Bill would boost arts funding

ATLANTA - Seeking to take advantage of Georgians' generosity toward the arts, a state agency is pitching a plan to boost arts spending with a trust fund built on private donations.

State spending on the arts in Georgia ranks just 46th in the nation and at the bottom in the South, according to the Georgia Council for the Arts. Yet, Georgia citizens are 11th in giving to the arts.

The council is backing legislation that would offer tax credits to Georgians who contribute to nonprofit arts organizations.

The money would go into a trust fund that could raise up to $8 million a year, Susan Weiner, the council's executive director, told members of a Senate study committee Thursday.

"Georgians already give to the arts,'' she said. "The tax credit would provide a regular, large supplement to the state budget.''

The state's paltry support of the arts has long been a sore spot with arts enthusiasts.

After hitting a high-water mark of $5.2 million several years ago, state funding of the arts council fell to $3.9 million this year.

At the same time, however, the council has expanded its grant program from just 87 counties to all 159 and is funding a record 507 local arts organizations throughout Georgia.

"Our mission is access to the arts for all Georgians,'' said Kathy Williams, chairman of the council's board of directors.

The idea of a trust fund to supplement what the state has been doing for the arts first surfaced last winter in a bill introduced by House Speaker Pro Tempore Mark Burkhalter, R-Alpharetta.

When the measure failed to gain traction during this year's legislative session, the House created a study committee to examine the proposal for possible reintroduction in 2007.

Under the arts council's proposal, Georgians would receive a tax credit for donations of up to $5,000 for individuals and $10,000 for corporations. The tax credits would cost the state $3.5 million.

The trust fund would be run by the council, which would distribute 60 percent of the money as grants to nonprofit arts organizations, set aside 30 percent as reserves and put the final 10 percent toward what Weiner described as "opportunity programs.''

She said those opportunities might include renovating some of the more than 100 historic theaters across rural Georgia that have deteriorated for lack of money to keep them up. The state funding the council currently receives cannot be used for such capital projects.

Williams said trust fund money also could be used to secure a permanent home for the state's art collection, more than 600 items that now are being warehoused where no one can see them.

"We aren't being good stewards of the state art collection,'' she said.

Weiner said any additional money the state is willing to invest in the arts would pay dividends in boosting tourism, Georgia's second largest industry.

"People don't come to Georgia to stay at our Ramada inns,'' she said. "They come to Georgia to go to our arts events and museums.''

Rep. Tom Rice, R-Norcross, a member of the House study committee, said the concept of the trust fund sounds good. But he warned that to win support in the General Assembly, the arts council must ensure that none of the additional state spending would go toward art that offends community sensibilities.

As an example, he cited publicly funded exhibitions during the early 1990s of photos with homosexual and sadomasochistic themes taken by the late Robert Mapplethorpe.

"I don't want to see in my district a Mapplethorpe exhibition funded with public money,'' Rice said.

When a similar concern came up during Thursday's meeting of the Senate study committee, Weiner said the council would not approve any material that would violate community standards.

If the trust fund legislation doesn't fly, Weiner said the council would need an additional $1 million to $1.5 million for its Grassroots Arts Program, which provides grants throughout the state.

She said the agency plans to restructure the program to give smaller counties a larger share of the pot.

Sen. Jack Hill, R-Reidsville, the Senate study committee's chairman, said he would recommend restoring the state funds cut from the council's budget since 2002, half during the coming fiscal year and half in fiscal 2009.