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Arts and Culture funding: Grilling the candidates
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Rob Hessler is an artist, host of the radio show Art on the Air on WRUU 107.5 FM Savannah, and Executive Director of Bigger Pie, a Savannah-based arts advocacy organization.

BACK IN December of 2016, over two hundred artists, art advocates, and art lovers descended upon Savannah’s City Hall.

Then-City Manager Rob Hernandez had proposed a number of cuts to the budget for 2017, including a nearly $200,000 funding decrease for arts and culture.

Fortunately, the collective voices of the Savannah art community were enough to stave off the reduction, and the idea was scrapped. But one has to wonder if the results would have been the same if so many of us hadn’t shown up on their doorstep with the proverbial torches and pitchforks to save the day.

It’s for this reason that we felt that it was important to get a better sense of where the candidates for the upcoming City Council elections stand on the numerous issues facing both the arts and cultural organizations and the individual artists of Savannah.

To that end, Bigger Pie, the Arts Advocacy organization that I operate with my incredible wife Gretchen Hilmers, joined forces with Patrick Kelsey of the Arts and Culture Alliance of Chatham Country, as well as prominent local arts advocate (and Savannah-Chatham Historic Site and Monuments Commission Vice-Chair) Kristopher Monroe, and Location Gallery Director Peter Roberts to craft a Candidate Questionnaire.

In addition, we partnered with over 25 high-profile organizations and individuals as co-signers for the project.

This includes folks from Deep Center, Americans for the Arts, ARC Savannah, Arts Georgia, Sulfur Studios, The Indigos, internationally-recognized artists Jerome Meadows and Suzanne Jackson, and a few of everyone’s favorite “rascals,” Molly Lieberman, Clinton Edminster, and Coco Papy, to name just a few.

In addition to the co-signers, we also distributed a separate survey to artists in the local art community to gather feedback about what they’d like to see happen within the city.

We received over fifty responses and used that data to help frame the questionnaire in a way that addresses many of the concerns that we saw repeated time and time again via this feedback. It’s truly a collective effort.

The survey has been sent out to each of the prospective representatives, including the four mayoral candidates, with expected responses by Oct. 8, a week before the start of early voting.

If you’re reading this, I probably don’t need to tell you why it’s important that we have a City Council that prioritizes arts and culture, given that Savannah is home to three colleges with robust arts programs, considering we boast numerous well-attended annual music events from Stopover to the Savannah Music Festival, and seeing as our two monthly visual art walks attract hundreds if not thousands of viewers year-round.

Not to mention the many, many theatre and improv groups that offer potential entertainment every night of the week.

But there are financial reasons that our elected officials should support the arts as well, and reasons why we, as an art community, have both the right and obligation to hold them accountable to our needs.

I’ll admit that despite my position as a very active member of the local art scene, I wasn’t truly aware of the impact that we’ve had on Savannah as a whole until recently.

According to the Americans for the Arts’ Arts and Economic Prosperity 5 study of our area based on the 2015 fiscal year, which you can find on our very own City of Savannah government website, arts and culture accounted for $135.9 million in total economic activity, 4,548 full-time equivalent jobs and, perhaps most importantly, $14.7 million in local and state government revenue (read: taxes).

And, while this is more anecdotal than statistical analysis on my part, it seems pretty clear that arts and culture activity has certainly increased in the four years since this survey was published.

From the visual arts side of things alone, Location Gallery and Laney Contemporary, arguably two of the top art galleries in the city, didn’t even exist when this data was released, nor did up-and-coming spaces like Cedar House Gallery, The Hen House, or The Drawing Room.

The takeaway is that arts and culture create a lot of jobs and put a lot of money into the city coffers, and in return we should expect our City Council to represent the needs of this large and expanding constituency.

Which brings me back to the Candidate Questionnaire.

If you ask anyone who is running for office if they support the arts, you can be certain that they will say yes.

It’s also likely that they’ll tell you about some painting that they own or some show that they’ve gone to see.

And it is my belief that these folks truly believe that doing these activities is, in fact, supporting the arts.

But you and I know that it goes so much further than that. Arts and culture is a different beast, one that requires visionary thinking to promote and grow. 

It’s not as if an arts and culture organization can easily quantify the benefits of their investment in the same way as, say, a builder can justify asking the city for $33 million to build a parking garage that will offer a predictable financial return (according to the builder, at least).

 So the questionnaire asks how the respondents will help grow and support local arts and culture. Does “Candidate A” support the allowance of vacant city properties to be used by arts organizations and individuals for free or at a minimal cost?

How about the development of an arts and culture overlay district, where it’s easier to create public arts projects and stage cultural events?

Or what about pushing the board of tourism to market Savannah as an art and culture destination?

And, most importantly, does the prospective City Councilor support the creation of a dedicated funding source for the arts, one that doesn’t have to fight for its life every time a budget debate comes up?

More than anything, this questionnaire is looking to find out each Candidate’s plan for the arts for the next four years.

Once we receive these responses—or, equally telling, any lack of response—we’ll be widely distributing the information.

With this feedback we’ll be able to make informed decisions about how we, as artists, art advocates, and art lovers will cast our ballots in November.

And hopefully we’ll be able to avoid the need to grab our (metaphorical) torches and pitchforks and march on City Hall this time around.