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The State of the Arts in Atlanta

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Doug Shipman, President and CEO of The Woodruff Arts Center (credit: Alphonso Whitfield)


By Doug Shipman, President and CEO of The Woodruff
“How’s your new job at The Woodruff?”
I get asked this question a lot.
It’s been a full year since I had the pleasure of joining The Woodruff Arts Center as President and CEO, and given that the it’s the first anniversary of the “new” job—it felt like a good time to reflect on the State of Arts in Atlanta. Over the past year, I’ve spent a good amount of time meeting with colleagues, attending events and forums, and working on a few issues that impact the broader landscape of arts in Atlanta. A lot of exciting things are happening, and three success stories stand out for me. These three areas of success also highlight the key new frontiers for collaborative work:
1. The arts community has worked together to advocate for more visibility and support for the arts. Beginning with the Mayor Arts Forum in September 2017, going through the Mayoral election and then into the first several months of Mayor Bottoms’ term, the arts community worked to help leaders and citizens understand the great returns that investments in the arts create. The biggest headline of this work was the doubling of the City of Atlanta’s Arts Funding Budget, but beyond just the funding, there have been a number of new relationships formed, arts leaders tapped for great programs—like Leadership Atlanta and ARC’s Regional Leadership Institute—and a great series of perspectives in this blog. There is a real sense that the arts community is beginning to build the trust and relationships needed internally and externally for long-term advocacy success.  

a. The next key conversation is HOW to build a daily and robust advocacy approach. Many cities have independent advocacy organizations or coalitions with a small staff who wake up each day to make sure Arts are on the agenda and to provide credible data for decision makers and the press. The success of Atlanta organizations like Central Atlanta Progress, Midtown Alliance and the Georgia Restaurant Association show the advantages of dedicated and specialized staff working every day on a geography or an industry. I hope we in the arts community will define and execute a clear advocacy strategy that builds some sort of ongoing and specialized capability which works every day on our behalf. According to the ARC/Americans for the Arts 2017 report: arts employees account for 24,000 people in the region—we should have advocates with voices that reflect this important economic engine.

2. There are so many great arts ideas happening everyday it’s truly amazing to witness up close.  At the risk of leaving someone out (or creating a list far beyond your appetite to read), I won’t make a list here. However, as I reflect on the great things I’ve seen on walls, on stages, in the woods, in our concert halls this past year, I’m struck by the depth and diversity of the work being created in Atlanta right now across the arts genres. We’ve reached the point where we have multiple people with multiple perspectives, simultaneously working in the same areas—which leads to a richness I haven’t witnessed in my almost three decades in Atlanta. One small example is to look at the array of dance companies and works that are occurring everyday across the region. Additionally, we see arts being infused into other areas like the Off the Wall mural program led by WonderRoot in connection with the upcoming Super Bowl. Arts, sports, social justice and community engagement are all intersecting—all in that one program.

a. The place I hope we push in the next year is to make sure WHEN arts are talked about- there are actual ARTISTS AND ARTS LEADERS at the table. Too many times in the past year I’ve been at a meeting or forum to hear non-arts folks describe the needs of the arts or the way arts should be contributing to broader issues like affordable housing or economic development. I am heartened to see arts now being brought into non-arts conversations- but we are all missing a huge opportunity by not actually inviting folks in the arts to speak on their own behalf. I’m hopeful that more and more civic tables, study groups, commissions, and meetings will intentionally invite and showcase artists and arts leaders. We will see better inputs and results by makings sure the arts are sharing their own ideas directly.

3. I’ve seen the growing importance of the arts to the future health and vitality of our city. Tech leaders have shared with me the importance of a healthy arts community to their recruiting success. I’ve heard economic development folks talk about how recruiting jobs to Georgia depends on showcasing our cultural offerings. I’ve read in study after study how younger folks value the arts and culture for themselves and for their families more than ever before. It feels as if the information age is quickly turning into the creative age and the arts as both an input and a sustainer of the next generation of innovators is upon us. This is exciting and will create all kinds of new opportunities, including the case for bringing the arts into our classrooms and workplaces in new and inspiring ways.

a. The thing that has become apparent is the “tech world” and the arts world in Atlanta are not as connected as they could or should be in order to support one another. I hope that tech leaders will say yes to serving on arts organization boards, that arts leaders will spend time in the tech space and that together we will find a way to build deep and lasting connections. It is worth the effort to build these relationships—no other region has made this a reality yet—and I hope Atlanta will take the lead.

This year has been exhilarating and enlightening and I can’t wait to see what the future holds.  I continue to be inspired by what I’m seeing—I just hope we continue to push in deepening and expanding Where are how arts shows up every day to contribute to a better city for everyone.

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