Midtown is Boomtown. But it wasn’t always so. “The Strip,” as Peachtree Street near 14th Street was nicknamed in the late 1960s and early ’70s, was essentially Atlanta’s version of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury hippie district, one block south on Peachtree from the Woodruff Arts Center. After the Arts Center began operation in 1968, Colony Square started to come out of the ground the following year as the first mixed-use development in the Southeast. Although the city struggled with a real estate recession during the ’70s, in the ’80s more high-density commercial and residential development began to accelerate in the Peachtree and West Peachtree corridor. Over the ensuing three decades, Midtown became the fastest and most dramatically changing part of Atlanta.
Following is the second part of a two-part interview (see Part 1 here) with former Woodruff Arts Center President and Chief Executive Officer Joe Bankoff, in which he reflects on the center’s role in Midtown’s resurgence and on the new generation of artistic leadership taking root in Atlanta.
ArtsATL: So here we are, Joe, talking over coffee at a table in front of Colony Square, within view of the Woodruff Arts Center. The proximity of the two seems no accident.
Joe Bankoff: We’re sitting in a place that, 40 years ago, was two-story teardowns, head shops, Poor Richard’s frame shop, the original Gorin’s across the street, and some youth hostels intermittently populated by hippies and motorcycle gangs.
ArtsATL: Those were very different times. Midtown has certainly changed since then.
Bankoff:Yes. But it started with an anchor around arts and culture. As a result, this is where the architects are, where design shops are, where post-production is, where Turner’s digital studios are, where the Savannah College of Art and Design is. It was the notion that this was the center, where the creative community was. So the creative infrastructure really grabbed an opportunity to develop Midtown as the creative zone. And what was a tax base of $350 million now is $3.5 billion, up and down this Peachtree Street, in what was once a disaster area and now is one of the hottest places in the country. This zone is now a really important creative center, and it is seen as such in lots of places — except Atlanta.
ArtsATL: For many local artists, that’s always been the baffling part: the very curious idea among many Atlantans that if it’s good, it can’t possibly originate here, it must come from somewhere else. It would be easy to chalk that up to the perspectives of a migratory population, but it also reflects the very old Southern idea that if you wanted to make the arts your career or life’s work, you had to go off somewhere else to make good. The arts were something that originated “somewhere else.” The historical challenge for Atlanta has been the public recognition that great creativity can not only originate here, but be highly visible and respected on a global scale. How might the work of the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs help point the way to a new way of looking at the city’s creativity relative to its potentials for global reach?
Bankoff: The Sam Nunn School is not a school of foreign relations or foreign affairs; it’s international affairs. The distinction is this: foreign is “over there,” international is “us.” We are international. We are a collection of communities in this community that is as international as it gets. And we have every problem on earth right here. We have hunger, we have poverty, we have water, we have transportation, we have air quality, we have illiteracy issues, we have every kind of issue on earth right in this microcosm.
So when I talk about the international aspect of it, I’m not talking about an “over there.” I’m talking about an “everywhere.” There is no “there” there. It’s “everywhere” because of the connectivity that exists. Not just the fiber, but the airport, the sense of presence and the fact that we have such a mix of cultures here. Take the creativity layer — and I don’t care if you’re talking about software or music or the visual arts, special effects or dance. Our ability to be an ecosystem for creativity is not bounded by geography, and the output is not limited to where it was created.
ArtsATL: So it is in large part a matter of raising of consciousness of metro Atlanta’s populace. While poor infrastructure can impose limitations upon the concept of community, so also one’s life experiences can impose similar limitations. While transportation is one thing, a limited diversity of available human encounters is another. How conscious are people of this?
Bankoff: It varies. It depends on your life experience. Frankly, it depends on how old you are. If you’re 10 years old and your world consists of five blocks around your house or housing project and where you go to elementary school, your sense of the world is pretty limited. If you’re an immigrant or a second generation of parents who did immigrate, you’re also in an environment in which there are 12 other languages spoken in your middle school — which exists in DeKalb County — then you find all of a sudden that there’s a broader world. And if you’ve had the benefit of travel, if you’ve had the benefit of the opportunity to live in a different culture for a period of time, if you’ve learned to speak another language well enough that you can think in it, then you begin to understand that the human condition is pretty universal.
But there are characteristics about what’s creative, what is valued and understood and what are the norms that vary from place to place. That doesn’t make it bad, it just makes it different. If you begin to see the value in the differences, instead of “that’s not us so we’re not that,” then you begin to feel like you are connected to it. You have your own thing, you’re not looking to homogenize, but you can respect what others are doing.
ArtsATL: With respect to developing globally aware leadership: what about the city’s young artists in their 20s and 30s, many of whom grew up or were trained in Atlanta, or who perhaps went away and returned to start reinvesting themselves in the community and are trying to figure out how? Their hearts are in it, but can they be nurtured into becoming the city’s arts leadership 20 years from now?
Bankoff: The things that attract them here are the potentials. Not all of them want to pick up the flag and fly it; they want to do their own thing. Frankly, they can’t help themselves; that’s who they are. They were supposed to have been a dentist, but they fell in love with the violin or fell in love with the saxophone or fell in love with dance. We have pockets of excellence all scattered around. The question becomes: out of that cohort, will we find those who want to try to look beyond their own art form to how you advance the ecosystem, how you protect it? I think we will.
What we are seeing now is the next generation of artistic leadership that is no longer bound by the problems of how you get a label. They choose to be here because there’s a sense of community that is creative. If we can somehow make that sense of creativity part of Atlanta’s brand, then it will reinforce itself. It doesn’t take a lot of people in the heroic “follow me” leadership model, but people who are just willing to say, “I’m a musician, but what’s going on in the visual arts and dance that’s important?”
If you value the differences among people and cultures in artistic genres as much as you value your own thing, you’re then in a position to realize that Atlanta is a community of communities. There is a collectivity that basically says we are either going to thrive as a group or we’re going to starve quite separately. E pluribus unum wasn’t invented yesterday. We need to stand in unity together to help get things done.
We’re designing ourselves into a situation in which we can get people to celebrate that which makes us different as much as that which makes us the same. The first people who will get it will be the artists, because they will see the connective tissue, the ideas, the emotion and expressions. Whether it’s movement in dance, a phrase or transition in an orchestral piece, or a piece of visual art, they’ll get it. They’re the ones who will see it first. The trick is letting them use their skills so that others who are not artists can see it as well.