Gone, baby, gone 

City can't account for missing public arts funds

Last fall, Mayor Shirley Franklin requested that a survey be done to provide insight into Atlanta's underfunded public art program.

She wanted to know how much – or, more to the point, how little – had been collected for the arts under the city's decades-old percent-for-the-arts program.

The answer has proven difficult to come by.

Like other major metropolises, Atlanta has an ordinance that's supposed to set aside 1.5 percent of all bonds issued for city-funded capital-improvement projects – say, a new fire station or even a water-reclamation plant – for arts funding. Unlike many of those cities, however, Atlanta appears to have captured a fraction of the money it should have.

Titled "The Baseline Allocation for Public Art" and written by the manager of the city's public art program, the completed report would be of no small interest to local arts advocates, who have long complained of the city's anemic efforts to follow its own rules in commissioning art in public spaces. And yet the report has received almost no attention, having spent nearly a year apparently languishing in some City Hall filing cabinet.

Myra Reeves, spokeswoman for the city's Office of Cultural Affairs, calls the year-old report "a draft" and explains that it hasn't been released for that reason. She could not say when a final version would be available.

Local arts advocates had wanted to see the report for months, but it took an Open Records Act request, filed by activist Bill Gignilliat, for the city to release it. And while Gignilliat, of Public Space Initiative, got his hands on the report last week, what he didn't get was an explanation as to where Atlanta's public arts funding might have gone.

Perhaps that's because the report – despite identifying $353 million in bonds that might have been eligible – offers no real answer.

Don't blame the report, insiders say. There's no reliable way to calculate how much funding hasn't been collected. Besides, they say any answer would be strictly academic because the opportunity to capture the money is long gone.

"This isn't an excuse, but we've had a problem" accounting for arts funding, says Gregor Turk, a prominent multimedia artist who's a member of the city's Public Art Advisory Committee, which consults with city leaders on how to spend the public art funds.

During Bill Campbell's eight-year tenure, the percent-for-the-arts program was effectively shelved; the ordinance remained on the books, but was widely ignored.

Franklin's election in 2000 was hailed by arts advocates, who noted that the new mayor had begun her political career as director of Atlanta's Bureau of Cultural Affairs and was seen as a potential champion for arts funding.

But while the city's fortunes have improved greatly under Franklin, there've been few signs of progress on the public art front. Officials with the renamed Office of Cultural Affairs seemed to have trouble identifying just how much money the city had collected for its public art program – much less how much it should have collected.

Last fall's report finally puts a number to the first question: Between 2002 and 2006, the city's public art program collected slightly less than $1.7 million.

By contrast, during that same time, the total of capital bonds eligible under the public art ordinance was estimated at $353 million – an amount that would have translated to a $5.3 million windfall for the arts program.

Comparing the two figures suggests that the city should have collected an additional $3.6 million for public art, right?

Not so fast, says Eddie Granderson, the program director who authored last year's report. He points out some of the $353 million in bonds might have been exempted from the ordinance on some obscure technicality.

As it stands, only about half of the bonds listed in Granderson's report saw 1.5 percent devoted to the arts.

"It's confusing," he says. "We haven't been able to delineate the mechanism by which this money can be identified and captured."

The amount of the money left uncollected by the program, he explains, likely lies somewhere between the $1.7 million that was received and the $5.3 million that might have been collected, barring exemptions. But the true figure cannot be determined, he says.

"Unless those funds are identified when the bonds are written, they become difficult to track later on," he says.

Turk says that because of the exhaustive legalese that goes into a public bond issue, the time to set aside the 1.5 percent is when the bonds are written.

"You can't go back afterwards and change the bond language," says Turk, who concedes he doesn't fully understand all of the implications of the report. The challenge now is to make sure the problem is corrected.

Reeves says she was unaware of any safeguards or processes that would be put in place to ensure that future funds are captured.

"Decisions haven't been finalized as to what the next steps are," she says.

Granderson points out that, for some city departments, identifying public arts funds "hasn't been a priority." His report suggests that some entities, such as the Downtown Development Authority, did an especially poor job on setting aside money for the program.

The cause of public art in Atlanta hasn't been helped by the fact that there's no effective organization bridging the gap between the arts community and city leaders. Gignilliat, for instance, has been a consistent gadfly on the subject, but he's also a disbarred lawyer whose aggressive stance has produced strained relations with City Hall. Other local arts advocates, such as Evan Levy, who organized the popular Art in Freedom Park exhibit, have publicly complained that they're no longer well-received by the city's arts officials.

But Gignilliat says it's the mayor who's dropped the ball.

"The responsibility has to sit at the top of the ladder," he says. "If Shirley wants something to happen, it happens. The mayor gives lip service to this program, but is not enforcing it with her own people."

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