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A ripped dollar bill represents arts funding

10 Years of ArtsATL: Georgia ranks 49th in government arts funding 

Editor’s note: Funding is a constant challenge for arts organizations, particularly in a state that ranks 49th in government support for the arts. In 2012, we published a special report by journalist Scott Henry that looked into deteriorating arts funding from both government sources and corporations. Nearly 10 years later, arts funding remains a low priority for the state of Georgia. We still rank 49th in state appropriations.

To celebrate our 10th anniversary, we will republish each week a story from our archives that sparked strong reaction from readers, showcased great writing or marked historic hallmarks in the evolution of Atlanta’s arts community.

ArtsATL is a nonprofit that depends on your support. Please help us be here another 10 years with a donation.


Just as with any other struggling industry, arts professionals are always hunting and experimenting to find the next workable revenue-generating model to help their organizations survive what now seems like a permanent economic slump.

In September, Atlanta’s Office of Cultural Affairs rolled out Power2Give, an online fundraising tool borrowed from Charlotte’s successful Arts & Science Council, which in turn was inspired by the education charity website

In Atlanta’s version, arts groups will be able to post to the website a description of a specific project that needs up to $5,000 in funding, says OCA Director Camille Russell Love. Perhaps a theater wants to build an ambitious set or a dance troupe has a public performance in mind. If a project appeals, people can donate online in whatever amount they like. When half the dollar total of a project has been reached, the city will match the donations one-to-one and hand the money over. Using this method, the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia has already raised the money to underwrite the catalog for a retrospective of Atlanta artist Ruth Laxson.

Love says the OCA has set aside $220,000 in matching funds for the current fiscal year. By contrast, Charlotte raised $500,000 with its version last year.

Camille Russell Love
Camille Russell Love

The well-intentioned but modest Power2Give certainly won’t be the savior of an Atlanta arts community starved for funding. But it’s one of the very few bright spots on an arts horizon clouded by shrinking government support, moribund corporate giving, a shrinking pool of charitable grants and an inhospitable political climate.

“The situation is continuing to deteriorate,” says Joe Bankoff, former president and chief executive officer of the Woodruff Arts Center. “The level of [government] support for the arts has been on a downward slope for almost 10 years.”

Bankoff cites the Georgia Council for the Arts as the most prominent example. The council’s grant-giving peaked at $4.5 million in 2002, and last year it was folded into the state’s Department of Economic Development, its budget shared with small-town welcome centers and local tourism projects. For the current fiscal year, the council awarded less than $800,000 in operating funds statewide — even as it brags that grant recipients “generated more than $858 million in revenue for the state” in the past five years — with individual grants topping out at around $32,000 for the Savannah Music Festival and Atlanta’s Center for Puppetry Arts. Additionally, project-specific funds totaling approximately $100,000 were doled out to another 41 small arts organizations in dollops of $2,500 or less.

Lack of Government Support

Long one of the stingiest states in terms of support for the arts, Georgia is now virtually at rock bottom, not willing even to put up enough money to collect the full amount of matching funds available from the National Endowment for the Arts. This year’s grants fall $300,000 short of the NEA’s allocations.

According to the National Assembly of Arts Agencies, government funding for the arts this year in the Peach State was just $574,268, a mere 6 cents per resident. Alabama, with a population half the size of Georgia’s, gave out $1 million more in arts grants, or 70 cents per person. Texas parceled out 11 cents per Lone Star State resident. The only state more tightfisted than Georgia is Arizona, which distributes no arts funding at all. (Arizona does, however, dedicate nearly $1.4 million for the arts through business license fees.)

Times are much better for arts patrons in Tennessee, which spends $1.37 per capita, North Carolina at 76 cents and Florida at 66 cents. Minnesota spends the most per resident on the arts: $5.77. Hawaii is second at $3.72 and Rhode Island third at $2.31.

Adding to the bad news for arts lovers is the shrinking budget of Fulton County, which had long been Georgia’s most robust and dedicated supporter of the arts, often handing out more grant money locally than the Georgia Council for the Arts provided across the state. In 2002, the Fulton County Arts Council awarded $3.4 million in “contacts for services,” its term for arts grants. Just last month, the county approved a grant package of less than half that amount — $1.48 million — with warnings from commissioners that arts groups shouldn’t expect that much next year.

Mayor Kasim Reed
Mayor Kasim Reed

In contrast, the city of Atlanta has given arts groups a reason to smile this year, after giving them a scare. In balancing the city’s $545 million budget, Mayor Kasim Reed initially proposed cutting arts grants in half, from $470,000 to $235,000. After arts supporters turned out in force at a City Council meeting to protest, and even demonstrated on the street outside, Reed not only reversed course but more than quadrupled his original proposal for arts grants to a cool million dollars.

WonderRoot Executive Director Chris Appleton, one of the most outspoken critics of the proposed funding cut, was elated by Reed’s decision. “It’s incredible leadership from the mayor and great advocacy from Camille Love,” he says. “It shows that the mayor values the role that art and culture plays in the city, and that city leaders listen to their citizens.”

The Atlanta Office of Cultural Affairs — which operates the Chastain Arts Center and the Cyclorama, stages the free annual Atlanta Jazz Festival and sponsors a public arts program — has a total budget of $2.4 million, only slightly more than it was a decade ago and less than the $3.3 million budget Love inherited when she took the job in 1998.

Feeling the Pressure

Adding to the pinch, the Metropolitan Atlanta Arts Fund, the fourth leg of the local public arts funding scene, is pulling back this year. A private nonprofit organization that has long acted like a public agency, the arts fund recently completed a three-year grants-in-overdrive campaign, handing out semi-annual packages totaling $1 million a year in an effort to help its beneficiaries get through the financial slump. But the slump has lasted longer than its surge, so the fund has reverted to its traditional once-a-year grant schedule; this December it will award just $800,000 to local arts groups.

Marietta’s Theatre in the Square closed after 30 years due to financial pressures.

A 2008 study conducted by the Metropolitan Atlanta Arts Fund of 40 small to midsized arts groups determined that three-fourths of them had less than three months of operating funds on hand, says director Lisa Cremin, and half weren’t making enough to cover their bills. “They owed more than they owned,” she says. “Atlanta has a very undercapitalized arts community, and that includes some of the oldest, best-known and most vital organizations.”

In just the past year, three of metro Atlanta’s premier theatrical groups — Actor’s Express, Georgia Shakespeare and Theatre in the Square — have appealed to supporters for financial assistance in order to keep their doors open. Even with a $30,000 emergency grant from the city of Marietta, Theatre in the Square closed its doors in March after 30 years of operation.

It’s worth asking how we got to this point.

Falling revenue and shifting politics have affected state and county funding. Just before it was subsumed into the Department of Economic Development and its grant money slashed, the Georgia Council for the Arts was headed by Susan Weiner, a former Savannah mayor and ex-Republican political operative. Weiner, who died August 11, had frequently butted heads with state lawmakers over details of legislation for a fractional tax. Critics say that Weiner’s abrasive style cost the arts council political support and led to its being effectively downsized.

With longtime arts advocate Nancy Boxill now retired from the Fulton County Commission and former Commission Chairman Michael Lomax, the founder of Atlanta’s National Black Arts Festival, a distant memory, the commission seems to have less appetite for funding the arts. Southside Commissioners Emma Darnell and Bill Edwards have worked to shift resources into building and operating new facilities, such as Wolf Creek Amphitheater and the Tuskegee Aviation Cultural Center, both west of I-285. The struggling 5,400-seat amphitheater was forced to cancel a planned concert in early June after selling only 215 tickets, and offers less than 1,500 parking spaces in close proximity. If the cash-strapped county, which did not raise its tax rate this year, moves ahead with a $275 million library construction program, it could need to cannibalize more arts funding in order to keep the new libraries open.

“I’m really not encouraged about the future,” says Fulton Arts Council Chairman Charles Green.

The Woodruff Effect

Atlanta’s problems go back many years.

Some observers believe that the specter of the 1962 Paris plane crash disaster still hangs over the Atlanta arts community a half-century later. More than 100 Atlantans, including many of the city’s top arts patrons, were killed in the crash of Air France Flight 007 at the end of a monthlong trip to Europe. Yet in some ways it also marked the modern era of Atlanta’s arts world when Coca-Cola Chairman Robert Woodruff famously stepped forward four years later to endow the Atlanta Memorial Arts Center in memory of the victims. The Memorial Arts Center was renamed the Woodruff Arts Center in 1982.

Robert Woodruff and arts funding
Robert Woodruff

The Woodruff’s prominence, professionalism and reputation for turning out high-quality mainstream work has made it a safe bet for corporate sponsors and other well-heeled donors. But even a $100 million-plus annual budget hasn’t completely insulated the Woodruff’s four member organizations — the Alliance Theatre, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, the High Museum of Art and Young Audiences — from financial turbulence. Bankoff, who left the Woodruff earlier this year, points out that it has fallen short of its fund-raising goals twice in the past five years.

The musicians of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra were locked out of their jobs after their labor contract expired in August; an agreement was reached in late September that included $5.2 million in salary concessions from the musicians over the next two years. No closer to building a new Symphony Hall than it was a decade ago, the ASO says it has almost $20 million in accumulated debt and must erase annual deficits of $5 million.

The Woodruff’s overall success at raising money arguably has come at the expense of smaller arts groups. Even the handful of other local arts organizations with annual budgets topping $2 million — Atlanta Ballet, The Atlanta Opera, the Center for Puppetry Arts, the National Black Arts Festival and Theater of the Stars — have struggled from time to time.

In 2011, the Atlanta Opera announced that it had received a staggering $9 million bequest from the late Barbara Stewart, a longtime opera board member who died in December 2010. It was the largest gift in the opera’s history and helped the struggling company find its financial footing. Half of the bequest will be used to grow the opera’s permanent endowment. Stewart also left $1.5 million each to the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the High Museum of Art.

In response to the shaky state of the arts in Atlanta, the Metro Atlanta Arts and Culture Coalition was formed in 2002. Funded by local governments, the coalition’s mission was to promote the arts through various efforts, including the introduction of Atlanta PlanIt, an online listing service. MAACC and other groups have pushed unsuccessfully for a dedicated tax to support arts organizations. Those efforts were put on hold this year as local politicians focused on the Transportation Investment Act, which was soundly rejected by metro voters on July 31. The outlook for a local arts tax is uncertain: although some supporters believe the campaign should be revived, anti-tax fervor among suburban voters could place its success in doubt in a Fulton-wide vote.

MAACC, whose effectiveness has been widely debated, sold Atlanta PlanIt to WPBA for $1, and the coalition was absorbed by the Atlanta Regional Commission earlier this year.

Looking For a Patron Saint

Although Robert Woodruff is rightly considered a savior of Atlanta’s cultural scene, he was representative of a certain breed of patron who acts more out of civic duty than a genuine passion for the arts. Atlanta has never been home to a well-heeled champion who is also a true believer, on the level of a John de Menil in Houston, a Peggy Guggenheim or Ronald Lauder in Manhattan, a J. Paul Getty in Los Angeles or even a Hugh McColl, the retired NationsBank chief who has established endowments for several arts organizations in Charlotte and become a rainmaker for that city’s arts scene.

Harriet Sanford, a former director of the Fulton Arts Council who became the first director of Charlotte’s Arts and Science Council, says the importance of having top-tier leadership such as McColl’s cannot be overstated. “That kind of enthusiasm becomes contagious and other business leaders follow,” says Sanford, who now heads the NEA Foundation in Washington.

And, although Atlanta boasts more than its share of Fortune 500 companies — including Coca-Cola, Home Depot, Delta Air Lines, Georgia-Pacific and United Parcel Service — those companies’ charitable arms more often give to umbrella agencies such as the Metropolitan Atlanta Arts Fund than directly to individual arts groups, unless it’s to one of the Woodruff organizations.

Louis Corrigan and arts funding
Louis Corrigan, founder of Flux Projects and Possible Futures.

There are exceptions, of course. In the past year, the Home Depot Foundation has awarded grants to Georgia Shakespeare and the Center for Puppetry Arts; Actor’s Express has netted sponsorships from IBM and a SunTrust Bank subsidiary; the Atlanta Film Festival has gotten money from Turner Broadcasting; and the National Black Arts Festival has received support from a laundry list of major corporations. But most local arts groups are more likely to list neighborhood businesses as sponsors.

On a somewhat smaller scale, there are a number of private charitable groups giving to the arts, such as the Lubo Fund, administered by philanthropist and photographer Lucinda Bunnen; the Charles Loridans Foundation, a memorial fund overseen by attorney Bob Edge that awards grants to visual and performing arts groups; and the Kendeda Fund, a deep-pocketed foundation controlled by a prominent Atlanta family (its identity is a secret) that also has given generously to small and mid-sized theaters, the Museum of Design Atlanta and other groups.

A relative newcomer to the arts philanthropy scene is Louis Corrigan.

Corrigan is the investment research analyst who founded Flux Projects and the Possible Futures foundation, which support public art projects, arts criticism and other visual arts and dance endeavors. (Full disclosure: Corrigan is a major contributor to ArtsATL and is chairman of its board.) Although he declines to put a figure on his largesse, Corrigan confirms that he single-handedly gave more money to local arts groups last year than the $466,000 in grants awarded by the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs.

Corrigan’s tastes are decidedly edgier than most major arts supporters, and his giving has been strategic in nature, following his belief that fledgling arts organizations need a break from the fund-raising treadmill in order to build audiences and develop sustainable operating models.

“If you could have just 10 years of support, where it’s easier for them to make long-term plans, I think we’d see programs grow into self-sufficiency,” Corrigan says. “Beating the bushes for money makes groups war-weary. I see arts institutions getting into the victim mode.”

One group that has managed to beat the odds is Atlanta Ballet, which closed out a three-year capital campaign early this year by overshooting its $14.8 million goal by nearly 50 percent, bringing in $20.7 million — enough to buy and renovate its own building for studios, classrooms and offices. Executive Director Arturo Jacobus says the ballet’s success is mostly the result of an emphasis on the basics of hard work, strategic planning, savvy marketing and an understanding of its artistic mission.

“I can’t say we’ve cracked the sustainability nut, but we spent the last three years working on the dual tracks of building our brand and building our endowment, and it paid off,” Jacobus says. “There’s no magic bullet to raising support, but knowing where you want to go is really important.” He says the ballet just began work on a five-year plan and goes into its next season with a $9 million budget, up from $8.5 million this past year.

The Mad Scramble for Cash

Atlanta Ballet’s success story is becoming more and more rare. With government support waning, it’s necessary for most arts organizations to adapt, innovate and network, and for arts supporters to experiment with new revenue models. Two organizations that have proven most adept at finding new sources of cash have been Dad’s Garage Theatre Company and WonderRoot.

Dad’s Garage has effectively sidestepped the fund-raising rat race by earning more than half of its annual budget from ticket sales and concessions, which it does by maintaining a frenetic pace of touring, improvisational sessions, video production and online projects that help it connect with a broad audience.

Arturo Jacobus and arts funding
Atlanta Ballet’s Arturo Jacobus (Photo by Charlie McCullers)

WonderRoot’s Chris Appleton says that his organization — which runs a community arts center to foster the arts and social change — has benefited from building relationships, both with other arts groups and with the larger Atlanta community, through engagement with colleges, nonprofit entities and civic groups. Those activities have introduced WonderRoot to decision-makers in the position to open doors, as with its involvement in the Atlanta BeltLine’s $250,000 public art program.

Earlier this year, WonderRoot, Burnaway  and MINT Gallery  co-hosted Gather Atlanta, an annual networking event for arts groups held at the High Museum of Art.

It’s all about being plugged in, says Appleton. “The emergence of a grass-roots, independent arts community is a much larger part of the Atlanta ecosystem than it was a few years ago, and the giving community has come around,” he says.

As for new revenue models, there’s Idea Capital, an online micro-granting fund modeled on, founded by local arts advocates three years ago. In 2011, the fund made seven grants to local arts projects totaling $8,000.

But for a large-scale, dependable revenue stream, there’s really no substitute for a dedicated tax. Locally, the approximately $20 million a year raised by the hotel-motel tax is already claimed by the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Georgia World Congress Center Authority, which will likely use it to pay the note on a new football stadium. Last year, San Francisco’s bed tax delivered nearly $9 million to its arts community.

Just last month, metro Detroit voters approved a property tax that’s expected to raise $23 million a year for the arts, while Portlanders face a fall referendum to decide whether to tax themselves a flat $35 per person to generate an estimated $9 million a year for the arts there.

In Atlanta, however, the only proposal on the table is a local sales tax for an as-yet-undetermined fraction of a percent that would be divvied up among the arts and economic development projects to be named later.

The absorption of the Metro Atlanta Arts and Culture Coalition by the Atlanta Regional Commission has been widely perceived as an encouraging development. Many observers think it will give the arts prominent status in planning efforts, instead of being the afterthought they have always been. The Metropolitan Atlanta Arts Fund’s Lisa Cremin, for one, hopes the ARC will use its muscle to make the case for public support of the arts on a regional basis.

Corrigan, however, isn’t nearly as optimistic. “We don’t have creative visionary leadership in politics or the corporate world,” he says. “If you want to do it, you have to do it yourself.”