Up until the final days of the 2010 legislative session, Georgia was about to become the only state in the union without an arts council. The Georgia House had dropped all funding for the arts and it wasn't until the state Senate under the leadership of Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Hill, R-Reidsville, stepped in and restored $860,000 for the Georgia Council for the Arts. That money will allow the state agency to qualify for federal and state matching arts grants.
Why support the arts when we are sucking financial wind every way imaginable?
Lydia Huggins Ivanditti, director of the Plaza Arts Center in Eatonton and a strong advocate for the arts, says, "We must expose children to the arts and help them see how the arts connect us to our past. Shakespeare and Rembrandt's works still live after 500 years. The arts make us more creative, no matter what our vocation."
The arts are also good for business.
Take Putnam County, east of Atlanta and near the Reynolds Plantation development. Ivanditti says, "About 75 percent of Putnam County's residents live in the Lake Oconee communities. Retail shops and grocery stores have been built to service those folks so there was little need to come into Eatonton until we created the Plaza Arts Center.
"Now, after only two short years, we are seeing an increase in traffic and an interest in opening new businesses. Our restaurants are thriving and the city is profiting from increased tax revenue as a result."
The Plaza Arts Center was originally a grammar school built in 1916. After falling into disrepair, a local group decided to transform the building into a community arts center. It took $2.8 million and 11 years.
Seventy percent of that amount was private funding. The center also benefited from a special local option sales tax. Today, the building houses a 500-seat theater, a reception hall, museum, classroom and offices for the chamber of commerce.
Ivanditti brings a load of enthusiasm to the job along with experience and a love of the arts but is quick to give credit to the city of Eatonton and Putnam County and locals who understand the role that the arts play in the health of the area.
"One person can't do this job effectively," she says, "It requires the support of our local government and our community to make it work."
Managing such a facility is not easy. "Art is not one-size-fits-all," the director says, "so it's important to find activities, shows, concerts and performances that appeal to all interests in the area and that takes more money."
The center's offerings have ranged from the Vienna Boys Choir to Banks and Shane.
Ivanditti is deeply involved in the Georgia Assembly of Community Arts Agencies, an advocacy organization working with other arts groups to push for arts funding with next year's legislature. She cites towns from Dalton to Brunswick and dozens in between that have a strong community involvement in the arts.
One idea she believes has great merit would be legislation to allow counties to "split" a penny of tax from current revenues and take one-tenth of that penny and allow 55 percent of that tenth to fund local arts. The remaining 45 percent can go to any program or need the county may have.
Ivanditti cites Minnesota as one state using this system effectively, bundling funding for the arts with wildlife and game preserves.
She estimates that if Bibb County, for example, were to impose such a mechanism the local arts would receive more than $1 million. That would take a lot of heat off corporations and individuals.
We have a great heritage for the arts in Georgia. Our state has spawned Johnny Mercer, Ray Charles, Joanne Woodward, Julia Roberts, Ossie Davis, Margaret Mitchell, Lamar Dodd, Erskine Caldwell, Lewis Grizzard, Pat Conroy and James Dickey, among many great artists.
I love Georgia but I'm not sure I would want to live in a place that didn't appreciate first-class theater, great literature, fine paintings and beautiful music. Thanks to Sen. Hill, Ivanditti and far-sighted arts advocates like them, I don't have to.
Dick Yarbrough is a North Georgia resident whose column appears Saturdays and on gainesvilletimes.com. You can reach him at P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, GA 31139 or his website.