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Mind the gap 

The Woodruff Arts Center's $320 million endowment practically guarantees the success of some arts institutions in Atlanta. But what about the others?

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The name most often mentioned as such a potential savior for the arts community is Home Depot co-founder Arthur Blank, who is heading up the $200 million capital campaign for a new symphony hall. For the head of a needy arts group to expect such donations to drop from the sky may sound like someone who's cold waiting for a bolt of lighting to strike up a fire at his feet. But, Brooks and others insist, that's the way it invariably happens. "The stimulus in other places is someone stepping forward and, by force of will and personal vision, getting their rich friends to join them in giving," he says. "Atlanta is a nice place to live, there's tons of money and people like the arts, but you need leadership to bring it all together."

Jan Selman, director of the DeKalb Council for the Arts and founder of the Decatur Arts Festival, suspects this hasn't occurred because Atlanta doesn't have a longstanding culture of philanthropy. Plus, the city has gotten used to the mainstream offerings of the Woodruff and hasn't sought out other challenges, such as major orchestral commissions or even the current Naomi Wallace festival spearheaded by Theatre Emory. "The bar has been low here a long time," Selman says. "Everywhere you look where arts have been successful -- Chicago, Philadelphia -- it's because there's been an arts champion, a leader who pulls others in."

And it has happened here, as well. Earlier this year, the Charles Loridans Foundation, a little-known group normally focused on education funding, switched gears when Chairman Bob Edge realized how needy the arts community is, and split $1 million among five local, mid-sized theaters.

Edge, a lawyer with Alston & Bird and a long-time arts supporter, says business leaders need to understand that the arts will never thrive without outside assistance. "Those of us who have the passion may have to step forward and make sure these groups can keep going because they provide a resource to the community as a whole," Edge says. "Are we going to be New York soon? No, but if you see all the things happening and the vitality here, you've got to be excited."

Yet Sanford notes that while the Loridans grant is a great first step, no one yet seems to have been inspired to follow it up with a gift to smaller organizations or even a move to create a strong advocacy group to encourage more giving across the board.

The city government can help, too, although there's decidedly little precedent there; by all accounts, Atlanta has virtually ignored even its own policy for contributing a small percentage of construction funds toward public art. The most charitable assessment anyone could muster for Mayor Bill Campbell's interest in promoting the local arts scene was to compare his performance with that of a "dead cat."

Still, Sanford is hopeful that Mayor-elect Shirley Franklin may try to galvanize private arts support. Franklin, whose first job in city government was as director of the Atlanta Bureau of Cultural Affairs, indicated during her campaign that she would consider elevating her old position to that of department head. There's also a measure being considered to create an Atlanta Council for the Arts, which could award grants. Brooks believes a city leader could be even more proactive with prospective donors. "It's a simple leadership quest -- you get 10 people with big bucks in a room and say, 'OK, who's going to take the lead here?' It may take someone like Shirley Franklin or [former Mayor] Maynard Jackson because it's not happening organically," he says.

There are other avenues for boosting the arts, as well. The fund that Sanford oversees in Charlotte has been hailed as a national success story. Functioning as a "United Way for the Arts," it collects nearly $18 million a year, largely in private and corporate donations, that is dispersed to 28 arts groups, from the regional Mint Museum on down. Its local counterpart, the much-smaller Metro Atlanta Arts Fund, is able to dole out less than $300,000 to fewer than 10 carefully selected groups each year. In a different approach, Denver voters approved a sales tax amounting to a tenth-of-a-percent increase a few years ago that produces about $38 million annually; that money is parceled out to the city's 300 active cultural organizations on a regular formula based on their size, with the largest four groups splitting a $20 million bounty each year. The familiar ring of that brings us back to the Woodruff (which handed out nearly $11 million to its four member groups last year, on top of money each raised on its own).

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