Questioning the Mayor’s Gift and the Mythology of Economic Crisis

Recent dialogue surrounding cuts to Atlanta's arts funding shows a lack of engagement with the outside world. Photo by Caitie Elle.

Following on the heels of a proposed cut to the arts and subsequent responses from Atlanta artists, Mayor Kasim Reed appeared at last month’s Metropolitan Atlanta Arts Fund luncheon with a seemingly grand and heroic announcement. Gathered that afternoon with the knowledge that 50 percent of the Office of Cultural Affairs’ Contracts for Arts Services budget would be eliminated, the audience listened with anticipation to Reed’s address. “I’ve always said that art changes you, enriches you, and for a moment I forgot that and worried about the budget instead,” he disclosed, in a revelatory fashion. “I’ve been thinking about it and then I realized, I was the Mayor. We’re going to restore every single penny,” he explained. In a single motion the funding was slated for restoration to its 2011 level—$470,000—and as Camille Love described the situation to BURNAWAY last month, the room was “like pandemonium” as Reed faced a standing ovation.

Praises sprang up all over the internet that afternoon, building to an explosion of enthusiasm on Facebook, Twitter, and the websites of groups like the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, Elevate/Art Above Underground, WonderRoot and other groups that attended last month’s protest in front of Atlanta City Hall, individual artists, and media websites such as BURNAWAY and ArtsCriticATL. “10 minutes ago – Mayor Kasim Reed announces City of Atlanta Office of Cultural Affairs Arts funding is restored” one group’s status read, and “Thank you Mayor!” said another. The AJC, 11Alive, and other mainstream news sources followed shortly after with more detail. In a particularly telling excerpt, Catherine Fox of ArtsCriticATL wrote of an interview after the luncheon wherein “Reed said he made the decision on Wednesday while jogging. He said the May 12 City Hall demonstration on the issue had no bearing on his decision. ‘I get protests all the time,’ the Mayor said.”

Fascinatingly, from the initial cut proposal to the aftermath of Reed’s announcement, critical analysis from the aforementioned Atlanta arts groups seemed decidedly minimal. Chris Appleton of WonderRoot did write an op-ed in Creative Loafing that made a case for investing in the arts, wherein he highlighted the disproportionate amount of Atlanta’s grants funding to other Southern cities. And of course Atlanta art supporters gathered outside of City Hall with signs like “Have a Heart Save the Arts” and “Art for ATL.” But when it came to incisive criticism of the cut and the discourse, framework, and dynamics surrounding it, there almost seemed to be a tacit agreement between Atlanta’s art leaders not to break the surface. “Don’t make waves,” the understanding seemed to say. “Don’t expose or address any real truths. Don’t antagonize because we won’t get what we want.”

Common slogans at last month's arts protest at Atlanta City Hall included "Have a Heart Save the Arts." Photo by Caitie Elle.

In fact, in keeping with the tacit agreement, the most radical response actually came from a reader’s comment on ArtsCriticATL. Longtime Atlanta arts advocate Evan Levy sent in a scanned AJC newspaper clip detailing a demonstration against a proposal to cut the city’s arts budget in 1994. “This has been going on for 20 years,” Levy wrote. “It seems like the assumption from city politicos is that the arts community are fools (and we prove it over and over again). … Those who are not aware of history are doomed to repeat it.”

Levy’s criticism being the sole exception, the arts leaders’ tactic of keeping it bland in order to maintain the city’s (lowly) allotment to the arts precludes the ability to make piercing inquiries into the nature of these incidences. Why exactly, it is imperative to ask, is there a $17 million shortfall in the 2012 budget? If the arts funding was to be cut by 50 percent, what other areas remain untouched? How is this decision situated within a constellation of happenings or within a historical timeline?

Just to begin scratching the surface here, two months before the city’s proposal to cut the arts, Georgia’s legislature passed extreme cuts to the HOPE scholarship. And just two days before the rally, the Georgia Board of Regents approved a 16-percent tuition increase (yes, another tuition hike) for certain students in higher education. In addition, along with cuts to the Contracts for Arts Services program, Atlanta’s Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Affairs department was scheduled for a 14-percent decrease in funding, and as of June 1, 2011, a MARTA committee suggests that the cost of public transportation be increased even as routes are cut and services decrease. (Click here for the full PDF describing service changes.)

In all of this what should be apparent is a pattern of economic decision-making that is not random but rather far-reaching and interconnected. These examples don’t even begin to list identical trends nationally or transnationally; austerity measures are being imposed on people from Wisconsin to California to Greece, and there is an all-too-common thread. The arts are not alone, nor are they separate—they’re a part of the many areas of enrichment, enjoyment, necessity, and public services that are purposefully shrunken in this economic terrain. But just as these incidents are ceasing to be seen as isolated events, the time is also nigh to refuse the only other mainstream overarching explanation—that unfortunately governments are forced to make “tough decisions” due to the economic crisis, because the money purely and simply just is not there.

Whether it’s dubbed “the shock doctrine” or classic neoliberal policy, the observation remains the same. As author and activist Naomi Klein has said, “crises are often used as the pretext for pushing through policies that you cannot push through under times of stability.” While the Mayor of Atlanta and the rest of Georgia’s administrators maintain the no-money narrative for art and education, funds for projects of their choosing seem magical in their capacity to never end.

Atlanta's Clean Team installed flower boxes on the wall surrounding Woodruff Park in February. Photo by Caitie Elle.

For examples of superfluous and fundamentally unacceptable ways that Atlanta spends money, please scope the following:

1) In the midst of our “budget crisis,” on May 16, 2011, Creative Loafing posted a story with the title “APD arrests 79 in sexy Midtown bust”—a thoughtless news blog entry quipping about the Atlanta Police Department’s recent six-day bust on prostitution and drug sales. Doling out charges that range from misdemeanor to felony, “Operation Summer Heat” exemplifies the incredible amount of money and resources that go into incarcerating people for nonviolent “crime” in Georgia. At around $46 per day per inmate, if all 79 arrested were given yearlong sentences, it would cost $1,326,410. The money it would take to keep the 69 people charged with prostitution-related crime in jail for a year would be enough to double the Office of Cultural Affairs’ funding for arts grants.

2) In February of this year, Woodruff Park underwent an ostensibly harmless change—members of Atlanta Ambassador Force’s Clean Team could be seen installing flower boxes on the park’s walls. While nothing could seem more innocuous and kind-spirited than a bunch of flowers, Woodruff Park is known for the amount of people experiencing homelessness that pass the time there in the daytime hours. Whether from private donation or direct city funding, projects like this fall into the category of “beautifying” efforts like the infamous erasure of Atlanta’s homeless for the 1996 Olympics. The flowerbeds make it nearly impossible to sit on the wall. Park patrons (who asked to remain anonymous) say that if they’re seen sitting between the boxes side-by-side with another person, the Ambassador Force will approach them with demands that only one person sit per space. The final effect of these functional flower boxes and the rules that accompany them makes for an extremely frightening view. The wall is topped with lush flower box then body, to repeat in a pattern around the circumference of the park. People cram themselves into small spaces or onto tiny ledges just to sit by one another. “They’re trying to make it inconvenient for the people who have nothing,” one patron said. “We used to rest and take naps here in the park. Now it’s for dogs to piss and shit.” In this case, Atlanta flaunts its priorities: while we have no money to fund the arts, can we still cover labor costs and material for “beautifying” the city and displacing poor people of color? Why, yes, we can manage that.

The flower boxes break up space between park visitors in an intentional effort to discourage the park's poorest patrons from staying for too long. Photo by Liz Kinnamon.

3) Mayor Reed and other city officials are calling for curfew enforcement. Parents whose children are caught past curfew on multiple occasions will be fined $1,000 and subject to 60 days of jail or community service. Don’t worry: according to the proposal, police patrols around pools and other “potential problem areas” will be increased, so rest assured that spending this public money is imperative and for good cause.

4) The Atlanta Graffiti Task Force: a joint effort by city departments, police, and the CSX railroad company to rid Atlanta of unwanted graffiti. The actual labor of removal will be handed off to city employees and inmates, and costs (including “graffiti removal kits”) as of the beginning of this year totaled $30,000. Enough said.

Undoubtedly, as time stretches on it becomes apparent that the line “because we are in a financial crisis” is hollow and will not suffice. The trend is toward protecting business, toward maintaining the prison industrial complex, and toward increased policing, and ultimately it becomes clear that a $470,000 art grant program must be cut so that Georgia can spend $3 million dollars a day on its Department of Corrections.

When it comes down to it, in regard to the art community’s celebration of the resources that let art thrive, I will unquestioningly take part. But when it comes to appreciation for Mayor Reed gracing Atlanta with his benevolent personal decision—with indifference to the rally and all the other protests for change in Atlanta—this is something I can’t give thanks for. Displaying a servile gratitude at the reversal is something I can’t participate in.

But in a way, the real gift in this sequence is one Reed didn’t even know he gave. His triumphant rescue of the arts funding was backed with the promise that the money could be found elsewhere to make up the difference, which is absolutely true. This points to an inconsistency in the no-money narrative. It becomes transparent that the issue here is what these officials prioritize, what choices they make on their morning jog.

The combination of this promise with comments like “I’m the mayor, so I get to change my mind” and “I did a bad thing” is almost prankish. The episode laid bare the malleability of the budget, but most importantly, it laid bare the farce of institutional decision-making. It was a reminder that all things are socially constructed, as his stunning admissions had the effect of self-perforation. The question “Do we really yield control and expertise to these officials?” subtly asked itself.

The comical absurdity of Mayor Reed’s statement was the gift. In the end, in at least one sense, the best thing he did was a complete and total accident, and to me, it’s the thing worth thanking him for.

If you are interested in becoming active in these issues, BURNAWAY encourages you to voice your concerns about local arts funding, or lack thereof, by contacting your state representative.

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  • Chris
    June 27, 2011 at

    Good article, but doesn’t fully get there. Individual artists are part of a socio-political system which feeds into the power dynamic between elected officials and their constituencies. That dynamic is one that puts the power into the hands of the people (isn’t that what voting is all about). That said, the non-profits (relying on grants, individual donations, corporate support, etc.) that the individuals need are part of an economic system which puts the power into the hands of the wealthy (elected officials, corporations, etc.). It’s a system which doesn’t fully support the work that nonprofit arts organizations intend to do.

    But here’s the problem with the article: it fails to acknowledge that we cannot change the the systems, power dynamics and conversations if we aren’t in the room with elected officials. More organized, sustained advocacy will help with this. Better leadership in the arts community will lead to this. Less special interests and fewer fractured agendas will lead to this. The success of the advocacy effort wasn’t that the arts funding was restored (that’s a total farce). The success was the organizing that was done. The fact that the effort led to meetings with leadership at City Hall, which led to conversations about dedicated funding streams (not just for the arts), which could lead to dedicated funding streams and putting the power back into the hands of the people.

  • Juan Carlos
    June 23, 2011 at

    Excellent analysis. Institutional decisionmaking is not something that regular citizens can’t touch and shape. Mayors, governors, and legislators are people. Governments are socially constructed. They only have power because we citizens let them have it.

    It’s crucial to think critically about public space and the lack thereof in Atlanta. What kind of city do we want to see? One where only the rich can move freely without a threat to their safety, or one where EVERYONE, especially the poor, can feel safe?

  • BPJ
    June 20, 2011 at

    I agree with much of this, though not all. I emphatically agree that we need to be suspicious of the Republican mantra about “tough decisions”, “the money isn’t there, we have to live within our means”, and “we just can’t afford it”. These are designed as cover for a return-to-Hoover-administration set of policies (often endorsed by “scholars” at the Hoover Institution). On the federal level, a return to Clinton-era tax rates for income over a quarter million bucks would go far to close future deficits (Jonathan Chait at the New Republic covers this topic superbly).

    However, if I had been present at the Arts Fund lunch (I usually am; just had to be out of town then), I would have joined in giving Mayor Reed an ovation. When elected officials take an action in support of arts funding, they need to see that they will be praised for it; they will certainly come in for criticism from the mindless Tea Party/IreadAynRandwhenIwas14andnevergotoverit Libertarians.

    I don’t buy the conflation of Mayor Reed with “the rest of Georgia’s administrators”. The state leaders are usually eager to cut arts funding first, and most Georgia local leaders, notably school boards, tend to do the same. Reed’s decision to maintain the current level of funding, in the current economy, deserves praise in this context.
    I am also skeptical of the suggestion that the proposed cut was just a bluff, to make the Mayor look good when he “restored”it. This reminds me of the theory that the New Coke was just a marketing strategy to draw attention to the virtues of the old Coke; when confronted with this theory, Coke’s then-president said “we’re just not that clever”.

    Now when the economy improves (and it will), I will be lobbying Mayor Reed to bring Atlanta’s arts funding level up to that of similar cities. I think he’ll support that, and if he doesn’t I’ll criticize him for it.

    There’s also a bill, which almost passed the legislature this past session, which would allow cities and counties to pass a fractional sales tax for the arts, as has been done in Denver & Houston. This could provide a dedicated stream of significant funds which could be relied on regardless of who occupies the Mayor’s office in the future.

  • Student
    June 17, 2011 at

    This is a great article. Sometimes when I read analysis of the deeper and larger picture it seems confusing or that the author is trying to use big words just to do so. I felt like the author cut through seemingly complex relationships and made them accessible to lots of readers. Keep it up BURNAWAY!

  • avery white
    June 16, 2011 at

    great article! The art community in atlanta (and in the world, for that matter) is in desperate need of a more critical dialogue. a well-crafted and enjoyable read. many thanks to the author for your brave, and indeed, necessary commentary.
    -avery white, native atlanta artist

  • evan
    June 16, 2011 at

    Excellent article. Ms. Kinnamon is right to point out the city is a battleground of ideas and allocation of resources. “Budget crisis” has been used for twenty years as an excuse to not place ATL’s arts funding in line with the hype.

    It is my belief that part of the role of the artist is to push against social norms and provide institutional critique. The accumulations of power and misdirection that affect every organized group is part of the complicity.

    The leadership necessary for change has not been demonstrated in Atlanta for twenty years. Each generation is tasked with acquiring their own freedoms and this one has folded its hand before the game ever began.

    Celebrating over restoration of arts funding that was never really cut sure seems like being played for fools.

  • John
    June 16, 2011 at

    Crucial analysis! It’s so important to me that working people in Atlanta begin to connect the dots: from the cuts to HOPE, to the racist anti-immigration legislation, to the MARTA cuts, we are living in an age of austerity that we must combat.

    I would like to see large cuts to policing, the salaries of representatives, and a drastic increase (even oppressively so) in taxes for that top tax bracket.

  • Caitlin
    June 16, 2011 at

    Great article. It’s great to see folks connecting the dots between the art funding issue to larger attacks on public services and spaces. This systematic dismantling of the public sphere is such a huge deal, and I think most people are rolling over and taking it because they think that’s “just the way it goes” and “we can’t do anything about it because we’re in a recession.”

  • Artlantan
    June 16, 2011 at

    Bravo, Burnaway! This was an excellent story and I’m glad SOMEONE is seeing the big picture here. We are being manipulated by our elected officials, and it’s nothing new, but the attacks on arts organizations, on parks, on teachers (i.e. Wisconsin), and other aspects of the common good are ramping up. Here’s another example (via Americans for the Arts):

    “On May 25, 2011 the House Education & Workforce Committee, by a vote of 23-16, approved HR 1891, legislation that terminates 42 federal education programs, including the Arts in Education program at the U.S. Department of Education. This bill is more serious than the annual funding measures that threaten to de-fund arts education, as HR 1891 permanently strips policy language out of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) that allows the Arts in Education program to be funded each year.”

    I don’t like the looks of where we’re headed.

  • DH
    June 15, 2011 at

    While I do agree about the odd futility of the overwhelming amount of attention over the decision not to cut an already anemic city arts budget even further– The budget ‘crisis’ which the author questions is quite real– We are indeed in the worst economic period since the Great Depression… Necessitating many choices and foregrounding priorities– which is why the original cut to arts funding was a deeply symbolic act– The arts seemed a low priority and easy to cut first– Political and community action and the eventual restoration of funding was significant, if only to indicate that in the City of Atlanta anyway, the arts have a higher priority than other things viewed as unnecessary– There have been many things cut in the last 2 years, at least the arts have achieved a somewhat higher importance in the general pecking order of City services (BTW– The ‘Ambassador Force’ is a private group sponsored by the Downtown business organization- Central Atlanta Progress– I do think the planters are pretty obnoxious anyway)…

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