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In the past 12 months, both the High Museum and the Alliance Theatre were forced to lay off employees. The Alliance and the Rialto Center have bled red ink lately, running up respective deficits of $1.8 million and $1.9 million -- which could place their futures in doubt were it not for their affiliations with their deep-pocketed parent organizations -- the Woodruff Arts Center and Georgia State University.
The Atlanta Ballet's new executive director is trying to figure out how to deal with a whopping $1.2 million debt. For nearly a decade, the troupe hadn't even carried a debt. While the 73-year-old company has engaged in preliminary talks about adoption by the Woodruff, that lifeline wouldn't be available for several years at best.
"I feel like a lot of arts organizations are hanging on by their fingernails," Selman warns.
That certainly sounds ominous, but what does it mean for the average theater- or museum-goer?
"If the economy goes on much longer, the next cuts you see would probably be in programming," says Kim Bitz, executive director of the Atlanta Coalition of Performing Arts, a membership-based support agency for the performing arts community.
For instance, groups may opt to cut their seasons short, schedule fewer performances or cancel shows altogether, a process that is already under way. Last year, the Contemporary had to put a costly exhibit on indefinite hold, while Jomandi Productions cancelled its planned staging of In the Blood by Suzan-Lori Parks -- shortly after Parks won the Pulitzer Prize for drama.
We likewise could see shorter hours for museums or the elimination of community outreach programs. Ultimately, such cutbacks would limit our choices and restrict Atlanta's access to the arts.
Even more insidious would be the inevitable compromises in artistic risk-taking, as groups strive to put on tried-and-true productions in a bid to attract mainstream audiences. We could see more second-tier visiting artists, a decline in production values, smaller casts, more revival shows, less-edgy subject matter.
In short, there could come a day when we'll see lines around the High for The Art of NASCAR. Or how about a non-Equity production of Oh, Calcutta sponsored by the Pink Pony?
Such a trend might temporarily bolster the arts' bottom line, but it would offer few challenges for local patrons, discourage outside talent from settling here and send Atlanta's cultural reputation swirling down the crapper.
In their final stage of economic starvation, we presumably would see arts groups taking, as Ethel Merman sang, "that final bow." The city got a taste of that when the 44-year-old Arts Festival of Atlanta suddenly gave up the ghost out of a clear blue downtown sky five years ago. We may not need to wait that long to see the next example.
Despite riding a recent surge of interest in opera and having scant local competition, the Atlanta Opera cut loose many of its staffers this year, has racked up more than $800,000 in debt and tops the unofficial community watch list for troubled groups.
Many local arts groups resemble the wage earner who lives paycheck-to-paycheck: He seems to be doing OK until the day he lands in the hospital or needs a new transmission.
"We're scraping by," says Brian Newman, executive director of IMAGE Film & Video Center. "Like every nonprofit, we're one month from collapse and one month from greatness."
IMAGE has managed to avoid falling into the debt trap, he says, partly because of its steady income as a service provider to the local commercial film industry -- and partly because, like other mid-sized nonprofits, it's become practiced at pinching a penny till Abe hollers.
Even November's much-heralded $2.5 million anonymous donation to the Metro Arts Fund is an emergency bailout that will serve only to return a few debt-ridden groups back to square one -- which, as we've noted with regard to Atlanta, has never been that desirable a place to be.
For Atlanta's arts community to not just overcome the immediate financial crisis but to grow beyond its perennial also-ran status, what is needed -- pardon the business jargon -- is a radical paradigm shift. Throw out the status quo in favor of a new approach. Someone needs to give old Sisyphus a hand.
IMAGE's Newman and the Contemporary's Rob Smulian have met regularly to discuss just such a new approach: distant wedding plans for their respective organizations. The two arts groups have long been working on a proposal that would allow IMAGE to move into the Contemporary's complex off Marietta Street near Georgia Tech.
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