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Hannah Jones

CITY CITÉ event explores how Atlanta’s built infrastructure can better support arts and culture

The series serves as a connector between two major urban cultural hubs — Atlanta and Marseille. (Photo by Caroline Dutrey, courtesy of Villa Albertine.)

By Hannah E. Jones

Home to famous creatives like OutKast, Margaret Mitchell and Tyler Perry while boasting world-class art institutions like the High Museum of Art, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the Fox Theater, it’s clear art is an integral piece of Atlanta’s fabric. But sustaining and expanding that creativity in the future is not guaranteed. How will we ensure art and culture are prioritized in the cultural capital of the south? 

This was the subject of discussion at a CITY CITÉ Atlanta x Marseille 2022 event on Oct. 6, part of the annual France-Atlanta event series, the Atlanta Design Festival and the ELEVATE festival. CITY CITÉ is a Villa Albertine program focused on urban issues and placemaking, with the recent event analyzing the role of culture in our society’s development. 

Friche Belle de Mai attracts over 450,000 visitors a year. (Photo by Caroline Dutrey, courtesy of Villa Albertine.)

This series serves as a connector between two major urban cultural hubs — Atlanta and Marseille — and hosts leaders involved with La Friche la Belle de Mai, a major cultural institution in Marseille. 

The panel included a range of arts and culture leaders with La Friche, urban design experts from Atlanta and Marseille, along with guest appearances from Atlanta BeltLine Creator Ryan Gravel and Sophy Capital Managing Partner Michael Green, the enterprise tapped to redevelop the Atlanta Civic Center.

La Friche, established in 1992, is an urban cultural project that fosters innovative art and cultural experiences with Marseille’s public. La Friche is many things — a workspace for art organizations and a venue for events, but it also features a community garden, playground and athletic space, restaurant, bookstore and exhibition space. 

A skate park and basketball court neighbor each other at La Friche. (Photo by Caroline Dutrey, courtesy of Villa Albertine.)

There are many connections drawn between Atlanta and Marseille, as both Southern cities stand out as rap capitals and art hubs in their respective regions. Emulating the innovation of La Friche, how can Atlanta use the built environment to better support our city’s unique culture and creativity? As Gravel points out, Atlanta’s increasing unaffordability is one major threat to that future.

“If you think about what OutKast has done for Atlanta, for example, they made [music] in the basement of their grandmother’s house,” Gravel said. “But what if the grandmother can’t afford the house anymore? How do we make sure that people have access to resources so Atlanta doesn’t lose its identity and we don’t become a place that we don’t like or love anymore?”

Sabir Khan, associate professor at Georgia Tech’s College of Design, agreed with this sentiment, adding that while Atlanta has a lot to celebrate, its downfall is looking to the next thing rather than fostering what’s already sprouted. 

“Developers win every single time,” Khan said. “Atlanta doesn’t listen to itself. I think one of the lessons for us is to look and plan locally.” 

To highlight his point, Khan went through a slideshow of local cultural institutions of years past and what went in their places — like the 14th Street Playhouse and the Grand Opera House, replaced by a Free Chapel megachurch and Georgia State University building, respectively.

So what opportunities does the city have that, if taken advantage of, could further cement art and innovation into Atlanta’s story? The panelists pointed to the Boisfeuillet Jones Atlanta Civic Center as an example.

The Atlanta Civic Center sits vacant in Old Fourth Ward. (Photo by Kelly Jordan.)

In August, the city tapped a developer for the long-dormant Atlanta Civic Center — Sophy Capital, led by Michael Green. The theater was built in 1967, hosting events like touring productions of Broadway musicals, concerts and commencement ceremonies, and closed in 2011.

In an ambitious, long-term plan to redesign the site, Green — working in collaboration with Atlanta Housing — envisions a multi-use space with affordable housing and commercial spaces, retail, education and recreation. In addition, Green added that a “multi-use digital arts and music space” is part of the site’s plans.

“[La Friche] serves as a model to what’s possible for us here in Atlanta,” Green said. “It’s in harmony with our vision for the [Atlanta Civic Center] site. We see an opportunity to reactivate a cultural center in Atlanta.”

He continued: “My vision is for a kid that grows up in affordable housing on this site, that might go to school there — providing an opportunity for them to learn about songwriting, engineering, production and, one day, come back to perform. I think that’s a beautiful visual for something that we have right here in the middle of the city.”

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Hannah E. Jones

Hannah Jones is an Atlanta native and Georgia State University graduate, with a major in journalism and minor in public policy. She began studying journalism in high school and has since served as a reporter and editor for two newspapers. Hannah managed the Arts and Living section of The Signal, Georgia State’s independent award-winning newspaper. She has a passion for environmental issues, urban life and telling a good story. Hannah can be reached at hannah@saportareport.com.

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