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Monday, August 9, 2010

GCA crisis reveals deeper systemic issues

Cinque Hicks
  • Joeff Davis
  • Cinqué Hicks
Last April, hundreds of art lovers armed with well-designed protest signs and a lifetime supply of face paint swarmed the steps of the Gold Dome. It was a stirring sight. Shouting “Save the arts!” and beating drums, they demanded that the state Senate restore funds slashed from the 2011 state budget for the Georgia Council for the Arts. The paltry $250,000 that remained for arts grants would have been a kiss-off, just enough to send out a round of farewell cards and turn out the lights.

Artists rallied to GCA’s defense. Dance troupes did interpretive dances. Rousing speeches were made (including one from a puppet), and the media turned out to gawk at the ruckus.

In the end, GCA was spared. The bit of street theater at the Capitol together with a flurry of calls and e-mails from around the state were widely credited with turning the tide. At last Atlanta’s absentee art community arose with a united voice and declared, “Give me art or give me death.”

But what was touted as a triumph over the forces of philistinism, in fact masked a massive failure. We needed the protest at the Capitol because an entire system of arts advocacy failed to deliver when it should have: before there was a crisis in the first place.

Like every other red-blooded, short-attention-span American, we in the arts community are impelled by crisis. We wait until the well has almost run dry and then panic when there’s not enough water left to go around.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Susan S. Weiner, executive director of the GCA, says that legislators are starved for information on what’s happening in the street. And artists are undeniably the experts on the social benefits of having a robust state arts agency. When no one shows up in legislators’ offices to push for the arts, they understandably conclude that no one cares.

Today the GCA persists, but in much reduced circumstances. Down from its $4.2 million state budget high in 2008, the state will shell out only $890,735 in 2011. Other metrics of the organization’s health are equally dire: The number of contracts with arts organizations is down from 833 in 2009 to less than 300 for 2011. Grant programs in Traditional Arts and Arts Education have been defunded entirely and a lone program manager remains on staff.

And there may be more cuts to come. The Legislature meets in January for its midterm budget review and the GCA has already been told to prepare for cuts that may go as high as an additional 8 percent.

The stealth carnage that creeps into Atlanta’s art community while no one’s looking is inexcusable.

There’s enough blame to go around: elected officials whose public reactions to art range from indifference to hostility and a local arts press that rouses itself from its poetic reveries only when it smells the charred flesh of an active controversy, for starters. GCA doesn’t help its own cause either with its almost nonexistent public profile and its inability, or unwillingness, to tap the creative fire that artists have in spades.

But the artists themselves are most deeply affected and it’s the artists that ultimately must deliver the heat. Not only is lobbying the state Legislature on behalf of the arts not in GCA’s job description, it’s actively prohibited; state agencies are barred from pleading their case to legislators.

That means if rank and file artists don’t advocate for change no one will. Artists and arts organizations literally have to turn up on the other side of the legislator’s desk — and in numbers — or they will always think of artists as unicorns: fascinating, but irrelevant.

The GCA’s budget has been falling for years. When the organization was just about to go belly up, the rally for the arts demonstrated the art community’s ability to make concrete change. Now the challenge is to get inside the Capitol before the next crisis puts us back out on the front steps.

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