Leslie Gordon became the director of Georgia State University’s Rialto Center for the Arts in 2003, seven years into the venue’s present life as a state-of-the-art downtown performing arts center. Formerly a movie theater, it closed during downtown’s economically depressed years, then was bought and completely renovated by Georgia State in the early 1990s.
Gordon has developed an innovative performance series showcasing contemporary dance, straight-ahead jazz and international artists. Her 2013 budget is $1.2 million, and more than 12,000 people attend the series each year.
She likes booking known artists who are experimenting with something new, such as banjoist Béla Fleck, who appeared with the Marcus Roberts Trio this season. The series also includes the GSU Symphony Orchestra’s free Sunday concerts; students regularly attend these and other events. Last year, Gordon collaborated with gloATL founder Lauri Stallings on “Off the EDGE,” an adventurous mix of local and national choreographers, artists and dancers.
Gordon is one of several community leaders who have helped turn downtown’s Fairlie-Poplar area into a thriving arts district. She has served on arts juries and grants committees for the city of Atlanta, the Fulton County Arts Council, the Georgia Humanities Council and the state arts council. She has introduced the city to more than 15 world artists, including African singer Angelique Kidjo. She’s brought in Noh and Kabuki theater from Japan; a dozen jazz troupes, among them Eddie Palmieri and the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra; and more than 10 dance companies including Hubbard Street Dance Company and Pierre Rigal’s Compagnie Dernière Minute, which appeared as part of the France-Atlanta 2012 cultural exchange.
On March 27, Gordon received France’s distinguished Insignia of the Knight in the Order of Arts and Letters for her decades of work in the arts, not only at the Rialto but also with the 1996 Cultural Olympiad, the Arts Festival of Atlanta and the National Black Arts Festival. Before the ceremony, ArtsATL’s Gillian Anne Renault interviewed Gordon in her office, surrounded by her folk art.
ArtsATL: What was happening at the Rialto when you came on board?
Leslie Gordon: There was no one in the director’s position for about two years before I was hired. The theater was contracting with Steve Harris at the Variety Playhouse to do the programming. When I came on board, he and I talked about the next season, and we both wanted to bring in Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. It was the company’s first time in Atlanta. That was the beginning.
ArtsATL: How did you develop your programming strategy?
Gordon: The first thing I did was sit down with Jennifer Moore, who was in charge of the box office [she’s now assistant director] and ask her to pull every show the Rialto had ever done. First I looked at the numbers from a purely economic standpoint; then I looked at what the city needed. We didn’t need to present classical music because Spivey Hall had that niche, Symphony Hall was up the road and the Ferst Center for the Arts was presenting people like Joshua Bell.
On the other hand, jazz was happening only in clubs and occasionally at Spivey. The Ferst was presenting smooth jazz, but we were interested in straight-ahead jazz. We started a conversation with the jazz department here at Georgia State and they agreed. We made a commitment to bring in jazz musicians and give our students exposure as well.
ArtsATL: What inspired you to bring in so many international companies?
Gordon: International performers were being seen only in their communities, in the Hindu temple for example, and not by a large, mixed audience. To me that was a loss. While I was at the Cultural Olympiad in 1996, I got to know the consulates, so it was easy to talk to the different cultural officers. We found the leaders in the different communities — the head of the Malian Neighborhood Association in Gwinnett County, for instance — and invited them to come in and talk with us. One great mentor was the late Giriraj Rao of the Gandhi Foundation. He encouraged me to present our first Indian program, the Gajamukha Dance Ballet. We have consistently presented Indian artists since.
ArtsATL: Dance is a tough sell too, but you have persevered. Why?
Gordon: It was important to me to fill that need. The Dancers Collective presented contemporary dance in Atlanta for many years but stopped being as active in the mid-1990s. By then, we were doing some at the Rialto, but soon the money started going away and no one wanted to present dance. Finally, Shelton Stanfill at the Woodruff Arts Center gave us a grant for dance. A few years later the Charles Loridans Foundation invited us to submit a proposal, because significant dance companies like Paul Taylor were not coming to Atlanta. Our dance companies are always in residence somewhere, for instance the dance department at Kennesaw State University or CORE in Decatur. Trey McIntyre was in residence for five days at Atlanta Ballet.
ArtsATL: How has your mission evolved?
Gordon: As the series has grown, I have had the freedom to do more comparative cultural things. I think people have learned to trust us, take the ride with us. At the “Mexican Strings Meets American Bluegrass” show, we saw people with cowboy hats and cowboy boots cheering the Mexican music, and everyone talked to each other at the reception afterwards. You see people cross boundaries here for no other reason than to celebrate. That’s the reason I feel we are here.
One brilliant thing Georgia State did was to make the Rialto lobby as huge as it is. We can do performances, readings and pre- and post-performance events there. It’s also the venue for our free monthly lunchtime series, “Feed Your Senses,” which brings in anywhere from 40 to 120 people each time. They hear about an artist, experience a performance; sometimes we’ll [feature] a visual artist.
ArtsATL: What’s next? What would you like to do that you haven’t yet?
Gordon: I love doing things that touch the community, so I think of projects like “Off the EDGE” that involve multiple partners. (Plans are under way for another “EDGE” in 2014.) There are incredible live aerial folks and people who perform clown and circus acts, in the European sense. Companies like Canada’s Les 5 Doigts de la Main. They perform all over the world, but no one knows them in Atlanta. We could get family audiences in to see them and maybe do a gathering in Woodruff Park in the spring with Atlanta artists as well. It would be so much fun.