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POLL: Arts funding drops, but programs remain
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The Arts Association in Newton County wants the arts to be accessible. Art advocates want children and young adults to be able to dance, sing, play instruments, perform on stage, paint and create.

Funding and support of the arts is a true grass roots effort. Neither the Arts Association nor the Southern Heartland Art Gallery receives any public funding. The local arts scene is nearly completely funded by corporate and individual donors, which is what makes that base so passionate.

This week's Covington News poll had one of its highest ever turnouts, with 538 votes being cast. More than 68 percent of voters feel the arts are important, with 25 percent of supporters saying Newton County needs even more arts opportunities.

However, the Arts Association, as with so many groups and business, has seen its financial support dwindle. The association's budget has declined from a high of $600,000 in fiscal year 2008 to $384,247 this fiscal year. Corporate donations are usually around $100,000, while the rest of the revenues come from individual donations, program fees and ticket sales.

Yes, families and businesses need to cut back during tough times, but supporters ask whether arts opportunities should decline as well. The association has made broadening its base of supports the mission this year. Children are putting on more fundraisers and more parents are trying to get donations from their work places.

Dance, music and art teach lessons and expand horizons for children, while at the same time the free concert series on the square provide free entertainment and draw the community closer together, said Buncie Lanners, the Arts Association's executive director and lone remaining full-time employee.

More than 700 children participate directly in arts programs, another 4,500 students see performances in school and thousands of residents enjoy public concerts.

"The role that we play in educating children is the most important role we could be playing," Lanners said. "The free concerts we plan with Main Street Covington bring the community together. We hear division everywhere, but we can all come together to enjoy free music."

Music at the holidays

As the holidays approach, the presence of the arts is felt even more strongly. The lighting of the courthouse on Thursday will be accompanied by the Oxford Singing Children, Newton County Community Band and Covington Regional Ballet.

The Oxford Singing Children, Oxford Youth Singers and Time Flies, a young adult choir, will be performing at First United Methodist Church Dec. 2-3 at 7 p.m. each night, while the Community Band will give a free performance Dec. 5 at 7:30 p.m. at Eastside High School.

Of course, the holidays wouldn't be complete without the Nutcracker, which will be performed by the Covington Regional Ballet at 7 p.m. Dec. 10 and 3 p.m. Dec. 11 at Newton High School.

"What better way is there to experience the holiday season than through the arts," said Lanners. "It gives just a small taste of what all we do here."

Arts affect quality of live, diversity

The arts are a quality of life issue, which is an important factor in attracting both industries and individuals to a community. One of the association's newest board members is Roger Harrison, senior vice president of economic development for the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce.

The Arts Association partners with several other groups, including the Newton County School System. The in-school residency program brought four professional performances to the students free of charge.

"We want to expose kids to a different way of thinking about and analyzing the world," Lanners said. "It's so gratifying to see how lives are changed through our programs, not just the lives of children, but the lives of whole families."

The Southern Heartland Art Gallery and Arts Association partner to provide art classes and scholarships. The Covington Branch Library shows off those pieces of art.

Lanners said the Arts Association is committed to diversity. Its board of directors has a variety of men and women and white and black members. One type of entertainment does not fit all.

"I really believe the arts are an expression of our souls, the inner core of our being, which show that expression more than the words we say. They express our anger, happiness, passion and show what we believe in," Lanners said.

Even as the economy declines, the Arts Association continues to pursue new opportunities, including the musical theater summer camp, which was a big hit last year. The Arts Association isn't going anywhere, and if people believe the arts are important, the opportunities will only grow.

To learn how to get involved visit, go see a performance or stop by the office right off the square at 1106 Washington St., just across from the art gallery.