Where do the arts in Atlanta stand?

Lisa Cremin and Kathie deNobriga

On November 12, 2000, a headline on the front page of the Atlanta Journal/Constitution read, "Study finds Atlanta arts community trailing peers." A full-page story in Section A followed. This one headline challenged the city's cherished self-assessment as "cultural jewel of the South" and quietly affirmed the suspicions of many of its artists and cultural workers.

This is the story about the headline, the study, and the volunteer efforts of an incorporated ad hoc group that calls itself the Atlanta Arts Think Tank and that commissioned the landmark study.

To understand the study's impact, it is important to understand the cultural climate of Atlanta and its history. The 1996 Summer Olympics left many arts and cultural leaders greatly disappointed. The Cultural Olympiad's hopes of sparking a cultural renaissance in Atlanta did not catch fire. No legacy materialized. In many camps, art spirits were low. The Think Tank was created by arts and cultural leaders, in large part, as a way to process their unmet expectations.

In post-Olympic reflection, several arts leaders realized that the arts community had once again allowed others to set the agenda. Specifically, Harriet Sanford (then executive director of the Fulton County Arts Council), Del Hamilton (artistic director of 7 Stages), and Louise Shaw (then executive director of Nexus Contemporary Art Center, now called The Contemporary) began to think about what could make a difference. They decided to call together a group of arts leaders and respected colleagues to talk about what was important to us, without an external, imposed agenda and without the bureaucracy and organizational burdens that had stifled some previous efforts. They envisioned a "Think Tank," where a variety of arts leaders could merely think. And talk.

Developing trust and respect
Sanford, Hamilton, and Shaw invited a small group of folks for a lunch conversation in December 1996. We thought — and we talked. And we saw a value in continuing the conversation. “Thinkers” included working artists, directors of arts organizations large and small, government agency staff members, and private funders. We all shed labels and titles in order to have an intimate conversation about the state of the arts in Atlanta.

By the summer of 1997, a core group of fifteen established a regular monthly habit of meeting for lunch and talking. Participants brought lunches and sat in galleries or on stages. Early discussion was devoted to the discussion of “who's not at the table.” Initially, we were concerned with being representative and inclusive. After investing hours on the subject, we recognized that, taken collectively, we did not reflect the demographics of Atlanta. At the same time we did not intend to “represent” anything other than ourselves. Ultimately we decided to stay with a small group, to promote deep dialogue and a rich exchange of ideas, and to build trust. New people were added sparingly to the core group. While moving forward, we acknowledged that many voices were absent from the discussion.

For more than three years, this self-generated and self-directed group met to compare trends, share challenges and successes, even engage in a bit of collegial gossip. Everyone agreed to “leave their hats at the door” — maintaining confidentiality, engaging as respected colleagues, and setting aside organizational affiliations. We could speak from our hearts and imaginations without risk of having unpopular opinions or wacky ideas reflect on our institutions. This candor, free exchange of information, and often divergent points of view created a rich, nourishing stew served up monthly.

At first, conversation itself was rewarding and sufficient. We were hungry to connect with each other. Occasionally guests (usually individuals at the center of some concern we were grappling with) were invited to join the conversation, but their contribution to the dialogue was noticeably more hesitant since they did not have the year of trust that we shared.

Going public: inadvertent leaders
After about a year, the urge to do something about it grew more compelling for some “Tankers,” as we called ourselves. Others, like Hamilton, advocated preserving the Think Tank as a place for reflective thinking, an increasing rarity in today's world. Nonetheless, slowly the decision was made to act somehow. The first action discussed was a semi-serious proposal to kidnap one of the city's most powerful funders whose policies were affecting the growth of the arts in the city, and to talk to him as a group. For several months, the Tank humorously relished the idea of how, when, and where to pull off the kidnapping. Reality prevailed, however, and the Tank decided to convene a public gathering to talk about the arts in society in general, without specifically focusing on conditions in Atlanta.

The Tank invited Ben Cameron, director of Theatre Communications Group, for a morning forum. Wary of “preaching to the choir,” the Tank invited corporate leaders and boards of directors, as well as artists and arts managers. Bank of America and Georgia Power hosted a breakfast and over 200 people attended Cameron's compelling talk about arts, its impact on standardized tests, the mind of the MTV youth, and the speed of contemporary life. For this occasion, the Tank went public for the first time, printing names of its members (even those whose participation had been sporadic), and crafting a statement to introduce the Tank to the forum attendees. Immediately questions came from the room, “How can I join your conversation?” accompanied by its unspoken sub-text, “Why was I not invited?”

The Tank was not prepared to deal with the enthusiasm of people wishing to participate. Without staff, the Tank could not realistically handle the logistics of follow-up meetings or regular communication with a large group. We each already were overworked. Instead, individual Tankers encouraged people to start their own discussion circles as we ourselves had done. The Tank was perceived as having power that we did not claim and authority that we did not exert. Ironically, our years of conversations about the need for stronger arts leadership resulted in our taking action, which in turn gave us the stance of leaders. But we were not prepared for followers.

A study
In the months that followed, Tank talk began to focus on the need for quantifiable data to support our intuition about the state of the arts, particularly about the economic infrastructure in Atlanta. The more we talked, the more we realized that key factors shaped our cultural landscape. We had plenty of anecdotal evidence, but to have a serious conversation with civic leaders, including corporations and foundations, we wanted data, hard data. We needed a research study, following the methodologies of other metropolitan studies (water, transportation, etc.), based on facts, inarguable facts. Other influential studies executed by business and government agencies used a comparative city methodology. We felt if we used this methodology, our study would be regarded seriously. Many Tankers had recently (and repeatedly) responded to surveys by foundation or policy institutes that allowed us no input into what was being studied — or why. Designing our own study seemed like taking control of our own futures.

We spent nearly a year identifying what we wanted to know: funding patterns, the relative health of organizations, and the strength of individual and corporate support. We talked with funders who also expressed interest in acquiring more data as well. It took only a few calls by a few Tankers to raise the necessary $22,500 to fund a study by Research Atlanta, using two of the Thinkers' nonprofits as fiscal agents. Research Atlanta (RA), under the aegis of the Georgia State University, has a history of conducting studies that have shaped local policy and practice. The Tank believed that the official imprimatur of RA would command attention from the broader community, especially the corporate community. RA agreed that such a study was needed, and its board approved the project with the understanding that the study would have policy implications.

Over a three-month period core Tank members worked with input from Tom Weyandt, then RA executive director, to frame the study, narrow its boundaries, and select cities for comparison that share certain characteristics with Atlanta. In the spirit of collaboration, we passed responsibilities around as our work cycles demanded. The years of regular meetings developed a high degree of accountability to each other, and the fairly complex study process was successfully completed.

Chief investigators Roland Kushner and Arthur Brooks spent months gathering existing data from scores of sources. They compared Atlanta to nineteen other cities, including six from the South and thirteen others frequently cited as peers, such as Seattle and Minneapolis. A tough lesson in public policy formation was that some of the information we wanted was simply not available from the comparison cities and could not be included. At the same time, other readily available data was not particularly interesting to us.

In the meantime, three highly visible members of the Tank left to take jobs in other cities: Sanford to the Arts and Sciences Council in Charlotte, North Carolina; Chris Coleman, founder of Actor's Express, to Portland Center Stage in Oregon; and Ned Rifkin, director of the High Museum, to the Menil Collection in Houston and subsequently to the Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, D.C. The Atlanta Journal/Constitution printed major features and exit interviews with each of them. Each one used the opportunity to speak more freely than they had in the past about their concerns for the cultural climate and about their recommendations for what might be done to improve it. Many of their concerns had originally been articulated in the Think Tank context, giving them confidence that what they discussed actually reflected the experience of a broad mix of people in the arts.

Final drafts of the study were prepared by the investigators. While we were excited about the data and compelled by the presentation of the information, we were disappointed with the contents of the executive summary and with the study's overall recommendations. This taught us another tough lesson in policy: we were not the authors of the study, the investigators were.

As the study neared completion, the Tank strategized about how to present the findings to the public. We invited a small group of corporate, government, and foundation people (including the study's funders) to hear the preliminary results of the study. We were surprised at the response, which was tentative and suspicious. Many of these funders invest in a variety of arts programs and organizations and apparently were not comfortable learning that the collective investment was not enough. It also may be that some were not prepared to hear the results of a study they had not engineered.

Key points in the executive summary included:

  • Compared to other cities in the study, Atlanta is large and growing quickly (fourth in total population, second in population growth), has the largest percentage of minority population, and is heavily suburbanized (second).
  • Atlanta has many arts organizations, but relatively few per capita.
  • Arts nonprofits in Atlanta are average in size and profitability, but extremely low in earned and unearned revenues.
  • Atlanta's arts organizations don't fare particularly well compared with other cities in terms of maintaining diversified income sources; is average with respect to obtaining federal support; and is sixteenth of twenty in obtaining contributed or unearned income.
  • Atlanta is in the top half of the twenty cities in the degree of its organizations' national affiliation, but lags well behind the leaders. It lacks some disciplines in arts training and is relatively low in the level of accredited training per capita.
  • Atlanta stands low on the scale regarding facilities for art museums and performing arts.

Overall, the study revealed that Atlanta is not particularly vigorous compared with similar activities and assets in other cities, including several other Southern cities. In the executive summary, the authors went on to suggest the following strategies:

  • Conduct additional comparative studies by learning from cities that are leaders, including Boston, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Dallas, and Seattle.
  • Develop leadership capabilities and arts organizational skills throughout the metropolitan area.
  • Pursue a strategy of incremental improvements to yield large advances over time.

After the experience of the Think Tank's first gathering, we were careful to be more strategic in introducing the study to the public by having a forum in a corporate venue, centrally located. We invited city and county elected officials — both mayors and commissioners — from all twenty-two counties considered to comprise metro Atlanta. Although about 250 people came, most were arts administrators and stalwart volunteers whom we knew. The presentation of the study did not appear to attract the attention of the officials and corporate leaders whose attention we sought and whom we had hoped to reach through the study's fact-based comparative city methodology. Arthur Brooks presented the findings in a succinct and cogent presentation. We were specific about how we described the Atlanta Arts Think Tank, and we were careful to not claim authority or power, mostly because we wanted the facts to speak for themselves.

After several months of discussing the right way to present our “official response” to the study, we settled on three broad points, printed them up with our names, and distributed them on paper at the forum. The document stated that the Think Tank was an unofficial gathering of individuals who together and separately worried that the systems of support for the arts might not be as healthy as they could or should be. Further, we directed our interest to support systems affecting arts institutions and artists, NOT to artistic achievement or development. We restated that Atlanta consistently produces excellent art and arts experiences, but that the support structure is not of the same quality.

We summarized our analysis under three headings:

Myths/reputation. Because of its phenomenal growth since World War II and the inclination of its boosters, Atlanta is often portrayed as the leading city of the Southeast. The study, however, demonstrated that Atlanta is not the arts center of the region if economic resources and the infrastructure of cultural institutions are the consideration. The Think Tank seeks an honest acknowledgement of these two conflicting streams of reality. We want an honest appraisal — so that something can be done about it.

Regional vision. The overwhelmingly rapid and unchecked growth of metro Atlanta is fed by a lack of urban and metro-wide planning. This has implications for the local cultural economy. Essentially, the Think Tank recommended a “regional vision with heft” that includes people who can advocate for the arts and speak with knowledge, authority, and conviction to forge a new regional vision.

Leadership. The Think Tank articulates the great need for a community leadership that champions the arts and that must fall on many shoulders.

After accomplishing all this, we were hungry for the response of others in the community. We focused on presenting the data and opening the debate to a larger group. We felt we had accomplished a tremendous amount and, frankly, we hadn't looked much beyond this moment. The Tank was exhausted. After months of preparing and discussing the study, and after receiving such incredible newspaper coverage, preparing the response, and organizing the forum, we were out of the energy needed for analysis and synthesis, and out of time to reach consensus on our next steps.

The reactions of some community members surprised us. Rather than diving into the implications of the data and discussing possible policy recommendations (discussion we hungered for), some very influential arts stakeholders questioned the quantifiable data itself — what wasn't included, what should have been included. One of the toughest lessons we learned was our failure to anticipate the feelings of our allies. We also failed to consider that the report might include news that many in the arts community would not want to hear. In fact, the report was rejected by those who found its implications threatening.

A quiet impact
Now, nearly a year after the study was released, do we think the study made a difference? The Think Tank has organized somewhat sporadic meetings to discuss the report's findings. Our unarticulated hope is that others will take on some of the questions raised. Often the meetings have included attempts to identify one issue that the entire community can work together on, such as eliminating the sales tax on arts tickets. However, we have yet to tackle many tough, politically charged findings — on race or on suburbanization, for example.

Where is the champion for change? We were perplexed at first that the study did not become the catalyst for intensive analysis that we had hoped it would. At first, we did not see a plan of action emerging from the community. But as months have gone by we can hear the power of its impact in quiet conversations around town, and we can see shifts in the way the media talks about the arts in Atlanta. Stories in the Atlanta Journal/Constitution have begun including phrases like, “as a recent study revealed, Atlanta arts are....” We have been buoyed by comments from Research Atlanta that this study has generated more response than any study they've published in recent history. The Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce has retained consultants to study economic links and best practices in the arts in Dallas, Minneapolis, Denver, and Charlotte. This has led the Chamber to form a power-heavy Arts Task Force with the goal of providing leadership for issues facing the arts in Atlanta. Atlanta's new mayor, Shirley Franklin, has pledged to serve on the Task Force herself. WSB-TV, Atlanta's network with the largest viewer ratings has organized a group of arts leaders to guide a community-wide arts marketing effort.

The study is changing the “landscape” of Atlanta arts in innumerable ways. Its findings are important references and there is finally a recognition that we could be doing more, differently, for the arts in Atlanta. Opinion and intuition became truth and fact.

Kathie deNobriga is an independent arts consultant and Lisa Cremin is director, Metropolitan Atlanta Arts Fund.