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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.

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