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Mind the gap 

The Woodruff Arts Center's $320 million endowment practically guarantees the success of some arts institutions in Atlanta. But what about the others?

If you want to see Atlanta's arts gap up close, drop by the Horizon Theatre, Actor's Express, Dad's Garage or just about any of the city's well-regarded, but cash-strapped, theater companies.

Here, actors don't just act; they sometimes move props between scenes. Here, the concessions are poured from two-liter plastic bottles. Here, a climb to the top row of rickety seats doesn't require a flashlight; it damn near calls for a Sherpa and a couple of spotters.

Stroll into the Alliance Theatre, though, with its spacious lobby boasting twin wine bars, a well-dressed clientele and cushy seats, and you can be forgiven for asking: What's up with those other guys?

Good question. Certainly, the arts business is in many ways like any other business -- some just make more money than others.

But in Atlanta, the playing field for the arts is hardly a level one. It's not unusual, say, for the Alliance to close out a year $1 million in the red. So how do they manage to keep the seats upholstered, the props painted, the wine flowing?

Because the Alliance is funded to the tune of $2 million a year by the Woodruff Arts Center, that's how. This is no secret, of course, but some artists and cultural leaders complain that Atlanta's arts scene has evolved into a caste system, with some lucky Brahmins feasting while the untouchables fight for table scraps.

"Intentionally or not, the Woodruff sometimes has a suppressing effect on the local arts community," says Harriet Sanford, who two years ago left her longtime job as head of the Fulton County Arts Council to take a similar post in Charlotte. "They have no one to compare themselves to and that's the way they like it. That way, when they do several mediocre shows, no one can tell the difference."

Ouch. But even Woodruff President and CEO Shelton Stanfill concedes that his organization may have helped foster Atlanta's great arts divide through its 30-year history of "operational autonomy" in the ivory tower of its Midtown campus. Says Stanfill: "The disparity between us and the next tier isn't healthy for the city because these smaller groups need to be stable in order to lend our arts scene the richness and diversity it needs."

Only in closing the gap between the haves and the have-nots can Atlanta raise its status above that of a third-rate cultural center now known far better as the birthplace of the glitzy time-killer Aida than as the home of the creator of the killer drama Wit.

The struggle is an important one, whether you're an aesthete or a philistine. A city's quality of life is defined in no small part by its cultural offerings -- or its lack of them. Ask a San Franciscan to describe Atlanta in one word, and they'll say "sprawl" or "traffic." Pretty soon, hot-shot entrepreneurs aren't moving to Atlanta because they see us as a bland mosaic of suburbs whose definition of high art is a Thomas Kinkade print hung over the HDTV.

As major cities go, even American cities, Atlanta's a young'un. War, Sherman's pyromania, Reconstruction, a ruined economy, race riots -- none of these are typically associated with helping build a strong cultural legacy. The South has played catch-up for decades in most social and economic arenas, so it's little surprise that support for the arts likewise lags behind. Atlanta can claim no Andrew Carnegie, no J. Paul Getty, no Peggy Guggenheim, no visionary pioneer of arts philanthropy. Unless, of course, you count Coke magnate Robert W. Woodruff.

In the decades before the 1960s, arts advocacy in Atlanta was largely a garden-club affair, discussed over cucumber sandwiches on Buckhead patios. It took the June 1962 plane crash at Orly Airfield in Paris that killed 106 of Atlanta's leading arts patrons to deliver the means for the city to forge its own claim to the arts. Although not known as an arts enthusiast, Woodruff responded to the tragedy by giving $4 million to endow a memorial arts center, which included the new High Museum, the long-established art college and symphony and, a short time later, the newly formed Alliance Theatre.

It's difficult to overestimate the level of financial security that comes with membership in the Woodruff Center, which boasts an endowment topping $320 million.

For example, in 1990, the Academy Theatre, the city's oldest theater group and a perennial competitor of the Alliance, folded when it hit cost overruns in renovating its Midtown facilities. After 34 years, the top-rank company was done in by a $150,000 debt. Yet, because of the Woodruff Factor, the Alliance has spent recent years under a $1 million-plus deficit and seems in no danger of closing up shop. As soon as the dust settled on the Academy, the Woodruff swept in and bought the vacant building, renamed it the 14th Street Playhouse and began renting space to smaller organizations.

Since then, a $1.6 million renovation of the New American Shakespeare Tavern and a $1.4 million overhaul by 7 Stages are the closest any independent Atlanta theater groups have come to Woodruff-sized improvements. But arts consultant Arthur Brooks argues that blaming the Orly crash and the Woodruff's fund raising acumen for the currently anemic condition of the local arts community misses the point somewhat.

Yes, the crash wiped out a generation of wealthy arts patrons in one day, but the constituency of the group that was lost -- old-money, old-school white folks -- no longer represents the kind of philanthropy that's needed to bridge the demographic gaps facing our city, says Brooks, a former Georgia State University professor and the co-author of last year's "The Arts Economy in 20 Cities: Where Does Atlanta Stand?" As the title suggests, the study compared support for the arts in Atlanta with other cities and found us wallowing near the bottom, both in terms of financial grants and ticket sales.

Certainly, the Woodruff has made it all too simple for corporations to sign a check and claim they did their part for the arts. (Only last month, the Woodruff Foundation gave the center -- with which it shares a name but no organizational ties -- $25 million toward a planned $100 million expansion of the High.)

With its well-oiled fund-raising operations, its high public profile and a publicity machine practiced at giving deep-pocketed donors the biggest PR bang for their buck, the Woodruff takes the risks and guesswork out of giving to the arts, something many CEOs and grant writers appreciate.

A donation to the Woodruff also requires no time-consuming research to determine who's artistically deserving, who most needs the money or who might embarrass your shareholders by using their funds to hang elephant dung on the wall and call it art.

As new Woodruff communications director Kathleen Smith puts it: "We tell people when they support us, they're supporting Atlanta."

And that's just the problem, says Sanford, the former Fulton arts council chief. "A city Atlanta's size should be ashamed it's giving all its attention to four institutions," she says. "It's unfortunate that many people think all there is to the arts in Atlanta is the Woodruff, and the [Atlanta Journal-Constitution] advances that idea."

Certainly, that was Teodoro Maus' perception when he relocated here as Mexico's consul general. "When I arrived in Atlanta," says Maus, now a member of the Georgia Council for the Arts, "I gave money to the High and the Alliance until I discovered all these other arts groups that were doing great work but struggling to get by; I started supporting them instead."

As Maus learned, great work alone wasn't paying the electric bill. Indeed, Atlanta's veteran directors have discovered that critical acclaim and box-office success can lift you only so high until you bump your head on what the iconoclastic Sean Daniels describes as "sort of a glass ceiling" beyond which further growth seems unattainable.

The Dad's Garage founder calls the affliction "7 Stages-itis," with apologies to that theater's well-respected founder, Del Hamilton. Hamilton, Daniels says, is heralded as a theatrical savant in France for his work with the newest, edgiest international playwrights. In Atlanta, that and $4.75 will get him a cup of coffee at Starbucks.

Among arts organizations and even other nonprofit groups, there's the palpable feeling that the Woodruff Arts Center and its four divisions -- the Alliance, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, the High Museum and the Atlanta College of Arts -- are funding hogs, draining the trough so as to leave smaller groups undernourished.

Ned Rifkin, who left as director of the High in 1999 to take charge of the smaller Menil Collection in Houston, says he frequently was made aware of this unspoken undercurrent. "When I would meet with other arts leaders and even groups like the zoo and Atlanta Botanical Garden, I felt there was a ripe resentment of the High, that it took more than its share of the money."

"Nobody wants to talk about it because they don't want to piss off powerful people and get screwed," explains a local arts leader who asked not to be named so as not to get screwed, "but most people in the arts scene believe it's true."

When Maus ponders the challenges facing Atlanta's arts community, his mind drifts back to a single naked breast.

As Mexican consul general, he had pushed for a Latino component to the planned Cultural Olympiad. The result was 1993's "Mexico! A Cultural Tapestry," a months-long, metro-wide festival showcasing dozens of performances and exhibits from South of the Border. Maus was thrilled at the chance to expose his adopted city to his native country's culture, but mindful that exposure has its limits. When an all-female modern dance group came to town with a piece in its repertoire that it typically performed topless, Maus discreetly suggested the dancers cover up.

The evening of the performance, a breast slipped out from beneath a tunic and the dancer danced on. When the tardy Maus arrived, shocked patrons were storming out.

Outraged letters followed to newspapers and the Corporation for Olympic Development in Atlanta; when Maus visited a CODA official a few days later, he was told the Mexican breast incident had put the Cultural Olympiad in a tight spot. "You know, I could lose my job over this," the man complained. Maus recalls that when he realized the bureaucrat was serious, he exploded with indignation. "I said, 'If you think this is a real problem, then you deserve to lose your job!' "

Ask Maus what is holding Atlanta back from taking its place among the nation's great cultural capitals and he'll place much of the blame on those who control the purse strings and approve programming choices for the city's largest arts organizations kowtowing to those with too-conservative mindsets.

Too Euro-centric; too safe to support anything particularly daring or potentially shocking; too caught up in catering to the same shrinking group of aging, conservative patrons. They're the same reasons he says he quit the board of the directors of the High Museum a few years ago.

"The powers that be believe Atlanta audiences are unsophisticated," he says. "After a while, you start becoming depressed, thinking, 'My God, is Atlanta never going to go beyond what it's done for the last 20 years?' We have a fantastic potential we're not taking advantage of."

Over the last few years, the city's arts scene has seemed to be in a Wile E. Coyote free-fall: As the Olympics left town, it was clear that, in the international imagination, Barcelona compares to Atlanta in much the same way that Picasso's "Guernica" compares to the Poker-Playing Dogs. Our own biggest arts festival died a pitiful death after 44 years of steady growth when it made the risky jump downtown from Piedmont Park. Atlanta's other multi-disciplinary event with a national profile, the National Black Arts Festival, continues its ongoing struggle to stay afloat.

And, of course, our talent exodus hit a well-publicized fever pitch as we lost arts leaders faster than crucial pennant games: Chris Coleman of Actor's Express, High Museum Director Ned Rifkin, Alliance Theatre's Kenny Leon, Fulton County's Sanford and, in a particularly rancorous departure, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra maestro Yoel Levi. It's well known that several of them criticized their former adopted city for its stinginess in supporting the arts as they headed out the door, apparently happy to firebomb that bridge behind them.

For the most part, however, their replacements have invigorated the Atlanta arts scene with the promise of new ideas and energy. And the city beat all expectations when four local artists were chosen for the prestigious Whitney Biennial in New York. Other events on the horizon offer similar hope: next year's opening of the new Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia, a $200 million symphony hall planned for Midtown, Theatrical Outfit's plans to overhaul its space.

Still, closing the arts gap demands a change in how the arts community raises money.

"While I think well of Atlanta audiences, its arts leaders haven't really learned how to reach outside the obvious channels for money," Sanford says. "They all go after the same darn people."

In fact, says Brooks, the ex-GSU professor, the ultimate answer isn't to be found in big corporations but in big-hearted arts lovers with big bank accounts. "Atlanta is obsessed with corporate philanthropy, but the low-hanging fruit is private philanthropy," he says. His research has shown that while corporate donations account for a mere 4 percent of all nonprofit funds raised nationally, they add up to nearly one-third of charitable giving in Atlanta.

That isn't because Atlanta companies are more generous than elsewhere, but because local individual donors haven't learned how to open their checkbooks, Brooks says.

Make no mistake: The money's out there, as evidenced two weeks ago when Home Depot tycoon Bernie Marcus splashed down $200 million to buy Georgia a jumbo-size aquarium. Imagine what a consortium of small arts groups could do with manna from heaven like that if they'd gotten to Marcus first. Of course, it doesn't work by coercion or the hard sell by those with the outstretched hands. World-class philanthropic leadership is more spontaneous, less predictable because it starts with the giver, not the receiver. It's a Robert Woodruff being moved to support the shared passion of a group of hometown folk killed in a plane crash or a Ted Turner wanting to spend a cool billion to help the world or a Bernie Marcus deciding his adopted city needs a tourism boost that doesn't involve luxury skyboxes.

The name most often mentioned as such a potential savior for the arts community is Home Depot co-founder Arthur Blank, who is heading up the $200 million capital campaign for a new symphony hall. For the head of a needy arts group to expect such donations to drop from the sky may sound like someone who's cold waiting for a bolt of lighting to strike up a fire at his feet. But, Brooks and others insist, that's the way it invariably happens. "The stimulus in other places is someone stepping forward and, by force of will and personal vision, getting their rich friends to join them in giving," he says. "Atlanta is a nice place to live, there's tons of money and people like the arts, but you need leadership to bring it all together."

Jan Selman, director of the DeKalb Council for the Arts and founder of the Decatur Arts Festival, suspects this hasn't occurred because Atlanta doesn't have a longstanding culture of philanthropy. Plus, the city has gotten used to the mainstream offerings of the Woodruff and hasn't sought out other challenges, such as major orchestral commissions or even the current Naomi Wallace festival spearheaded by Theatre Emory. "The bar has been low here a long time," Selman says. "Everywhere you look where arts have been successful -- Chicago, Philadelphia -- it's because there's been an arts champion, a leader who pulls others in."

And it has happened here, as well. Earlier this year, the Charles Loridans Foundation, a little-known group normally focused on education funding, switched gears when Chairman Bob Edge realized how needy the arts community is, and split $1 million among five local, mid-sized theaters.

Edge, a lawyer with Alston & Bird and a long-time arts supporter, says business leaders need to understand that the arts will never thrive without outside assistance. "Those of us who have the passion may have to step forward and make sure these groups can keep going because they provide a resource to the community as a whole," Edge says. "Are we going to be New York soon? No, but if you see all the things happening and the vitality here, you've got to be excited."

Yet Sanford notes that while the Loridans grant is a great first step, no one yet seems to have been inspired to follow it up with a gift to smaller organizations or even a move to create a strong advocacy group to encourage more giving across the board.

The city government can help, too, although there's decidedly little precedent there; by all accounts, Atlanta has virtually ignored even its own policy for contributing a small percentage of construction funds toward public art. The most charitable assessment anyone could muster for Mayor Bill Campbell's interest in promoting the local arts scene was to compare his performance with that of a "dead cat."

Still, Sanford is hopeful that Mayor-elect Shirley Franklin may try to galvanize private arts support. Franklin, whose first job in city government was as director of the Atlanta Bureau of Cultural Affairs, indicated during her campaign that she would consider elevating her old position to that of department head. There's also a measure being considered to create an Atlanta Council for the Arts, which could award grants. Brooks believes a city leader could be even more proactive with prospective donors. "It's a simple leadership quest -- you get 10 people with big bucks in a room and say, 'OK, who's going to take the lead here?' It may take someone like Shirley Franklin or [former Mayor] Maynard Jackson because it's not happening organically," he says.

There are other avenues for boosting the arts, as well. The fund that Sanford oversees in Charlotte has been hailed as a national success story. Functioning as a "United Way for the Arts," it collects nearly $18 million a year, largely in private and corporate donations, that is dispersed to 28 arts groups, from the regional Mint Museum on down. Its local counterpart, the much-smaller Metro Atlanta Arts Fund, is able to dole out less than $300,000 to fewer than 10 carefully selected groups each year. In a different approach, Denver voters approved a sales tax amounting to a tenth-of-a-percent increase a few years ago that produces about $38 million annually; that money is parceled out to the city's 300 active cultural organizations on a regular formula based on their size, with the largest four groups splitting a $20 million bounty each year. The familiar ring of that brings us back to the Woodruff (which handed out nearly $11 million to its four member groups last year, on top of money each raised on its own).

Recent changes in artistic leadership at the High, ASO and Alliance have served to shake up the business-as-usual atmosphere that had prevailed at the center for many years. One of the first moves Susan Booth, the Alliance's new artistic director, made in her new job was to get to know other local theater directors and invite five groups -- Horizon, 7 Stages, Theatrical Outfit, Dad's Garage and the Atlanta Shakespeare Festival -- to each produce a work on the Woodruff's smaller Hertz stage. The offer carries the promise of higher visibility, exposure to a broader audience and a hint of validation from the town's leading theater power.

Sean Daniels of Dad's Garage, for one, plans to take advantage of the opportunity and is encouraged by the new spirit of collaboration coming from the Alliance. "I've met with Susan Booth 10 times, which is 10 times more than I ever talked to [her predecessor] Kenny Leon," he says. "She's made an effort not to seem like the scary castle down the block. They're being incredibly supportive, and it's a smart move on their part." Likewise, Stanfill says, the Woodruff is talking with the Atlanta Opera and Atlanta Ballet about sharing space in the old symphony hall when the ASO moves to its improved-acoustic new digs. The center also has recently co-produced events with the Rialto and Georgia Tech. Heck, even the Woodruff's own historically standoffish members are taking pains to work with each other for maybe the first time ever.

"That can only help us make Atlanta more of a cultural destination," Stanfill explains. "Once that happens, it can only help all the city's arts groups," something he feels has become a new goal for the arts community's 800-pound gorilla. "We have the responsibility to provide leadership where it's desired," he says. "We can't expect everyone to be at the same level. I'm a booster, but I've never pretended we're a Chicago or a Philadelphia. In some respects, Atlanta needs to be patient, but we're moving in the right direction."

scott.henry@creativeloafing.com

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