In the last few months, new directors have taken the reins at three of the five core arts institutions in Atlanta: Rand Suffolk at the High Museum of Art, Jennifer Barlament at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO) and Gennadi Nedvigin at Atlanta Ballet. Tomer Zvulun is in only his third year as director of the Atlanta Opera (his predecessor, Dennis Hanthorn, resigned in July 2012 after serving as general director for eight years). For the 2018-19 season, Susan Booth, artistic director of the Alliance Theater since 2001, will stage performances in a completely redesigned, state-of-the-art facility.
It’s impossible to portend what this sweeping, even unprecedented, turnover in leadership of Atlanta’s institutions will mean for the city. But it is obvious change is afoot and that new leadership will bring in new ideas and help shape Atlanta’s cultural landscape for years to come. It also presents an opportunity to redefine and elevate the city’s standing as a major metropolitan arts center.
“It’s kind of amusing that now, after three years, I’m a veteran general director [in town],” said Tomer Zvulun. “Not only the High Museum, the Atlanta Symphony, Atlanta Ballet but also the Cobb Energy Centre just lost its managing director and is looking for a new person. That’s a major, major change. From 2008 to 2012, the arts took a huge hit. And in the past three years, there has been a renaissance or reinvention of the arts. People in Atlanta are coming back, but they want to see something new and different.”
Rand Suffolk, who became director of the High in July, agrees that all the change presents opportunity. “My experience has underscored the potential impact that art museums can have within their respective communities,” he said. “It’s an awesome opportunity and responsibility — one that should certainly lend perspective to our decision-making.”
In January, Suffolk replaced Michael Shapiro, who had served as director of the High since 2000. During his tenure, Shapiro oversaw a $160 million Woodruff Arts Center campus expansion, helped raise $20 million for acquisitions, endowed all seven curatorial chairs and founded the David C. Driskell Prize, the first national award recognizing contributions to the field of African-American art and art history. Shapiro also implemented a strategy for mounting exhibitions partly based on forming partnerships with leading American and European museums, such as the Musée du Louvre and the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA).
Suffolk, 48, is a veteran arts administrator with two decades of experience. During a nine-year stint as director of the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma, he executed a community engagement strategy that resulted in a 63 percent increase in attendance, 293 percent growth in educational program participation and a 22 percent rise in membership.
“Whether it’s the High or, frankly, any other art museum in America, staying relevant is priority number one,” Suffolk said. “We have to be compelling in everything we do, whether that’s inspiring the creative impulse or framing a dialogue concerning art and its purpose. It’s important that the High is positioned to lead and make a difference every day. Speaking broadly, our plan will focus on growth, inclusivity, collaboration and connectivity. In relation to these areas, where progress is already being made, we’ll redouble our efforts. Where it’s not, we’ll bring new energy and commitment.”
A REAL WAKE-UP CALL
In January, Jennifer Barlament assumed the position of executive director of the ASO, replacing interim CEO Terry Neal. Neal was hired essentially to hold the organization together following the resignation of ASO President and CEO Stanley Romanstein in September 2014 during the second of two management lockouts since 2012. In a dramatic turnaround, the ASO finished the 2014–15 season with an operational surplus after more than a decade in the red. Funding for the Musicians’ Endowment Campaign, which will support the eventual return of the ASO to a full complement of 88 musicians, is well on the way to reaching its $25 million goal.
“The last few years have been a real wake-up call, which has re-dedicated everyone to continuing excellent music-making and creating an artistically vibrant and financially solid institution,” said Barlament.
As she begins steering the ASO on a new course, Barlament highlighted two areas that will receive special attention: access and education.
“I truly believe it’s our opportunity, responsibility and obligation to make this great art form available to everyone in the community, regardless of who they are or where they come from or whether they have any familiarity with classical music or have any money,” said Barlament.
Noting the availability of relatively abundant resources at the Woodruff Arts Center including “a wonderful suite of education programs,” Barlament indicated that investigating creative new ways to pool those resources may play a role in shaping the future of the ASO. “We’re in the same building as a theater company and an art museum; to me, you put music, theater and art together, and make something extra special happen. I’m eager to discover what synergies are there.”
INCREASE ARTISTIC RISK
Before one can change the future, one must ensure the soundness of the present. Although he didn’t step into a situation nearly as fraught as the post-ASO lockout environment, when Tomer Zvulun became general and artistic director of the Atlanta Opera in 2013 the organization was struggling both financially and artistically, its output reduced to a few productions per season. The veteran director’s first responsibility was to stabilize the company’s financial health.
“To do that, it was important to get the earned revenue into a strong place,” Zvulun said. “We programmed shows that would be highly popular, box office hits, which would generate revenue and increase interest in opera in Atlanta. Those titles put more butts in the seats, and there’s nothing we can do to change that.”
But Zvulun also has greater ambitions. He partnered with other opera companies such as the Boston Lyric Opera to spread out the cost of big productions, such as Rigoletto, Madame Butterfly and The Marriage of Figaro. The 2014-15 season saw the introduction of the “Atlanta Opera Discoveries” series, which showcases more modest and adventurous operatic productions in appropriate venues, such as Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers at the Alliance Theatre and David T. Little’s Soldier Songs at the Rialto Center for the Arts.
“The motto for our approach can be summed up in one sentence: Increase artistic risk and lower financial risk,” Zvulun said.
For the 2016-17 season, the Atlanta Opera has scheduled four mainstage productions: W. A. Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio, Kevin Puts’ Silent Night, Gaetano Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, and Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot. The “Discoveries” series will feature “immersive, site-specific” productions of Astor Piazzolla’s María de Buenos Aires and Mozart’s The Secret Gardener.
“I want to be considered one of the most innovative, forward-thinking companies in the world,” Zvulun said. “The fact that our budget is not similar to the greatest opera companies in the world is important. It forces us to come up with an alternative solution to paying a ridiculous amount of money. The way to do that is innovation.”
Faced with a similar challenge, Atlanta Ballet president and CEO Arturo Jacobus is relying on guaranteed box office draws, such as Atlanta Ballet’s The Nutcracker, which this past Christmas broke yet another box office record, to support more challenging presentations, such as 20/20, which was staged in March. The latter was a three-part production of modern works, programs that push an audience’s definition of ballet and are not always a strong draws in ticket sales. Staging cutting edge modern dance — such as resident choreographer Helen Pickett’s Camino Real in 2014 and the ballet’s collaboration with Big Boi of the hip-hop group OutKast — has become a hallmark of Atlanta Ballet in recent years under artistic director John McFall.
McFall, however, retires at the end of the season and Gennadi Nedvigin, a Russian Bolshoi-trained principal dancer for the San Francisco Ballet, becomes the fourth artistic director in Atlanta Ballet’s 87-year history. In an interview with ArtsATL prior to the announcement about hiring Nedvigin, Jacobus said, “I don’t believe we will see a full-blown picture of the new artistic vision until 2017-18. In any case, it is our intention that [the new director] will build on our legacy, while bringing a unique point of view, rather than creating any abrupt change in direction.”
A GREAT STEP FORWARD
With the 2015-16 season winding down, Alliance Theater artistic director Susan Booth is understandably excited about the next two years. The 2016-17 season, which kicks off in August with The Prom, a new musical comedy directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw (Tuck Everlasting), will transpire in the familiar environs of the 770-seat Alliance mainstage and 200-seat Hertz Stage spaces. The following 2017-18 season will see 12 productions in as many different venues while the Alliance Theatre main stage, rehearsal spaces, education spaces, and artist support spaces are completely renovated for the first time in the organization’s 47-year history.
The $22 million project is slated for completion in time for 2018-19 season, which will mark the 50th anniversary of the Alliance Theatre. The new mainstage space will feature improved access to all levels, state of the art acoustics, more intimate seating with a reduced gap between performers and audience, LED lighting and motion control systems, and other technical improvements.
“The upgrades will be noticeable to our patrons and a great step forward for our designers and production staff,” Booth said.
As far as programming goes, the Alliance director said, “I love that we’re a ‘something for everyone’ kind of theater.”
Every season, the Alliance mixes productions that are sure-fire box office hits with more experimental works. This season, for example, the Alliance has staged at least one distinctively provocative production, Disgraced, Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning examination of the consequential effects of Muslim marginalization in America. Next season’s schedule includes The Temple Bombing by Jimmy Maize. Based on the book by Atlanta author Melissa Fay Greene, the play recounts the infamous 1958 bombing of Atlanta’s Hebrew Benevolent Congregation, the city’s oldest and most prominent synagogue.
“What’s so refreshing about the arts leadership in Atlanta is that we have people who are not only dedicated to their art for its own sake, but they also believe in the ability of art to impact lives, and maybe even bring about social change,” said Lois Reitzes, former program director at WABE-FM and now host of “City Lights.”
GEORGIA RANKS NEXT-TO-LAST
Regardless of the experience level or sincerity of commitment at the top echelon or the relative merits of a particular vision or plan, no arts organization can work toward crafting a better future when it spends most of its time, energy and resources simply trying to keep the lights on. In no other state in America has the sting of dwindling public and corporate support for the arts been more acutely felt than in Georgia.
Between fiscal years 2001 and 2005, Georgia reduced legislative funding for arts agencies from $4.8 million to just over $4 million, a 16 percent reduction according to statistics compiled by the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies. Between 2006 and the present, the trend only worsened. For the past few years, Georgia gave less to the arts in public funding than any other state in the country. In 2015, the amount of legislative funding was $596,713, which was raised to $903,360 this fiscal year.
That is still dismal in comparison to other states. Georgia gives just nine cents per resident to public funding for the arts, second to last in the nation. By comparison, Tennessee gives $1.06 per resident to support the arts, North Carolina gives 76 cents, South Carolina allocates 63 cents, Alabama 86 cents and Mississippi 68 cents.
“I’m not hearing the lament, ‘Why can’t we be like other cities?’ as much anymore, but before we see any significant forward progress [in the Atlanta arts community], we have a tremendous amount of work to do at the legislative level,” said Lisa Cremin, director of the Metropolitan Atlanta Arts Fund of the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, which focuses on supporting the 250-plus small and mid-sized arts groups in the Atlanta area with an operating budget of less than $2 million.
Cremin and other experts point to the United Arts Fund, which was created by the Arts & Science Council in Charlotte, North Carolina, as a fund-raising model other cities could benefit from emulating. In 2012, the City of Atlanta’s Office of Cultural Affairs introduced a localized version of power2give.org, an online cultural marketplace designed to connect donors with creative projects that inspire them.
“In addition to distributing money across the board to all arts organizations, the United Arts Fund provides visibility for all arts organizations in front of workplace-giving campaigns,” Cremin said. “That means someone sitting at their desk at work who has an opportunity to allocate one or three percent of their paycheck toward the arts each year discovers, ‘Oh, I had no idea we had a theater in Gwinnett County producing plays in Spanish.’”
SEEKING THE NEXT LEVEL
Staying financially viable is one of the biggest challenges facing arts administrators. To attract contemporary audiences, especially among younger potential patrons, Cremin also emphasized the importance of addressing issues associated with equity and diversity.
“The smaller organizations have a huge opportunity in this arena, whereas larger organizations, such as the Atlanta Symphony, might feel like it represents some risk to their traditional audience,” Cremin said. “For financial and practical reasons, you want to hold onto the old while directly addressing new ways of thinking.”
Particularly at Atlanta’s core institutions, factors having as much to do with popular appeal as artistic merit will always influence to one degree or another the decision-making process by which directors and curators deem programs worthy.
“Is that decision-making process going to change because the museum has a new director? Unless the new director is a miracle worker, I don’t think so,” said Louise Shaw, a longtime arts administrator and former director of Nexus Contemporary Arts Center (1983-98). “At the end of the day, the leaders are working in pursuit of their organization’s vested self-interest, most of the changes they are likely to instigate will affect those organizations internally, and will exert very little impact on the arts community at large.”
At the same time, Shaw noted that the High Museum can and does mount exhibitions that accomplish the multi-faceted mission of promoting productive public discussion, elevating the profile of the Atlanta arts community, and urging consumers through the turnstiles. An example of which is Road to Freedom: Photographs of the Civil Rights Movement, 1956–1968, an exhibition of photographs from the High’s permanent collection that debuted in 2008.
“This was original work from the High Museum, which was relevant to the region and represented groundbreaking content of national and international quality,” Shaw said. “That’s how you raise your game.”
Louis Corrigan, founder and board member of Flux Projects (who also sat on ArtsATL’s board of directors), amplified Shaw’s observation when he said, “Those are the metrics you should be looking for: Is your staff producing shows that not only drive an audience, but become meaningful intellectual property, which can tour the country and achieve a broader reach?”
Corrigan acknowledged that Atlanta has recently experienced a flourishing of emergent arts activity including installations, exhibits and public events sponsored by his own organization, as well as musical and site-specific performances and static exhibitions under the auspices of small non-profit groups, such as Eyedrum and WonderRoot.
“Part of this trend is due to the fact that Atlanta is a great place to live and is not as expensive as other big cities, although even that’s changing,” he said. The way to tell when Atlanta has reached the proverbial “next level,” he said, is when the city can support multiple mid-level organizations.
“There is not a visual arts organization outside of the High Museum with a budget of more than a million dollars,” Corrigan said. “Most cities our size have more than one arts organization that falls into the one to five-or-eight million dollar category. Atlanta is a wealthy city, but it’s not like San Francisco where you have so many technology and finance millionaires. There’s also the absence of a culture of risk-taking here.”
Time will tell whether recent changes in leadership and new infrastructure at the top of Atlanta’s core arts institutions will trigger a leap forward in the evolution of the greater metro arts community.
Some, including Corrigan and Reitzes, think Atlanta needs to focus on creating its own vision and authenticity rather than comparing itself to the country’s cultural centers.
“Atlanta will never be New York and doesn’t need to be,” Reitzes said. “No city will ever be New York. London isn’t New York. Chicago has a tradition of strong arts support extending back well over 150 years. If you want to compare in terms of size, look at Cincinnati or Pittsburgh, both of which have expanding arts communities. I think we stand up really well against those places. We really will know when we’ve arrived or are authentic when we stop trying to be the ‘Fill-in-the-blank of the South.’”
(Additional reporting by Noel Morris.)