the arts. And so I went back to school and got a graduate degree: a double major in arts administration and business, and having that MBA [from Southern Methodist University] really helped me have the knowledge and skill base to be able to communicate with the business community about what needs to happen.

From that I was then offered a job with the Houston Arts Council, started as an administrative assistant and worked myself up to deputy director and then went over to run the Missouri Arts Council.

There is often a lot of talk about supporting the arts in Atlanta but not always subsequent financial support. Make your pitch for why art and culture are important and why business leaders should support them. In every community that I've worked in we've always done an economic impact study of the arts in a community. And that's what really will grab the business community and elected officials' attention. In Fort Worth our economic impact showed that nonprofit arts organizations contributed, I think it was $273 million dollars a year to the economy. And when we were asking for an additional $1 million from the city, we said, "Look, for a $1 million investment you get back $273 million back. That's pretty good. That's better than just about any industry you subsidize." On top of that the arts are good for attracting visitors to our community. In Fort Worth our convention and visitors bureau promoted the city as "a town for cowboys and culture." And it was a huge draw for visitors.

From an economic standpoint, from a quality-of-life standpoint, from an education standpoint, all of these studies have been done about kids who study the arts do better in their test scores and in school.

What made you want this job at MAACC? I thought it was a really interesting opportunity. I did some research about what was going on here. And I pulled up on the Web, the [Arts & Culture] Task Force report to Mayor Franklin. The fact that a citizens' task force recommended that the city of Atlanta contribute $10 million a year to arts funding is huge and caught my attention. And then I started reading about the mayor and was very impressed with her and the fact that she used to be the head of the Office of Cultural Affairs. That was huge: a mayor who gets the arts.

I thought there's a real opportunity here. People want to make something happen in the Atlanta region and they just need the guidance and expertise that I can provide. There were a lot of people who said, "We need you, we need what you know." I wanted to come and make a difference here.

I love the fact that it's a big city, its diverse, it's corporate, its international. It's all the things that remind me of when I lived in Houston and what I miss, living in a big urban center.

Well, a lot of people compare Atlanta to Houston and wonder why we aren't doing as well as the Houston arts scene, which has a higher national profile. Well, let me tell you, I was in Houston in 1982 right at the early, early stage, not a lot was happening. They had a lot of good art product but the community was very disparate. Everybody was kind of doing their own thing in different pockets. And part of the work that we did in the arts council was bringing people together.

We said, "Why don't you guys do a map of all of your spaces and start doing openings all at the same time and we'll fund creating this map and combine your mailing lists and we'll get the information out." So then this critical mass started happening with people all going to openings at the same time, which in '82 was a big deal.

What were some of the successes you achieved in Fort Worth you hope to bring to Atlanta? I'm going to be in a huge learning mode the first few months of being here. I have learned from living in a lot of places, working in a lot of places that you can make no assumptions about a community when you first come here based on your past experience. I have a lot of experience doing a lot of things in the arts and I'm going to sort of put that on hold and come and learn about what's happening in Atlanta. I want to hear from the arts community, I want to visit with arts organizations, I want to visit with artists. I want to visit with the cultural arts organizations, grass-roots groups, the business community, the political leadership of the city and the counties. I want to visit with education people and find out what their thoughts are; what's good, what's bad, what's missing? What do they see as opportunities? And then from that we can formulate direction. I'm also very involved nationally. I'm the vice president of the Urban Arts Federation, which is the 60 largest cities in the country. And so it's a great networking group where you really learn the best practices of other places, or what's failed.

So first it will be learning mode: What is the low-hanging fruit that we can pull right away that we can take advantage of, and then what are the longer-term challenges? But clearly more money for arts funding, that's a big priority.

More money is at the top of the list.

And I think Atlanta has the will to do that.

People have called the MAACC mission fuzzy. What is the mission? I think it's to raise awareness about the arts. And I also see it as an advocacy organization that has the opportunity to work regionally. I think building a strong coalition within the arts community and those people who support the arts is very important. And its not just arts organizations I'm talking about. It's people who are volunteers in a community, business and political leaders who value the arts and think the arts are important. And those who may also not value the arts at this point but with good information can be brought along; it's all about building relationships.

You are probably familiar that there has been complaining about MAACC under former CEO Bill Nigut. Many wondered what real beneficial trickle down for artists and arts organizations resulted from his tenure there. Can you talk about how you see MAACC directly benefiting the local arts community? My goal is to get the arts community to come together. I really want to hear what the perception is of the MAACC and what they think the MAACC should be doing. I think an organization is kind of like this organism that continues to grow depending upon a community's need. And you have to stay flexible and you have to stay open.

And that's the work I did in Fort Worth when I got there ... I got a 2-percent-for-art ordinance passed within the first year that was commissioning artists. To date, 2-percent-for-art has generated $15 million to commissioning artists in the Fort Worth area and that we founded in 2002.

Can you talk about that? We do have a percent-for-the-arts program but a lot of people are very disgruntled because it hasn't been implemented across the board. Do you see yourself being involved in that particular issue? I don't know yet. This is my first day here. Actually I haven't even started working yet. My official start date is Nov. 1. I'm just trying to find a place to live right now.

I can tell you what I did in Fort Worth: My recommendation was 2 percent not 1 percent. Because since the beginning of the public arts programs, long ago it started as 1 percent and it wasn't enough money to do education, outreach, conservation and staff. Let's do it right and learn from all the cities that have had ordinances for 15, 20 years. Let's learn from their mistakes and then do the best ordinance possible. We did kind of a Frankenstein ordinance from all of the ordinances from other cities.

I think a lot of it is about the relationship you have with the city and the budget office and the commitment of the city, or county. And the ordinance says by law you have to set aside 2 percent so it's also about awareness within each city department. And we have a work plan that lays out all the projects that are coming on board, what the total budget is and what the 2 percent calculation is, and we work hand in hand with the budget office of the city. So we have not had a problem.

So there's no ambiguity? Absolutely not. We have a project budget that's approved in the bond issue: $10 million. Public art gets 2 percent of $10 million. Easy cheesy, right?

Hopefully you can bring that clarity to Atlanta.

Can you see a tax for the arts happening in Atlanta? Absolutely, positively yes. It must happen in Atlanta. Because Atlanta has incredible potential. It has so many arts organizations here and it must have a dedicated, significant source of funding to support the arts and artists in perpetuity.

Is Atlanta behind in terms of what we're giving to the arts? Behind.

Do you have any sense of why that is? Is it something to do with the South? Absolutely nothing to do with the South, Look at Charlotte.

What happened in Charlotte is the business leaders got together many years ago and said, "We want to make Charlotte the second-largest banking city in the country and we need to get culture up to a level where it's going to attract business." And they invested in culture as the vehicle to make Charlotte a great city, very successful. So this ain't no Southern thing! It's about the will and the knowledge to recognize that your cultural community could really put a city on the map. And you have to invest in that. Culture is the soul of a city.

And I think Atlanta has the will to do that.

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