Atlanta mayor reverses course, restores arts funding

In a stunning admission, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said Thursday he was wrong in proposing “draconian” cuts to local arts projects in his 2012 budget.

Instead, Reed has fully restored funding to 2011 levels for the grants program sponsoring groups and emerging artists.

“I often talk about the arts as it relates to recreation centers,” said Reed, who ran on a platform to open all of the city’s recreation centers and support local arts. “I want young people to have what I had. When I was growing up, I was greatly influenced and benefited from arts programs. But I lost sight of that.”

Reed has proposed an overall budget of $545 million for 2012. But the city faces a $17 million shortfall, meaning that cuts are happening everywhere.

The city's parks, recreation and cultural affairs department is facing $3.1 million in budget cuts, and one of the measures Reed proposed to narrow that spending gap was eliminating grants to rising artists.

Essentially, grant funding that usually goes to arts organizations and community cultural development had been cut in half to $235,000 from $470,000 in 2011.

Grants would have gone from 60 to 30, and George Dusenbury, commissioner of the department, said individual artists and emerging artists would have been completely shut out of the funding process.

“When you are dealing with the kind of budget pressures we are dealing with, it can cause you to lean toward taking fiscal steps that are rather draconian, and losing touch with that part of yourself that got you involved in public service in the first place,” Reed said Thursday.

He has not determined where the $235,000 to restore the arts funding will come from in the budget.

The mayor made his announcement at a luncheon for the Metropolitan Atlanta Arts Fund, saying it was hypocritical to call for continuous arts funding but “not having the will” to identify money for the grants program.

Reed was given a standing ovation, which was a far cry from the mood last week when the cuts were discussed during Atlanta City Council budget meetings. After that, more than 200 arts supporters critical of the mayor rallied at City Hall.

Atlanta's arts funding through grants is minor compared with many cities of its size, but arts leaders feel the city needs to continue at the current level for reasons both symbolic and monetary.

“To say the city of Atlanta needs great arts is one thing, but to back that up with cash is another,” said Lisa Adler, co-founder of Horizon Theatre. “Where you put your dollars is where your values are.”

In Atlanta, nearly 8 percent of all jobs are arts-related. That number is higher than comparable cities like Charlotte and Nashville, but those cities award $3 million and $1.8 million in grants annually.

“We are eager to work with the mayor, the City Council and the business community to think about ways the city can be even more supportive of the arts and increase funding,” said Chris Appleton, executive director of WonderRoot. “Because we cannot be competitive as a cultural community at $470,000.”