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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Georgia Council for the Arts is still alive

Georgia’s lawmakers got further acquainted this week with a part of their constituency that maybe they hadn’t thought about too much before: the artists.  Specifically, the pissed off, fiscally dismissed artists.

Photo by Mike Germon
  • Photo by Mike Germon

When arts organizations and supporters first learned last week that the Georgia House of Representative’s proposed state budget for 2011 included the elimination of funds for the Georgia Council for the Arts, the response was immediate and impassioned.  The past week has seen a rapid-fire series of oppositional movements, including a march of several hundred protesters to the Capitol on Monday – complete with pithy signs, dancing, music, singing, speaking and generally colorful commotion-causing.

Tuesday morning, the Senate Appropriations Committee convened at the Capitol to further pore over the budget for the 2011 fiscal year. Having been subject to a hammering of phone calls, the takeover of their front stoop for an afternoon, and a petition of over 2,000 signatures, Senate budget leader Sen. Jack Hill (R-Reidsville) clearly took the public response seriously.

The modified proposed budget for 2011 now includes approximately $890,000 for the Georgia Council for the Arts, which also means matching federal funds from the National Endowment for the Arts in the same amount. And with that, the GCA effectively came back to life – almost.

The 2011 budget is expected to go to a full Senate vote on Wednesday. After that, it has to be banged out with the House budget before the General Assembly ends on April 29.

Following the developments from the Senate Appropriations Committee meeting this morning at the capitol, Georgia Council for the Arts Executive Director Susan Weiner issued a response:

"Georgia Council for the Arts is thankful that the Georgia Senate Appropriations Committee has voted to include the Governor's recommendation in its budget. With the votes of the full Senate and the Conference Committee, Georgia will not lose its federal and regional funding. Though our State funding will be down 88% from fiscal year 2008, GCA can continue to support our highly productive nonprofit arts industry."

In 2008, the GCA’s budget was nearly $4 million. That amount shrank to little over $2 million last year. Even with matched funds from the NEA, Georgia’s nonprofit arts funding agency will be functioning with less than $1.8 million in 2011. The council has already cut four out of five programs and seven of 12 employees.

It seems the Georgia Council for the Arts seems to be operating on the “Hanukkah Theory” of budgeting – making one night’s worth of money last for 12 months (yes, I just made that up, and no, I don’t care if you send me knee-jerk emails telling me how offended you are. I like it. I like candles. And Jews. The analogy stays.) If you speak with anyone in the GCA office this week, the sense of exhaustion, urgency and resolve is noticeably present.

Many supporters of the GCA, while recognizing the relative victory (or at least moment of easing of the “sky is falling” sentiments of the past week) of Tuesday’s budgetary development, aren’t entirely satisfied, since the result is still the GCA attempting to run on a meager allowance.

Others hold that, for now at least, any news is good news: “An entity that exists can be freshly funded and expanded. An entity that does not exist cannot,” says Art Papers Editor-at-Large and Atlanta arts veteran Jerry Cullum.

Facing a fiscal downslide even more precipitous than last year’s, Georgia’s House of Representatives had to keep the cuts coming – and the GCA was one of the casualties, a decision that stirred financial tension that was already palpable within the arts community. Most of Georgia’s arts organizations have been feeling the pocket pinch for years; fewer and smaller grants, decreased patronage (and generally poorer patrons), and rising overhead costs.  And in that atmosphere of fiscal freak-out, all victories are worth celebrating.

Metropolitan Public Art Coalition Board Co-Chair David Hamilton sees the real mark of this movement as the vocalization – and actually tangible impact – of Georgia’s arts constituency:

“These ideas represent potential sea change in arts support locally and state-wide – the best thing to come of this whole episode may be the show of strength that the arts community demonstrated to the State Legislature – many representatives and senators have gone from zero awareness to understanding that there actually is a constituency for art…That may have a lasting effect – if we keep it up.”

Check out Creative Loafing's photo gallery from Monday's march and rally.

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