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PHOENIX RISING: An ATL arts institution evolves

Like the city itself, the Woodruff Arts Center has risen from tragedy to triumph

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Photo credit: CatMax Photography
HIGH POINT: A dramatic breezeway draws visitors into the Richard Meier-designed High Museum of Art, which opened in 1983. A casting of Auguste Rodin’s “The Shade” (on pedestal at viewer’s left) commemorates 106 Atlantans who perished in a 1962 airliner crash, which led to the construction of the Robert W. Woodruff Arts Center in Midtown.

Sixty years ago this month, on June 3, 1962, a chartered Boeing 707 jetliner dropped to the ground within seconds after lifting off from Orly Airport near Paris, France. The plane skidded off the runway, crashed and exploded in flames, killing all 122 passengers and eight of ten crew members; two stewardesses in the tail section survived. One hundred and six of the victims were from Atlanta, most of them art patrons — business, civic and cultural figures — returning from a tour of European museums sponsored by the Atlanta Art Association.

The impetus for arranging the ill-fated European tour sprang from a consensus among Atlanta movers and shakers that a city with high aspirational goals should dedicate more of its financial assets and civic planning to support of the arts and related community institutions. In a grim twist of fate, the Orly airline accident, the worst of its kind at the time, succeeded in rallying unprecedented backing for the cause, which ultimately led to the construction of the Memorial Arts Center. When the center opened in 1968, the French ambassador to the United States presented to Atlanta a casting of sculptor Auguste Rodin’s “The Shade.”

Today, Rodin’s statue rests on a pedestal, ringed by polished stone into which are etched the names of the Orly crash victims, on the grounds of the High Museum of Art on the campus of the Robert W. Woodruff Arts Center in Midtown. The original Memorial building has been subsumed into the Woodruff complex, which encompasses the Alliance Theatre, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) Atlanta and the Richard-Meier-designed museum that opened in 1983.

“The Orly tragedy didn’t just influence the evolution of the Woodruff Arts Center, it was the genesis of the effort to build the Memorial Arts Building alongside the High Museum of Art,” said Hala Moddelmog, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Woodruff Arts Center. “The founders would be proud of how far the Arts Center has come and what it has achieved in the past sixty years.”

In the fall of 2018, the High Museum completed a comprehensive reinstallation of its permanent collection, which numbers more than 18,000 pieces including an expanding collection of works by folk and self-taught artists. In recent years, the museum has made a conscious effort to attract visitors and participants from Atlanta’s diverse communities. According to the museum’s Art + Inclusion report, between 2015 and 2020 participation in High Museum events and activities among Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) rose from 15% to 51%, representing a 240% increase.

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HIGH EXPECTATIONS: Building upon more than 50 years of experience, the Woodruff Arts Center strives to “showcase art that reflect the stories, history, and heartbeat of our community on one campus.” Photo CREDIT: Photo courtesy High Museum of Art

The High’s push for inclusive representation and diverse participation extends to the other major arts organizations operating under the Woodruff roof. In 2021, the Alliance Theater and its director Susan Booth received a $250,000 grant from the Vermont-based BOLD Theater Women’s Leadership Circle to develop theatrical works by women and create mentorship programs for future female artistic directors. With each passing season, the performance calendar of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, which recently welcomed Nathalie Stutzmann as its first female Music Director, includes more performances and compositions by artists representing BIPOC, LBGTQ+ and other historically marginalized communities. In February, SCAD hired an alumnus, Brittany ‘Lace’ Carter Walker, as the university’s new director of inclusion at all locations.

“Our citizens are well aware that the original ‘anonymous’ donor [for construction of the Memorial Arts Center] was Robert Woodruff of The Coca-Cola Company,” said Moddelmog. “I must add that The Coca-Cola Company, along with other corporate partners in Atlanta, have continued to influence the evolution of the Arts Center through their generous giving not only toward our exquisite art, but also by supporting education and access for underserved Georgians. We believe that art is powerful and made more powerful when shared by way of education and access for all.”

The Orly disaster occurred ten years prior to Creative Loafing’s first issue being published, but the tragedy of that day and its impact on Atlanta has reverberated through our arts coverage ever since.  —CL—