For the last six years, Joseph R. Bankoff was president and chief executive officer of the Woodruff Arts Center, a position he stepped down from on May 31. Although he had planned to retire, Bankoff instead will begin work in August as chairman of the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs and Professor of the Practice in the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts at Georgia Tech.
“I never dreamed when I marched off to Purdue that I would wind up deciding I wanted to practice law,” he says. “At the time, I wanted to be an electrical engineer. I would never have figured that I would have ever left the law firm to go run an arts center, and least of all figured that I would have run over to an academic environment as someone with administrative responsibilities.”
For many years Bankoff was a senior partner at the King & Spalding law firm, which he joined in 1972 and where he founded the firm’s intellectual property practice group. His practice included work with television rights agreements for the 1996 Olympic Games. He subsequently chaired the Atlanta Regional Arts Task Force, led the formation of the Metropolitan Atlanta Arts and Culture Coalition and served as vice chairman of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Then, after 34 years at King & Spalding, he left the firm to take over the leadership of Woodruff.
In the first of a two-part interview with ArtsATL (part two can be viewed here), Bankoff discusses his views on how the arts center laid the foundation for an artistic boom in Atlanta, how approval of the T-SPLOST referendum could bring the city together as a community, and how a city is defined by the value it places on the culture it offers.
Observing Atlanta and its arts over the years, particularly at an arts center with an international profile, has given Bankoff a special sense of the connection between local and global, especially when it comes to art. “The human condition, the nature of human nature, doesn’t change that much around the world,” he says. “Art is one of these universal things that speaks regardless of language.”
ArtsATL: You’ve said you see Atlanta as a great microcosm of the American dream with its diverse mixture of native locals plus international, national and regional immigrants.
Joseph Bankoff: Not only a microcosm of what the country is, what it is becoming, but our own ambitions as to what we would like it to be. We’re a town of maybe only one native out of a dozen. Probably a third came from Reduce Speed, Mississippi, went off to college [and] wanted to live in an urban area. Atlanta is a place of choice because it is so connected to the rest of the world. We’re the connecting point through the airport, but also through an intersection of highways and fiber pathways that make this place a unique cross section. We are among the most diverse communities for our size of any city in the world.
We are really a community of communities, which is both a strength and a weakness. But when you have a municipality, the city of Atlanta, that is less than 10 percent of the [Metropolitan] Statistical Area, in a county that has 13 municipalities, you have an infrastructure problem that we’re still dealing with. So we represent all of the challenges of urban America [and] all of the opportunities of urban America. But as a history, when we stand together, we have tended to do really remarkable things. The Olympics are the most recent example.
ArtsATL: The airport, the old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, and the Woodruff Arts Center also come to mind as examples. But now that you mention it, the Olympics were back in 1996, so all that took place over 15 years ago. So what, if anything, has changed over time?
Bankoff: The people who were building Atlanta when I first came here in the ’60s were, by and large, hometown-grown CEOs interested in the long term of the community as much as this year’s operations. It was a much smaller town then. It’s five times bigger [now]. We’ve gotten a lot more fragmented as we have grown. The result is that if you stop three people on the street and ask them, “Tell me the three best things about Atlanta,” the first thing you’ll notice is a long pause. And then you will get answers. They’re not bad answers, but they’ll be different.
The [Woodruff] Arts Center was, yes, built as a memorial, [but also] it was “Let’s put it all together, put it in one place, let’s make it visible enough that it will really make Atlanta a visible place in the world.” Because of the combination, it has been able to nurture more rapid growth artistically than one would have otherwise expected. The notion of us standing together as a community to do things has really been our strength. When we are standing together, there’s nothing we can’t do, and when we aren’t, there’s almost nothing we can.
ArtsATL: You make the observation that because of the city’s terrible transportation and infrastructure problems, for many metro Atlantans the idea of “my community” consists of what is five miles around their house, school and workplace. And that’s their world, socially and culturally.
Bankoff: There are people who would rather give up an arm than come back down I-85 at night to something in Atlanta, after having fought their way home up I-85 during rush hour. So we have created a real difficulty for the people in the community to move about and to feel connected to other parts of the community.
This is not some special failure of Atlanta; it’s human nature. If you make it hard to get around, then you’re going to feel connected to the places you can get around. It then becomes important to you that you’re from Dunwoody, not from Smyrna. Not important to anybody else, but it’s important to you. It may be more important that you’re “not from Atlanta.”
But when they go to Chicago, I’ll guarantee the people from Dunwoody say they’re from Atlanta. So the brand of Atlanta is a lot bigger than the corporate city. That raises the question of what exactly that brand should be. It goes back to the question of stopping any three people on the street to see what they think the brand of Atlanta is. We don’t have a coherence around what we’re trying to do or be.
ArtsATL: How do we gain coherence and build a sense of community in a city so geographically spread out?
Bankoff: If there is a sense of community that can be developed, if we can figure out some things we really think we need to do together and we can have a couple of successes, you’ve got something to build on. That’s why, for example, the [T-SPLOST] referendum is so important. Yeah, it’s about transportation, but it’s just a fraction of the money we need for really fixing the transit. This is as much a referendum on whether we believe in ourselves and in regionalism as it is on transportation. Frankly, if that fails, I think you can put a “For Sale” sign on a lot of efforts to get Atlanta to be a pointing place, because we don’t have enough money to fix all the problems separately. Unless we pull ourselves together, we’re going to get overtaken by the infrastructure problems that we’ve basically ignored for 20 years.
We have enormous assets in our infrastructure, with the airport, fiber pathways, highway connectivity, with the universities. We have enormous leadership in major corporations; we have a number of important civic organizations, arts and culture included. So we’ve got all the wood, we’ve got the kindling; what we are in need of is leadership that helps us see that our future, whatever it is, is tied together. We’re either going to stand together and figure out as a group what we really want to see this city become, or we’re going to let it drift together.
(For part two, click here)