Investing in the arts and the Woodruff Arts Center vital to Georgia’s economic future

When making the case for future investment in Atlanta’s cultural institutions, Joe Bankoff brings out the pictures.

Bankoff, president of the Woodruff Arts Center, shows a picture of MIdtown in 1968 soon after the $8 million Memorial Arts Center building was developed along Peachtree Street between 15th and 16th streets.

The photo shows the arts center located in a low-rise community surrounded by low-rise buildings and single-family homes. The first high-rise in the community came a year later — the first Colony Square tower.

And then Bankoff shows off his photos of Midtown today. It shows a cluster of skyscrapers all encircling the Woodruff Arts Center — an investment of $3 billion in just the past decade.

“The investment 40 years ago created an anchor that basically was the pebble in the pond that created Midtown and a creative community,” Bankoff said right after making a presentation to the board of the Metro Atlanta Chamber last week.

It’s a message that needs reminding as the Woodruff Arts Center seeks community and public support to implement the area’s newest master plan. The centerpiece of that plan is the proposed new symphony hall — now repositioned at the corner of 15th and Peachtree Street so it would be attached to the existing arts center complex.

When the concert hall was to be located along 14th Street between the Peachtrees, it had been estimated to cost about $300 million. Bankoff said the new location will cut about $100 million from the cost because the concert hall could use the center’s existing back-stage facilities.

But Bankoff wants to make sure the Atlanta region sees the whole picture of what building a new hall would do.

“This is not just about acoustics; this is not just about education; this is an investment in the economy,” Bankoff said. “We need to understand that this is part of our infrastructure that needs investment. It’s like Grady. It’s like sewers. We need again to reinvest in the arts infrastructure.”

Then Bankoff adds numbers to his photographs. When compared to the largest cities in the country, the City of Atlanta has the greatest number of arts employees on a per capita basis, according to Creative Industries Analysis by Americans for the Arts.

In the city, about 48 out of 1,000 residents are employed in the arts-related businesses (23,198 employees in 2008). Those businesses include museums/collections, performing arts, visual/photography, film/radio/TV, design and publishing, and arts schools and related services.

The second city is San Francisco which has about 40 employees per 1,000 residents; followed by Seattle, 36 jobs; Washington, D.C., 34 jobs; Minneapolis, 34; Boston, 32; Los Angeles, 31; and New York, 28.

Because the arts is such an important part of Atlanta’s economy, Bankoff said the community needs to continue reinvesting in its arts institutions to keep the city strong.

The Woodruff Arts Center, one of the four largest arts centers in the United States, is an $800 million community asset with a $90 million annual budget.

And it’s not just Atlanta. Georgia has more than 88,000 arts related workers, and it is ranked 8th in the nation by the same report by Americans for the Arts.

But unlike investment in other industries, Georgia ranks near the bottom when it comes to public investment in the arts.

There are those who question whether the Atlanta region needs to continue investing in a centrally-located arts center as more and more outlying counties are building their own arts center such as the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre.

“The Cobb Energy Centre is a terrific place,” Bankoff said. ‘It’s been terrific for the Atlanta Opera and the Atlanta Ballet. It’s a new shot in the arm.”

But Bankoff continues: “The Woodruff Arts Center has done precisely the same thing.”

Despite the economic downturn and challenges to its endowment and operating budgets, the Woodruff Arts Center continues to excel.

About 1.3 million came to see the Louvre exhibit at the High Museum of Art during its three-year run; and 400,000 people visited the “Terracotta Warriors” exhibit. The Alliance Theatre is the only Southern theater to receive the Tony Award for Best Regional Theater. And the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra is being invited to perform at Carnegie Hall for a world premier with internationally-acclaimed cellist Yo-Yo Ma. And Young Audiences annually reaches nearly 500,000 students in 50 counties across the state.

While other communities in the region want to invest in their own arts facilities, they can not replace the role of the Woodruff Arts Center.

“You have to have a major center if you are going to distinguish yourself with the other metro areas that we complete with — Charlotte, Dallas, Singapore and other cities around the world,” Bankoff said. “If you build a fire, and you spread out the sticks, you don’t get a fire that anybody notices.”

Back in 1968, when the Memorial Arts Center first opened, it proved the adage: “If you build it, they will come.”

“We built it, and they came,” Bankoff said. “But you can’t take it for granted. The expansion is ultimately an essential part of not growing, but surviving. Our ability to attract private support and additional support for programming means we need to have the venues to support it.”

Bankoff faces an uphill battle. When the Memorial Arts Center was built, there was key benefactor — Robert W. Woodruff. We do not live in a city, region or state that has a history of making major investments in its arts and cultural sector.

But without public support, the prospect for building a new symphony hall on just private contributions is dim.

So Bankoff will keep spreading the message of how it’s in our region’s and our state’s best economic interest to invest in the arts and its institutions.

Let’s hope our leaders are listening.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

4 replies
  1. BPJ says:

    I strongly favor public support for the arts. It’s smart policy. But let’s not think that it’s the whole story on arts funding; the biggest lack that I perceive in Atlanta is support by individuals.

    There are four sources of contributed income for the arts: foundations, corporations, government and individuals. On the first two, Atlanta compares well with similar cities, especially foundation giving. Corporate giving may decrease if more of our companies are acquired by corporations based elsewhere.
    Yes, government funding is unusually low here, but so is individual giving to the arts. In fund-raising for a number of mid-sized arts groups here, I have encountered a number of people who don’t know what nonprofit arts organizations are, or why they exist.
    Studies have shown that Atlanta ranks very low in per capita giving to the arts by individuals. There’s a lot of untapped potential here in that regard.

    One other point, the wonderful Woodruff Arts Center is not the only Atlanta arts facility which has had significant impact, over time, on its surroundings. Another example is the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, which moved to the West Side of Atlanta almost 20 years ago, when that area was, to put it mildly, a dump. Now there are several new art galleries, restaurants, condos, and numerous design businesses. Or, look at what a few galleries and art studios have done for Castleberry Hill.Report

    Reply
  2. Tribe 1 says:

    If we are truly to be a great city beyond aspiration, we should support and cultivate the arts. They are reflection of who we are and our priorities.

    Every great city throughout history has evolved from its culture with the arts mirroring this evolution.Atlanta may be a great place to reside. What sets apart is our unique ability to center on a cause and deliver a positive result. Atlanta, for all of its positives, has not delivered lately on supporting culture.

    Moreover, as Joe points out, it’s good business with a tangible return.

    It’s time for Atlanta to stand up for the arts with full support. If we don’t, how can we claim to be the capital of the South or even a notable city as we so often suggest that we are?Report

    Reply
  3. Nicholas Wolaver says:

    I found this article informative, and glad to read the latest. But to be honest, the Woodruff project lost my support when the Santiago Calatrava design was stripped out of the plan.

    Our city needs a global-icon building (think Sydney Opera House) like the Calatrava design, and the project now seems destined to replicate the path taken to build the totally boring and forgetable “banana bridge” at 17th Street (as some may recall, the design of the 17th Street bridge was a recent failure by Atlanta/Atlantans to embrace, invest and build an instant postcard icon for the city).

    With now $200 million, reduced from $300 million, for the new arts center location, I think all we can expect is the 2020 version of the concrete cube (boring) Woodruff block on Peachtree Street.

    Anyone not know Calatrava? Go online and search for the gorgeous Milwaukee Art Museum, the Athens Olympic Stadium or any of the visionary Calatrava designs in Bilbao or other cities in Spain. These are buildings that people will be raving about in 100, 200, 300 years and beyond.

    Want an American architect as an example? Try this game: Who’s talking about the architect who designed the High Museum lately (anyone remember who it is?). OK, now then ask, who is talking about the Guggenheim Museum? My money is that 9 out of 10 reading this will name the wRIGHT (correct) architect for that project without scurrying to Wikipedia.

    Woodruff does not have to build a Calatrava design to succeed, but please don’t build another forgetable cube of cement — the notion of “investing in our arts INFRASTRUCTURE” (as quoted by Maria) is not the right king of thinking — just the word “infrastructure” is a bad word choice in terms of marketing the arts. Change the thinking.

    THINK BIG! THINK WORLDWIDE RECOGNITION! Put the words GLOBAL and VISIONARY (not “infrastructure”) into the future lexicon of this project. Get out of the typical Atlanta mindset — much like that of an insecure teenager unsure of our global prominence and recognition — and make a global statement that puts an exclamation point in Georgia on any future global map of the arts world.

    When you come through with an iconic design again, you can count on me to donate to build it.Report

    Reply
  4. BPJ says:

    Most literate Atlantans, Mr. Wolaver excepted, know who designed the High. There were two architects: Richard Meier, whose 1983 design was called “the best new museum building in a generation” by the NY Times, and was featured in the postal series of 20th century modernist icons; and Renzo Piano, whose 2005 additions were widely praised by architecture critics. Both men have received the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s Nobel, and are much talked about by people who pay attention to architecture. After the Meier building opened, the Getty chose him as their architect; the Art Inst. of Chicago and the Morgan Library chose Piano after the High did – meaning that Atlanta has been a leader in its choice of museum architects.

    That said, I agree the Calatrava design is superb and should be built. And the 17th Street bridge fiasco is embarrassing.

    I hope that either the Calatrava design is revived, or an excellent design by another architect is chosen. If it’s a good design, I’ll contribute. Let’s not lose sight of why a new ASO hall is needed: acoustics. The ASO is alone among top 20 orchestras to perform in such mediocre acoustics (not to forget the best-on-the-planet ASO chorus).Report

    Reply

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