By Maria Saporta

Longtime Atlanta business leader, Joe Bankoff, will retire on May 31, 2012 as president and CEO of the Woodruff Arts Center — the largest cultural organization in the state.

Bankoff has been leading the center — which includes the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, the High Museum of Art, the Alliance Theatre and Young Audiences — since September, 2006.

“I have found the opportunity to serve in this role to be the most exciting, the most exhausting, the most rewarding and the most challenging job I’ve ever done,” Bankoff said in an interview. “It has been a privilege to work with the really gifted, committed people that we have around here, not just the artistic folks but those in the marketing, development and day-to-day operations.”

Bankoff, who will turn 66 on Thursday, Dec. 22, said it made sense to retire at the end of the center’s fiscal year in May. He wanted to give the board plenty of notice so they could begin the search for his successor.

Joe Bankoff

“I’m in my sixth year of my original five-year commitment,” Bankoff said. “There are a lot of things that we’ve accomplished as a group. And there’s still a lot more to do.”

Larry Gellerstedt, chairman of the Woodruff Arts Center and CEO of Cousins Properties, praised Bankoff’s tenure at the center.

“Joe has led the Woodruff Arts Center with great results particularly given the challenging economic environment during most of his tenure,” Gellerstedt wrote in an email.

“His leadership accomplishments include the comprehensive strategic plan, the campus wide master plan, the restructured governance structure, new arts education outreach initiatives and many others,” Gellerstedt continued. “The result is a center producing great art which is well positioned to continue to flourish in the future.”

Bankoff said he was an “unusual” choice when he was named as the center’s president and CEO because “I didn’t have a background in the arts or arts management.”

Bankoff left a successful legal career as a senior partner of Atlanta’s leading law firm — King & Spalding. But Bankoff came to the job as a committed arts patron and as someone who understood the economic and educational link to the arts.

Bankoff had served as vice chairman of the ASO’s board. He also chaired the Metro Atlanta Chamber’s Regional Arts Task Force in 2002, which led to the formation of the Metro Atlanta Arts and Cultural Coalition. He also served on the Governor’s Telecommunications and Technology Task Force in the 1990s.

As a lawyer, Bankoff specialized in technology and communication issues and had broad litigation experience in patent, copyright, trade secret, media and technology-related matters.

That gave him a unique perspective of how a strong artistic environment contributed to establishing a creative economy integral to the state’s future vitality. Metro Atlanta already excels in several fields that are part of the creative economy — architecture and design, film production, music, video games and the design community.

In his role as the center’s CEO, Bankoff repeatedly made that point before community and business groups — explaining the importance of arts education in building the state’s future workforce and highlighting the economic impact of Georgia’s arts organizations.

For example, Bankoff was able to illustrate how the opening of the Woodruff Arts Center in 1968 helped in the resurgence of Midtown as a thriving business and residential area where developers invested billions of dollars.

When Bankoff was named as the center’s CEO, the building of a new symphony hall was one of his top priorities. He was involved in the strategic plan that called for building the new hall as part of the existing Woodruff campus rather than a block away on 14th Street.

“Symphony hall is still on the list; it’s just down on the list,” Bankoff said. But he said ASO’s financial situation needs to be “stabilized” before the center can move forward with building a new concert hall.

Meanwhile, Bankoff said that one of the major accomplishments in the past five years has been the reorganization of the center’s governance structure. Now the challenge will be in finding the right balance and relationship between the four artistic divisions and the umbrella Woodruff Arts Center so it can operate as a cohesive organization.

“We need to continue to try to make this center a vital part of the community that we serve,” said Bankoff, who said he will continue to work on the arts even after he retires. “Right now I’m seeing a summer in Colorado. But I’m clearly going to stay involved.”

Gellerstedt said he has asked Doug Hertz, president and CEO of United Distributors who serves on the center’s board, to chair the national search for the next president of the Woodruff Arts Center.

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...

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