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Fulton County commissioners called for a “new paradigm going forward” in arts funding.

The Fulton County Commission unanimously approved $1.48 million in proposed contracts-for-services grants for the county’s arts program just after noon today, but not before several board members warned that next year could bring a sharp decrease in funding.

“We might continue this year,” said Liz Hausman, a North Fulton Republican, “but I venture to say we might not be able to support it at this level in the future.”

Perhaps surprisingly, the county arts program received the bluntest criticism from the most staunchly Democratic part of the county. Commissioners Emma Darnell and Bill Edwards, who represent Fulton’s southern half, had alarmed some arts advocates last month when they pulled the funding proposal off the commission’s consent agenda at its July meeting, a move that delayed a vote until today.

While the delay proved merely a procedural speed bump, Darnell and Edwards used their speaking time to signal their displeasure with the arts program as presently configured. “I don’t think our funds are being spread equitably across the county,” said Edwards, who complained that South Fulton “gets nothing.”

After taking a moment to accuse the Fulton County Arts Council of trying to take more than its share of credit for doling out arts grants, Darnell warned that the county is facing a “huge deficit” at the end of the upcoming budget year. “How do I use resources to support the arts when we have seniors who are going hungry?” she asked semi-rhetorically.

Commissioner Joan Garner, a former member of the county arts council, was the only board member who offered unqualified support for the program. “The arts make valuable contributions not only to Atlanta and Fulton County, but to the Southern region and to the United States and abroad,” Garner said. “We know it generates revenues and offers a way to honor and express our culture.”

Several local arts groups — Eyedrum, the Center for Puppetry Arts, Horizon Theatre, the Spelman College Arts Museum, Actor’s Express and C-4 Atlanta — sent representatives to the meeting to speak in favor of the grant vote.

When the vote was called, there were five yea votes, including Chairman John Eaves and Commissioner Tom Lowe of Sandy Springs, who did not speak on the matter. Edwards had left the room by then, and at-large Commissioner Robb Pitts was not present.

During the meeting, several ideas were suggested by commissioners that will likely be further discussed by the arts council and its supporters. Hausman, in particular, wondered why the council and its counterpart, the Atlanta Office of Cultural Affairs, don’t coordinate their grant activities in light of the high degree of overlap. Darnell demanded more private-sector support for the county arts program in what sounded like a request for matching grants. Edwards wanted a larger share of the grants pie to go to South Fulton. And Eaves said the county should look into ways it can better monetize facilities such as arts centers and performance venues.

In closing, Eaves called for a “new paradigm going forward” for the grants program, a vague pronouncement likely to cause more hand-wringing in the arts community.

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