In Atlanta’s first mayoral election since the onset of the Covid pandemic, candidates face new or exacerbated concerns around crime, health, racism, education and reviving the economy. What if there were a single investment that could address all these issues to improve the quality of life of all Atlantans? What if it were the arts?
I’m not suggesting that the arts are a magical elixir, but there is considerable evidence across many regions and decades that intentional investments in arts and culture by cities and states bring the very benefits we so desperately need at this moment. It’s way past time to urge our leaders and our next mayor to find a dedicated source of recurring revenue for the arts in our city.
The pandemic has pulled and pushed many of us into challenging circumstances. We are all on edge, and for good reason. As we recover from one of the bleakest periods of our lifetime, Americans remain stressed. A recent survey by the United States Census Bureau reports that one third of the population is showing signs of anxiety or depression — a tripling over just the previous year. The Kaiser Family Foundation reports that nearly half of Americans believe the pandemic is harming their mental health.
I’ve witnessed the power of the arts close up over the last two years. A friend diagnosed with Alzheimer’s is filled with joy playing the piano, remembering even complex compositions. One of my dearest friends, who lost his wife to Covid, is finding some reprieve from grief and loneliness by lovingly crafting ceramics and sharing them with friends and relatives.
We are all craving renewed human contact, spiritual uplift, community engagement and just plain fun. The arts hold the promise to meet those fundamental human needs. Art tells our personal and communal stories; it knocks down barriers and highlights our shared humanity. The arts strengthen our communities — socially, educationally and economically. As we seek to re-build our community and address inequalities, the arts inspire us to imagine another world.
During my tenure at the Blank Foundation we invested in revitalizing Westside neighborhoods and art played a powerful role in community building. At the Bellwood Boys and Girls Club, young people worked with a local artist to create a mural that expressed their feelings of pride in themselves. Neighbors joined together to paint a series of murals that transformed a bleak street into a tribute to community heroes. The art, whether permanent or transitory, brought people together with a shared voice and a common purpose.
To win the 21st century, cities must imagine and create a new future that fosters positive relationships, joyful places to congregate, and physical and mental well-being. To recover fully from the pandemic, we need to continue to fuel our economy and unify our communities. The arts do both!
Public funding for the arts comes from federal, state and local governments. Sadly, despite the compelling evidence that voters care about arts and culture – and understand their value — the city of Atlanta and the state of Georgia rank at the bottom of the country in public investment to the arts. For every dollar the city of Atlanta’s Office of Cultural Affairs invested over the last five years (a total of $18.64 million), the city of Charlotte, North Carolina, invested nearly two and a half times as much ($44.65 million).
At the state level, we’re doing even worse. Georgia is the eighth most populous state in the United States. Yet, we rank between 48th and 50th in state appropriations to the arts at 14 cents per capita. Mississippi allocates 50 cents per capita and Alabama spends $1.21. In 2020, Georgia appropriated a total of $1.5 million to the arts, compared to Alabama’s $5.8 million, Tennessee’s $8 million and North Carolina’s $8.3 million.
Public investment ensures that all residents, no matter their economic or social status, can enjoy rich arts experiences. When arts organizations rely on ticket sales and philanthropy alone, their audiences skew toward those with greater financial means. When cities and states contribute to the arts, they can require fair and equitable access, so that all families can engage in a wealth of arts and cultural activities. City investment results in positive educational outcomes for our children and humanistic urban development. Public investment also stimulates private philanthropy. Every $1 of public money generates $9 in private funding.
It’s not for lack of trying. Back in 2006, then-mayor Shirley Franklin asked me to lead a task force to determine how much money it would take to provide a strong and sustainable foundation for Atlanta’s nonprofit arts organizations and to identify potential revenue sources. The goal was to make high quality arts widely available to all Atlantans. Like parks, arts should be an amenity for everyone — no matter where they live or how much money they make.
The task force’s research revealed that an annual investment of $12-14 million (in today’s dollars) from the city of Atlanta would allow small, culturally specific organizations to thrive and, at the same time, enable the larger institutions to create relevant programming for an increasingly diverse community.
Cities across the country have identified a wide range of sources of ongoing dedicated revenue for the arts. Atlanta’s new mayor has a wealth of options to consider. For example, the city already has the legal authority to raise the local sales tax by a very modest 1/10th of a penny, which would generate the necessary $12-14 million annually.
Mechanisms other cities have implemented include:
— Small property or other tax increases, like those we have for parks and green space
— Developer fees to ensure that as private developers reap benefits, they also give back to the community
— Arts districts that create affordable housing, studio space and retail space for artists using devices such as TADs (tax allocation districts)
— Ticket surcharges
— Bond issues
— A portion of the current hotel-motel tax
Just as our task force released its report to Franklin in 2007, the country faced the worst recession since the Great Depression. City revenues declined. Public resources and private philanthropy focused on hunger, housing, health and human services.
As the country began to emerge from the recession, the task force approached mayor Franklin’s successor Kasim Reed, urging him to help identify a revenue stream for the arts. Mayor Reed appreciated the need and imagined a multi-county effort, but politics got in the way of vision.
I wish he could meet Inocente. As a child in San Diego, Inocente was homeless, troubled and on the brink of tragedy. Her life was torn by domestic violence, a mother suffering from addiction and a life where suicide was counted as a real option. The one spark of opportunity readily available and powerful enough to save Inocente was the arts. A documentary film about her won the 2013 Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subject).
“Art just kind of kept me away from all the bad things I could have been doing. I felt it saved my life,” she told an audience at a 2012 Blank Foundation speakers series event.
So here we are. We’re emerging from a social and economic catastrophe even more devastating than the 2008 recession. Not only have many sectors of the economy collapsed, our spirits have been crushed. We’ve lost friends and loved ones. We’ve suffered isolation and separation. We long for the spiritual renewal the arts provide. That longing is so profound that many arts organizations have managed to stay alive, if not healthy, by bringing us stories, performances and programming virtually. Now, as they prepare to open for live performances and exhibitions, the city of Atlanta and the next administration have a unique opportunity to contribute to our social, emotional and economic well-being with robust investments in the arts and artists who reach the deepest wells of our spirit.
Author Arundhati Roy recently wrote, “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”
With leadership and will, the next administration can fight to ensure that Atlanta lives up to its promise as a welcoming, creative, competitive, forward-looking city by investing in the arts and artists who tell our stories and help us imagine and achieve a better future.
Penelope McPhee is president emeritus of The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, having served as president for 17 years. Previously, she was vice president and chief program officer at The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in Miami. She is co-author of Martin Luther King Jr: A Documentary, Montgomery to Memphis. Her award-winning biography of the civil rights leader, King Remembered, was published in 1986. McPhee continues to be actively involved in Atlanta’s civic, political and artistic communities.