Funding for the arts is on the decline

Athens has always been known as an arts-friendly city that provides various forums to engage in artistic experiences, but that may not always be the case.

Due to the current economic environment, funds are decreasing, and funds for the arts are consistently being cut.  “Funding goes through cycles,” said Stuart Miller, Administrator of the Arts Division at the Athens Clarke County Department of Leisure Services. “Now less of a percentage goes to the arts than in 2000. Over the past couple of years, the endowments have shrunk and people have to prioritize, unfortunately the arts are not always given top priority.”

According to Miller, the Georgia Council for the Arts, Georgia’s state agency is facing a huge budget crunch. “Their budget has decreased by 75 percent over the past four years,” said Miller. “They began with $4.2 million and they are now down to $800,000.”

In fact, due to the current economic climate, the Georgia Council for the Arts has amended its mission statement on its website, to read, “The mission of Georgia Council for the Arts is access to the arts for all Georgians, with the primary responsibility to the state’s nonprofit arts industry.” The council is choosing to add on the section about nonprofits, to highlight its new focus and responsibility to the nonprofit arts.

While the state budget is depleting, the federal budget is increasing. However, the increase in money is only to keep up with the increase in various groups and organizations wanting that money. “The good news is there is money to be had,” said Miller. “The bad news is more hands than ever are wanting that money.”

So, how is all of this effecting local arts organizations in Athens?

According to Miller, the Arts Division of the ACC Leisure Services is hurting. “Locally the ACC is cutting back and Leisure Services is a part of that,” said Miller. This cutting back trickles all the way down to the arts department and as a result we have had to cut our budget by 5 percent over the past two years. This means that we are not able to offer all the programs we offered two years ago.”

When asked about the option of private grants, Miller said that while they have received private grants before, they are currently using only public grants. “It is just a bad time to fundraise and ask for money,” said Miller.

Unfortunately, the situation is similar at the Athens Area Arts Council. Laura Inefh, President of the Athens Area Arts Council, notes that arts grants are down due to the economy, but that the organization is trying to get public assistance via SPLOST (special-purpose local-options tax) funds for public art installations in Athens. “So far we made the first cut, but I not sure yet how it will end up,” said Inefh.  “The Arts Council currently raises funds via private donations for the city’s art projects. We currently do all of our art installations and fundraising through a dedicated group of volunteers.”

However, the organization has faced challenges because of the economy. “We fund the artists’ portion of the artist designed bus shelters.  In our first round, we were able to obtain four sponsors who funded the shelters in their entirety ($5,000 each),” said Inefh. “Now we are faced with smaller private donations and fierce competition for grant funds as Athens is concentrating on poverty issues.”

Despite the challenges, Inefh remains positive and offers advice on how to improve the situation. “We (the city of Athens) are in the enviable position of being a small town with a national cultural reputation.  However, we need our town to organize a consistent funding mechanism, like a dedicated arts SPLOST, or Percent for Art fund, to assist nonprofits arts organizations with programming,” said Inefh. “That way they can spend more time developing arts events, festivals etc., that are tourist oriented, and not have to spend most of their waking hours trying to produce funding.  Most culturally savvy cities support their arts organizations this way.”

Luckily, there may be hope on the horizon if House Bill 1049 is passed by the Georgia House of Representatives. The proposed bill was introduced on Feb. 1, 2010 and “would allow each county the flexibility to pass a sales tax (be it a full penny or a fraction of a penny) to go toward supporting arts and cultural organizations, economic development incentives and quality-of-life initiatives,” according to the Atlanta Business Chronicle.  

Each county would be able to vote on whether or not to implement the tax as well as the percentage of the tax that would go towards funding the arts. If the proposed bill is passed, a three-tier system would be implemented, with the organizations classified into three different levels.

According to the proposed bill, grants would be awarded as follows: “To the largest 10 percent of qualified local cultural organizations, excluding artist and support organizations, a total annual sum equal to 15 percent of their combined average annual gross revenues for their past three fiscal years; to the next largest 30 percent of qualified local cultural organizations, excluding artist and support organizations, a total annual sum equal to 17 percent of their combined average annual gross revenues for their past three fiscal years; and to the remaining 60 percent of qualified local cultural organizations, excluding artist and support organizations, a total annual sum equal to 19 percent of their combined average annual gross revenues for their past three fiscal years.”

If the bill passes, funding for the arts will increase and hopefully Georgia’s ranking of 47th in the nation for arts funding will improve, because the arts are an integral part of Athens and the state of Georgia as a whole.

Despite these trying times, many leaders of local Athens art organizations are optimistic. “As the economy improves and businesses start making money again, I suspect it will be easier to fundraise,” said Miller. “I am hoping that this improvement will begin by fiscal year 2012.”

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