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The marriage won't be cheap. The tab for the initial site-planning work, up to $100,000, has been covered by an anonymous gift. But there's also a feasibility study, moving expenses and legal fees for a pre-nup of sorts that will detail both groups' responsibilities.
And that's all prelude to the construction itself, whose price tag will be in the millions. The final cost ($2 million? $8 million?) will depend on the eventual site design, in turn to be determined by the ultimate success of a long-planned capital campaign, which is on hold until the economy does a 180 and happy days are here again.
In the long run, however, Smulian says, the planned "site collaboration" will provide many of the same benefits as do mergers in the corporate world: an economy of scale that comes with sharing a facility, opportunities to draw from each other's programming strengths, creating an enhanced public profile through cross-promotion.
Collaboration between arts organizations is a concept that's been picking up steam. Last year's most obvious example was the inaugural First Glance Atlanta, a two-week performing arts festival intended to showcase new work (albeit somewhat loosely defined) by more than 40 local dance and theater groups.
Although the fall event may not have provided the attendance boost some companies had hoped for, "I know it got people to go to multiple performances in a short period of time," says arts consultant Lisa Mount, who served as First Glance producer. Just as important, First Glance was able to attract top-flight corporate sponsorships, providing marketing money that might not be typically within the reach of individual theaters and dance troupes.
Foundations also are increasingly encouraging collaboration between what may otherwise be competing arts organizations. One provision of a much-heralded $1 million-plus Loridans/Trammell grant currently shared by 7 Stages, Theatrical Outfit, Actor's Express, Horizon Theatre and the New American Shakespeare Tavern is that their managing directors meet regularly to discuss common challenges.
"We believe it's essential for organizations to collaborate," says Lisa Cremin, executive director of Metropolitan Atlanta Arts Fund, which has invited local arts groups to team up in applying for annual grants.
The Arthur Blank Foundation went a step further last year, making an entire cycle of national grants available only to collaborative efforts between nonprofit groups.
Even small-scale collaborations are proving fruitful. The Zoetic Dance Ensemble, for instance, was named best arts group at this year's Abby Awards, a huge victory for a troupe so young and small. The dance group's relationships with Dad's Garage Theatre and Eyedrum gallery have allowed it to borrow performance space in which to be noticed.
For all its anticipated rewards, however, collaboration is but a small part of the equation to elevate the arts in Atlanta, especially given the current state of the economy. It's a bit like clipping coupons: Every little bit helps, but if you can't make rent, you're still out on the street.
To be fair, the city has had many recent success stories, most notably the growing national reputation of Atlanta's active theater scene. Actor's Express suffered no decline in its strong work after founding director Chris Coleman was replaced by Wier Harman. The Shakespeare Tavern managed to carry off a stunning site renovation while building a loyal following. Work is scheduled to begin soon on a dedicated venue for the revived Theatrical Outfit next door to its temporary digs at the Rialto Center. The Atlanta Symphony, purring along under new maestro Robert Spano, is on track to see the completion of a world-class performance center in 2008. And ground already has been broken for the High's ambitious $130 million expansion.
But then there are those pesky two steps back. Exhibit A: Wier Harmon has already decided to skeedaddle. Exhibit B: Jomandi, the premiere African-American theater group in a mostly black city, is on life support following a year of canceled productions, administrative turmoil and disappointing box office returns.
The dark lining in the silver cloud of success can be seen at IMAGE. The film and video center has succeeded at building the annual Atlanta Film Festival into a major event on the national festival calendar with attendance topping 14,000. At the same time, its staff went without heat for several winters because the group couldn't afford a new furnace for its drafty offices in the basement of the Tula Art Center.
So it goes with the eternal struggle. But wait. What if someone handed Sisyphus the keys to a front-end loader? He could use the extra horsepower to haul his metaphorical burden uphill, park that puppy on the peak and get on with his business.
Enter the 37 top-tier corporate executives, penthouse lawyers, clout-wielding local politicians and handpicked arts leaders who make up the volunteer Atlanta Regional Arts Task Force. It represents one of the most impressive concentrations of Atlanta talent ever assembled to tackle a single community issue.
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