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.