Reflections on an Arts Forum

Last night we attended a public arts forum with Mayor Reed. As always, any time we get to sit in a room with an elected official — no matter whether we agree with the official’s policies and positions — in such an intimate setting, it is a privilege. We would like to first take this moment to thank Mayor Reed for his time and attention, and for receiving the challenge the community offered him to more strongly stand for the arts.

Among the many comments yesterday, two stood out to me precisely because they seemed to be among the least welcome comments in the room while they were spoken.

The first person appeared to be the youngest one in the room — she stood up in response to the question, “What role does art and culture play in supporting quality of life?” During her speech, she was ignored by some in the room. Perhaps its because the youngest among us are also those with the least access to money or other resources. Granted, she was not the most eloquent person to speak (and nor was I when I spoke, quite frankly). But she offered concrete examples of some of the ways citizens have used the arts as a tool for community improvement.

And this is the point I believe she was getting at: that the arts serve as an effective tool for citizen engagement — whether through community festivals, public art (temporary or permanent), productions, and so on. Some art is produced and presented by professionals, and some art is produced through collaborations with audiences.

This is why there is no “silver bullet” or “unified theory” type of answer as to why the arts are important. As a tool for civic engagement, artists collaborate with people in many sectors of the economy for a wide variety of community benefits: quality education, crime prevention, economic development, and so on. I believe this was part of the speaker’s point.

The second person who caught my attention made what seemed to be some of the most controversial remarks in the forum. He stood up to answer the question, “What type of infrastructure does art and culture need to support initiatives noted above?” He spoke forcefully of the burden of having to go through a lengthy and expensive process to obtain a liquor license for his for-profit improv theater space. It’s probably an understatement to say that his remarks didn’t quite meet with approval from the rest of the audience for a number of reasons — more reasons than I could adequately describe here.

However, I do want to bring out a larger point from this remark. I believe it is one that affects everyone who works in the arts, whether for-profit or non-profit. It happens very often in forums like these that we tend to compare our city’s arts ecosystem with those in other cities. “Chicago does ABC — why don’t we?” “Austin does XYZ — why don’t we?” Comparisons like these are fair, and should be sources of inspiration. Whether in our comparisons to other places, or in our own right, we should never apologize for aspiring to become a better city, a better region, or a better state.

It is in that spirit that I would offer comparisons between Atlanta and the sort of city or region we would like for this place to become. Georgia is one of very few states where non-profit arts organizations must charge sales taxes. This, of course, is an economic burden on those who choose to participate in the arts — and these taxes disproportionately affect those who are least able to afford them. This policy also limits the number of options arts administrators have in choosing the best ticketing software for their companies.

Atlanta also burdens its arts industry through euclidean zoning ordinances that have the effect of separating arts organizations from the communities they are meant to serve. Why should art spaces only exist in commercial or non-residential districts?

To put it succinctly, there is a point here that could very well be argued: that Atlanta’s artists and arts organizations are taxed more, regulated more and funded less than their peers in competing cities. We do not have the data to make this argument unequivocally, but it is an argument worth considering. After all, there are also ways Atlanta competes favorably with New York City — much love to New York, but y’all don’t have everything.

Our job, as we see it, is to help make Atlanta a more interesting place for artists. But we’re humble enough to say out loud we can’t do it all ourselves. That’s why we look to the best practices found in other cities and form partnerships with other service providers to offer the best services at the lowest cost to the community.

We also look to you for your leadership and support. It’s one thing for us to say as a community that more funding is needed. And it is needed; we must continue to demonstrate how much value we create for our communities, even as we tend to capture very little of that value. But it’s also another thing entirely to generate additional support from the public by keeping our base of support motivated. It is not enough to create a strategic plan that relies on the miracle principle to sell more tickets.

As a tool for civic engagement, the arts are clearly important to the life of our communities. Support for the arts creates a super-multiplier effect that goes unappreciated when its not adequately measured. Let’s work together to make a strong case of support. In these tough economic times, it’s more important than ever to make the case, rather than excuses.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *