Potential of Atlanta’s Center for Civil and Human Rights finally being realized
By Maria Saporta
At long last, Atlanta’s National Center for Civil and Human Rights will become the institution leaders originally envisioned it would be.
The Center is launching a $50 million capital campaign to expand the facility by at least 20,000 square feet by building the two wings that the late Phil Freelon had originally designed.
The campaign received a tremendous boost when the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation announced a $17 million grant to build the West Wing of the Center. That brings the total of what has been raised during “the quiet phase” to $25 million. The total campaign will include the building of the East Wing as well as a number of amenities and programs that will extend the reach of the Center far beyond Atlanta.
But let’s not forget, the expansion will bring us back to the original vision for the Center.
“We started talking about the next phase shortly after we opened,” said former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, chair of the Center’s board. “Phil Freelon knew about it. We have known we needed to an expansion from the earliest days. We had to cut back the museum so we would open with little debt, so the debt wouldn’t consume us.”
A.J. Robinson, president of Central Atlanta Progress, championed the idea of the Center 15 years ago and helped nurture the project through several hurdles, including the 2008 recession that forced designers to scale back the original plans.
“A couple of years back, we decided we were going to return to the model and really look at adding the two wings that we had planned in the beginning and didn’t build because of the recession,” Robinson said. “We will now have enough space to do a lot more education; be a destination for children; have a space for temporary exhibitions; expand and enhance the space for Martin Luther King Jr.’s papers and also recalibrate the existing exhibit space with new technology and ideas.”
Jill Savitt, president and CEO of the Center for nearly two years, summed up the expansion by saying the Center is now will be an institution with a museum rather than primarily an attraction.
The re-envisioned Center will include several features that will add to the overall experience. There will be space for temporary or traveling exhibitions. There will be a café and a kitchen. The King papers exhibit will be moved to the top floor and be at the culmination of the museum tour. (Savitt said she it is possible to replicate the photo wall of King’s bookcase in the new exhibit area).
There will be a 2,500 square-foot gallery to showcase the Without Sanctuary Collection of postcards of lynching and anti-lynching artifacts. The expansion also will include more space devoted to training, research and innovation on the topics of civil and human rights.
A major new focus will be a 2,700 square-foot gallery on the lobby level appealing families with children to experience the space and explore age-appropriate issues of civil and human rights. Because the Center sits in between the Georgia Aquarium and the World of Coke – both magnets for families with children – the board realized it could do a better job attracting visitors who were already coming to the plaza.
“We were not serving their audiences. This gets us into the family space,” Franklin said. “We knew we would grow and evolve over time. The board always understood we were not building a static institution. We had to evolve.”
Savitt said the COVID-19 pandemic became an opportunity to really push the Center to look at new ways to fulfilling its mission and connecting to a broader audience.
Thanks to a $1.5 million grant from the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation, the Center developed a curriculum for law enforcement training to be offered to city, county and state public safety departments as well as diversity, equity and inclusion training available to companies and organizations.
“We have a $6 million annual budget, and 60 percent of our revenue comes from ticket sales,” Savitt said. “We lost $3 million by being closed because of the pandemic, but we are making that up through our training programs.”
The racial unrest in 2020 also provided an opportunity for the Center to lead virtual conversations about the state of civil and human rights in today’s society.
“The problems in the country in the past year have made the Center incredibly more relevant with people wanting to confront hard issues,” Robinson said. “With technology, we have the ability to reach people who are not necessarily just buying a ticket to the Center. There are going to be ways in the new space to reach larger groups of people.”
Savitt said the Center is working with one of Freelon’s colleague – Kenneth Luker a design principal with Perkins+Will in North Carolina – as the architect of the expansion. It also is working with the DaVinci Development to provide construction management services, a role they played when the Center opened in 2014.
“We have really brought the band back together,” said Savitt, who would love to “to open with two new wings on our 10th anniversary.”
The band also includes the Center’s top donors.
“Arthur Blank was one of the first people to encourage me to build a civil rights museum. He’s been a consistent supporter and embraced the idea from the beginning,” Franklin said.
Robinson agreed: “Arthur has become incredibly sensitive and motivated to this cause. He was one of our biggest donors in the beginning.”
Blank, who owns the Atlanta Falcons, became even more engaged two years ago when Atlanta hosted the Super Bowl. Blank held the NFL owners’ dinner at the Center, which he said made a big impression on the league and the fellow owners.
Franklin also singled out Tom Glenn with the Wilbur and Hilda Glenn Family Foundation, which had given the largest private gift of $5 million to the Center before the Blank gift.
Glenn is serving as co-chair of the capital campaign along with Frank Sims, co-chair, chair of Fisk University’s board. In addition to Franklin and Robinson, the campaign cabinet also includes several civic leaders: Edie Cofrin with AEC Trust; Christian Fisher, CEO of Georgia Pacific; Susan Grant, board chair of the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta; Ingrid Saunders Jones, formerly with the Coca-Cola Co.; Egbert Perry, CEO of the Integral Group; and Michele Taylor, a community volunteer who served on the campaigns of former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and Michelle Nunn’s run for the U.S. Senate.
Unfortunately, the proposed plans for the expansion have left out an important component that had originally been envisioned for the Center – an auditorium that could show movies, plays and presentations – a feature Franklin hopes will be revisited.
“From the beginning, I have wanted to have a theater for movies because I love movies,” Franklin said. “It’s an important part. We could have a film series. The issue is the financial structure of the Center. How big is the campaign? And what is the best way to serve the audiences we have? If I were a donor, I would add it to what we are doing.”
Another feature that could greatly enhance the Center would be to turn the roof into a public space – a place where people could gather and take in the extraordinary views of downtown. Franklin also embraced the idea of “creating a roof top experience and having a roof deck with multiple purposes.”
Atlanta has been lacking such a space ever since the Metro Atlanta Chamber building at Centennial Olympic Park was demolished along with its J.B. Fuqua rooftop pavilion.
Since the planned expansion will fill out the available footprint of the Center, let’s make sure to make the most of it. There is still time to improve upon the existing plans without altering Freelon’s design.
Still, the Center already has helped cement Atlanta’s role in civil and human rights.
Referencing King’s famous quote: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” Savitt described the potential of the Center by saying: “The moment we find ourselves in with racial just has sharpened our thinking about how we can bend the arc of the moral universe more quickly.”
For the early dreamers of the Center, our dreams are finally being realized.
“Those of us who have been around the full 15 years are not surprised Atlanta has embraced the Center the way it has,” Franklin said. “We needed to document the civil rights movement and the experience in Atlanta and in Georgia to put it in the context of the global human rights struggle.”
And Atlanta is the natural place to base an institution to foster greater global understanding.
“What put Atlanta on the national and international map was serving as the backbone of the civil rights movement,” Robinson said. “This is an Atlanta institution that is becoming more and more relevant nationally and internationally.”