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Atlanta Shakespeare Company/American Shakespeare Tavern

Prison Funding Bleeds Atlanta Arts Scene

The New American Shakespeare Tavern logoFacing a shortfall in its annual budget for the year 2014, Fulton County. Georgia, in which sits the bulk of the Atlanta metroplex, has already signed off on a 10 percent total budget cut to the Department of Arts and Culture, totaling $500,000.

Furthermore, facing a Federal Court's Consent Decree to correct longstanding space and security issues at the Fulton County Jail, Interim County Manager R. David Ware has identified an additional $479,202 he plans to pull from the Arts and Culture Department to help pay for leasing the Union County Jail.

"The very reason we need more prisons is because we have failed to invest in our young people and their ability to achieve their dreams," wrote Jeff Watkins,Atlanta Shakespeare Company Artistic Director and Shakespeare Tavern Founder, in an e-mail to the Tavern's patrons. "The work of the Fulton County Arts Council is precisely the kind of investment we must continue to make."

In a memo to the Arts and Culture Department, Ware acknowledged the "contributions of the nonprofit arts and culture industry to the quality of life of Fulton County citizens. It is an industry that supports jobs, generates government revenue, and is the cornerstone of Fulton County's tourism industry." In his note, Watkins spells out that value in real terms: 5,000 arts-related businesses in the county employing 30,000 people.

"That's far, far more than any other county in Georgia," he writes. "The vast majority of things worth doing in Georgia are in Fulton County, and that's no accident. Fulton County has led the way for decades with an enlightened approach to modest and consistent investment in arts and culture."

Though the county's course seems set, Watkins is trying to generate advocacy among theatergoers to contact county commissioners on this issue. "It's taken decades to become the Fulton County of today, but it could all be lost this year because, once  cut, there'll be no going back."

Watkins notably is not turning this situation into a fund-raising campaign for the Tavern itself. He leads off his e-mail to patrons pointing out that the Fulton County Arts Council is a small part of the funding pie for the theater. In fact, individual donations amount to more than the combined financing from local, state, and national agencies, corporations, and foundations, he says.

He doesn't want theater patrons to dig deep, but to speak loud. "It takes a village," Watkins writes.

August 28, 2013

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