Arts tap our zest for greatness

As our representatives make decisions that will shape our lives and the future of our state, I hope they will look not only to history but also to the horizon.

One of the most impressive things about Atlanta is its fundamental desire to be great.

In 1895, Atlanta, then a city of about 75,000 and mired in economic doldrums, had the vision to create a Cotton States Exposition that would highlight the economic contributions of the region and, hopefully, boost trade with Latin America.

A delegation from Atlanta, which included Booker T. Washington, secured a $200,000 congressional appropriation to underwrite the exposition. The exposition brought over 800,000 visitors from around the nation and world to Atlanta, and catapulted this city forward economically. It was a bold move.

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra is another of this city’s entrepreneurial visions. The orchestra was founded in 1945 when as a country we were trying to deal with the aftermath of World War II.

Yet this city had the foresight to embrace the idea that if Atlanta was to be a regional and national leader, it needed industry, a strong system of public and private education and a vibrant community of individuals and organizations invested in the arts and humanities. Atlanta knew it was time to invest in and plan for the future.

That foresight strikes me as the spirit of Atlanta: dealing with the realities of the moment, while planning for, and aspiring toward, greater things for tomorrow.

The Legislature’s decision to eliminate the Georgia Council for the Arts doesn’t strike me as being consistent with the character of our city, state or of our aspirations for the future.

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, for example, receives a modest amount of support from the council and uses those dollars to strengthen k-12 education and to bring live performances of outstanding music to towns and cities across our state such as Perry, Waleska, Albany, Gainesville and more. Without that basic support from the Council for the Arts, those experiences — enriching the lives of thousands of children and families across our state — will disappear completely.

The dissolution of the council also delivers a chilling message about the kind of state we want to be, and about the kinds of experiences and opportunities we want for our children.

The Legislature’s decision to eliminate the Council for the Arts will multiply the impact of deep cuts to basic arts education programs in districts across our state. Study in the arts is not a luxury or an add-on. Study in the arts is fundamental to what we say we want from public education.

We say that we want our children to be able to think critically, to read with understanding, to speak thoughtfully and knowledgeably about a wide variety of things. We live in an information age, a time in which “what you know” matters.

We know from an abundance of research that strong arts education programs in our schools improve academic achievement and increase test scores. Serious study of the arts develops creativity and strengthens spatial reasoning skills, improves math and reading abilities.

Equally important, study in the arts — the study encouraged and represented by the Georgia Council for the Arts — has been shown to improve school attendance and the ability to work in teams, and to promote self-esteem and self-discipline. Aren’t those things we want for our children? Aren’t those things we will need to create the Georgia of tomorrow?

Let’s take inspiration from our history. Let’s tap our aspiration for greatness and make decisions that will position Georgia as a far-sighted leader. Eliminating the Georgia Council for the Arts does neither.

Stanley E. Romanstein is president of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

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