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Keeping the arts alive
Arts Association cuts guest artists to keep childrens programs strong
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When budgeting for fiscal year 2009, Arts Association in Newton County Executive Director Buncie Hay Lanners anticipated a $45,000 shortfall because of a decrease in corporate funding.

“We are just a pure reflection of what’s going on in the community,” Lanners said, “because if your business is not doing well, then you don’t donate.”

A surplus of gifts, especially a large endowment from BB&T, has kept the organization on high ground for this budget cycle, but July 1 brings with it more hardship as projected revenue falls nearly $100,000 short for FY 2010. According to Lanners, the amount is almost 20 percent of the Association’s entire budget.

Not only have local sponsors reduced their gifts, but the Georgia Council for the Arts has also steadily reduced funding since the beginning of the decade. In 2000 the association received $44,000 from the GCA, and in 2008 it received $8,000.
Because of the dire financial situation facing the 25-year-old organization, Lanners developed a new strategic plan.

“We have determined that our goal is to keep our children’s programs alive,” Lanners said. “They are the lifeline of our programs.
“By educating and exposing children, you also educate the adults in their lives and offer quality entertainment to the community.”

Approximately 50,000 children and teens either participate or are exposed to or attend Arts Association performances and exhibits in a single year, according to Lanners.

Liz Stillerman, 18, has participated in Arts Association programs since she began school. She has attended several Creative Kids Camps in the summer, sang with Oxford Singing Children and then Oxford Youth Singers. Stillerman has also danced every major female role in the Covington Regional Ballet’s annual holiday performance of The Nutcracker.

“It’s how I’ve met all my best friends,” Stillerman said.

She plans to attend Elon University in the fall and pursue a degree in musical theatre. Through dance and choral participation, Stillerman said she has not only gained friends, but also discipline, good health and confidence.

Geoff Nolan, 18, said he joined Oxford Youth Singers and at the behest of OYS Director Mary Lynn Luke tried out for parts in the Arts Association’s spring musical. He has played Tommy Djilas in “The Music Man” and last year played the lead of Curly McLain in the production of “Oklahoma!”

“Prior to Oxford Youth Singers, I didn’t even know how to read music and I’ve learned how to value all the work that directors put into things," Nolan said.

Both said Luke, Lanners and all the adults who help with the Association’s productions are extremely dedicated and willing to listen to any suggestion from the students.

Nolan plans to go into a pre-med path at either UGA or the University of North Carolina in the fall. He wants to work with children with cancer or blood disorders. He said he hopes his participation in OYS, as well as being a counselor at Creative Kids Camp for four years, will help him earn a scholarship at one of the universities.

Going forward
The Arts Association is already operating on a barebones staff supported by dedicated volunteers. Therefore guest artists were the only meat left to cut out of the organization’s budget.

Next year county residents will not see world-reknowed musical artists such as saxophonist Angella Christie or pianist Joyce Yang, who were both on the association’s performance calendar in 2008.

However, several community residents and regular performers have stepped up to donate their talent for free or discounted rates.
Sisters Becky Ramsey and Alice Walker have agreed to give a winter piano/organ concert for free in 2010. Close collaboration and partnership with Main Street Covington has ensured free concerts on the square in May and September will continue. And, John Berry of Watkinsville said he would give his annual holiday choral performance for no up front cost, but rather a percentage of ticket sales.

Several performances are coming up this spring such as the Dallas Brass on March 6, “Guys and Dolls” April 17 and 19, “Sleeping Beauty” May 1 and 3 and Art on the River and Dance on May 9.

Lanners urged residents to come see the quality of the productions the association puts on, especially the youth programs.

“In reality the ticket prices are really not that high,” Lanners said, “and you can have a great night of entertainment for a very affordable cost.”

Lanners said she and other association employees and volunteers are working to see that in-school residencies remain viable in the county.

“As we see the schools’ budgets are continuing to be cut, it is incumbent on us to provide this kind of education for our children,” Lanners said.

The association usually uses $12,000 from GCA grants to offset the cost of in-school residencies. This year $6,000 is budgeted and in 2010 it drops to zero.

“We can’t say enough about the importance of community partnership and collaboration during these trying times,” Lanners said.

She said even a small donation makes a big difference and encouraged residents to become members of the association so they can enjoy pre-seating at all association performances. She added that donating to any children’s program is really an investment rather than a gift.

The proposed Covington Civic Center project remains important to Lanners, who hopes the economy will not permanently stall its construction.

“Coming out of the recession and the issues we all have, I believe that the civic center project, in whatever form it might change to be, that it is still important to this community,” Lanners said, “and that it can be a building that brings our community together like the arts brings us together and bridges any difference that we may have.”

She said the building would mirror the community’s commitment to the arts, therefore making this area more attractive to businesses and industries looking to locate a branch in Georgia.

Lanners remains hopeful that the association will make it out of the recession stronger.

“Our passion for what we do so far exceeds our depression,” she said, “emotionally and financially.”