Will Atlanta’s Next Mayor Be An Arts Mayor?

mayoral candidates
mayoral candidates
Nine of thirteen mayoral candidates address the arts and culture community at the Woodruff Arts Center on Monday, October 2.

“The nonprofit arts and culture sector is a $719.8 million industry in Metro Atlanta — one that supports 23,514 full-time equivalent jobs and generates $64.5 million in local and state government revenue.”

That’s according to a report by American for the Arts, commissioned by Atlanta Regional Commission. As the creative class grows in Atlanta, especially in film, music, and traditional visual arts; the more important it is to have a mayor who understands the importance of the arts, and how to best leverage it for positive growth in Atlanta.

On Monday, September 25, nine of the thirteen mayoral candidates gathered for the “Mayoral Forum for the Arts” at the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta. All candidates were invited and given ample time to prepare their arts platform for public presentation.

Based on the statements each candidate made at this event, I’ve graded the candidates according to these benchmarks:

1. Does the candidate seem to understand the arts, how they are run, and their general impact in Atlanta?
2. How well does the candidate articulate a clear platform for supporting the arts?
3. Will this candidate help Atlanta grow as a world-class arts destination?
4. Will this candidate support initiatives (through the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs (OCA) or other organizations) to bring art to underserved communities?
5. Does the candidate have a clear and plausible plan to fund the arts?

Many of the mayoral candidates made promises related to public schools. Voters should be wary of these because they are popular and easy promises to make, and if they don’t pan out the mayor can blame the superintendent. Ultimately, our mayor may have little power over what happens at Atlanta Public Schools. APS-related promises were not weighted for or against any of the candidates.

*The opinions in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect those of BURNAWAY’s staff or Board of Directors.

Cathy Woolard.
Cathy Woolard.

Cathy Woolard: A+

The candidate with the best arts platform is Cathy Woolard.

Woolard, more than any other candidate, understands the importance of the arts and its benefits to Atlanta. What set Woolard apart from the other candidates was the depth of her knowledge of the arts, as well as her ability to clearly articulate policies that would actually grow the arts in Atlanta. She said our current city art plan is a decade old, and that we need to make a new plan, calculate costs, identify facility needs, etc. Woolard named several ways to fund arts initiatives, including the tenth of a penny tax. This tax is widely supported by the candidates because it is relatively small but would generate a reliable revenue stream. She went a step further and said that the city could adopt the model used at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, where 1% of all capital spending goes to the Airport Arts Program. Woolard recognized the need to get developers on board with the arts, and wants to give tax credits to building owners who create free residencies for artists.

Key campaign promises:

1. Create an arts and culture plan for Atlanta.
2. Pass a full legislative package that includes the tenth of a percent sales tax to fund the arts.
3. Offer a 100% tax credit per unit to any commercial apartment owner that will give a one-year residency to an artist, so that they can work and live for free in a building and produce art for Atlanta.

Ceasar Mitchell.
Ceasar Mitchell.

Ceasar Mitchell: A

Ceasar Mitchell possesses an excellent understanding of the arts in Atlanta, and has solid plans for our creative industries. Mitchell did not speak in broad platitudes, but instead presented clear and compelling ideas for the arts. This included passing the tenth of a penny sales tax, and then working regionally to find new funding sources, though he didn’t specify what those might be. He also wants to consolidate regional arts council efforts to handle governance and deployment of the arts. He says he wants to “free the Bureau of Cultural Affairs” by putting it under a regional arts authority.

Mitchell veered off into discussion of teaching computer coding and foreign languages, and providing affordable housing for police officers and teachers. All good ideas, but the arts seemed to take a backseat to other goals Mitchell has, which is understandable, but not in a forum intended to focus on the arts.

Key campaign promises:

1. Create a seventh period program where APS students can take classes at recreation centers, community centers, or SCAD.
2. Convert 10,000 vacant and abandoned homes into affordable housing.


Peter Aman.
Peter Aman.

Peter Aman: A-

Peter Aman understands the arts and how to fund them. In general, Aman called for additional arts facilities to be built, along with artist housing in these facilities. This is a novel idea, but many of his other points were not that different than his competition. He wants more arts in the schools, as well as earlier on. He wants more location-based artwork, with communities choosing the art for their own communities. Aman wants to appoint a commissioner for the arts who would have more interaction with the mayor. This would be an elevation in status for the arts in Atlanta. Aman, like Woolard, believes Atlanta’s current arts plan is outdated since it is more than a decade old, and wants to make a new plan. He also endorses the tenth of a cent tax, but suggests there needs to be another revenue source, such as a parking tax. It’s clear that Aman knows how the different parts of a city—development, arts, housing—are all interconnected. In terms of making Atlanta a world-class destination for the arts, Aman has the right ideas but his vision isn’t as big as it could be.

Key campaign promises:

1. Appoint a commissioner for the arts.
2. Update the arts and culture plan for Atlanta.
3. Provide more place-based arts programming, where the community has a say in the arts.


John Eaves.
John Eaves.

John Eaves: A-

John Eaves has strong ideas for the arts, and many of them are very different than his competitors Overall, he wants to pool resources and create a joint Atlanta Fulton Arts Council, merging the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs and Fulton County Arts & Culture. This makes sense since he was the head of the Fulton County Board of Commissioners; however, oversight will need to be resolved in what could be an administrative quagmire. It is unclear whether this bigger, stronger organization would be able to create long-term growth in the arts. As mayor, Eaves would push arts organizations to diversify their boards. Eaves supports arts grants that are location-based in order to get arts into underserved communities. Initiatives like this are already under way in various parts of our region, so these policies may not be altogether new or hard hitting. Eaves wants to move money away from criminal justice system and towards arts. Great idea in theory, but this would be a contentious way to fund the arts.

Key campaign promises:

1. “Criminal Justice Reinvestment,” where money is moved away from courts and jails and into prevention programs, specifically ones that use the arts to stop the school-to-prison pipeline.


Kwanza Hall.
Kwanza Hall.

Kwanza Hall: B+

Kwanza Hall would likely continue Atlanta on our current arts trajectory, and would not negatively affect the arts. He understands the arts and their relationship to economic development. Hall is in favor of more construction projects like Studioplex (in his Old Fourth Ward neighborhood) that make commercial space affordable for artists. Hall took a stance on the hotly contested mural ordinance—he is in favor of less regulation. In terms of making Atlanta a world-class city for the arts, Hall wants to continue to support large creative industries in Atlanta, including film and music. The candidate’s views on making the arts accessible and affordable for all Atlantans was a bit unclear; he lapsed into broad, bland talk of “making Atlanta love again.”

Key campaign promises:

1. Make Atlanta love again.
2. Double the contract for arts services budget to $2 million for Atlanta. (No mention of where this money would come from. Ceaser Mitchell later referred to this as a “bidding war” among candidates to pledge the most money to the OCA.


Mary Norwood.
Mary Norwood.

Mary Norwood: C+

The broad appeal of Mary Norwood may be due to the fact she is the most rhetorically gifted of the mayoral candidates. That being said, she can talk a lot without saying anything meaningful—at least compared to other candidates who took stronger stances on the issues. Norwood knows the exact topics to mention to gain credibility, but she didn’t go into much depth on these subjects. She wants more arts in schools. More arts in rec centers. Affordable housing for artists in exchange for mentoring young people. Norwood supports the tenth of a cent sales tax, but acknowledges that may not be enough. She wants greater allocation for arts spending in the office of the the mayor, but she didn’t specify how much of an increase and whether the sales tax would solely fund her efforts.

Key campaign promises:

1. Create a ticket program so young people can afford to go to arts events.
2. Greater allocation for arts spending by the mayor’s office, including the OCA.
3. Create an Atlanta Arts and Cultural Advisory council with nine citizen members to advise the city on new arts initiatives.


Michael Sterling.
Michael Sterling.

Michael Sterling: C

Michael Sterling wants to seem cool and with the times. He knows what trap music is, and appreciates it! He emphasized the need to listen to constituents on issues in the arts, which means he is open but lacks strong policy goals. Sterling is in favor of creating arts districts and artist residency programs, but his knowledge on how these initiatives work was shallow. He is generally in favor of getting more arts in schools.

Key Campaign Promises:

1. Increase access to arts in public schools.


Keisha Lance Bottoms.
Keisha Lance Bottoms.

Keisha Lance Bottoms: D

Based on her remarks at the Mayoral Forum for the Arts, Bottoms appears to be poorly informed about the arts, and either had no policy or bad policy suggestions. The opening question, on how she will work to build Atlanta’s creative class (which should have been an easy question), left Bottoms jabbering on about herself, and spouting broad, insipid nonsense. Bottoms wants to create a program of Saturday classes for people to learn things such as costume or set design. Whether she means for people to learn skills for movie-industry jobs or for general life fulfillment was unclear. She wants to fund this program through a ticket tax but didn’t specify what kind of ticket this would be. A tax on tickets to art events would make the arts less accessible. Does she mean parking ticket tax? Tickets to Falcons game? Maybe monster truck rally tickets? Bottoms broadly supports increased city funds for the arts, and creating more business training for artists. Her ideas did not seem to be thought through, and lacked the detail and intelligent nuance of her competitors.

Bottoms did mention her experience and appreciation of the arts, neither of which seemed particularly meaningful or helpful to her platform. She cited her involvement with the National Black Arts Festival but did not go in detail about the program. She also praised the Zimbabwe sculpture collection at the Atlanta airport, which is almost 20 years old, and there is much more relevant artwork at the airport now. Bottoms said the Airport Arts Program was successful, but didn’t seem to know the details of their policy that has contributed to the success, nor what the current installations at the airport are. Overall, she seemed to only have a surface understanding of the issues and institutions she discussed, or (worse) was out of touch completely.

Key Campaign Promises:

1. Create a “Saturday Classes” program where students and parents can learn things like costume and set design.


Vincent Fort.
Vincent Fort.

Vincent Fort: F

Vincent Fort wants to listen and learn how to best serve the arts community, but he comes in with little experience in this area. He wants to consider the tenth of a cent sales tax, but is not committed to it. Fort is against bringing casinos to Atlanta, as it would compete with institutions like the Fox Theatre.

Key Campaign Promises:

1. Keep casinos out of Atlanta.


Matthew Terrell writes, photographs, and creates videos in the fine city of Atlanta. His work can be found regularly on the Huffington Post, where he covers such subjects as the queer history of the South, drag culture, and gay men’s health issues.

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