40 years of arts in Atlanta

Betting on a belief that art can blend and bind a city

40 Years of Arts in Atlanta Icon
Photo credit: Illustration by Sanithna Phansavanh

There are moments in the life of a city where anybody who is paying attention can feel the seismic shift of a major transition in progress. These are the moments that not only sum up the decade that came before, but also set in motion the years that will come after. In 1972, there was a moment like that for Atlanta. The city’s legendary white male business community was slowly figuring out how to talk to the increasingly powerful black political establishment. Intown neighborhoods like Midtown and Virginia-Highland were redefining themselves as the last of the hippies disappeared, leaving behind nothing but a whiff of strawberry incense, and young families moved in looking for parks and playgrounds and good schools. Sweet Auburn struggled to hold onto its glorious past while figuring out its post-integration role in the life of the city. Little Five Points emerged as a vibrant, eclectic gathering place for artists, activists, entrepreneurs, and a colorful cast of urban pioneers. Cascade Heights, Cabbagetown, Buckhead, and beyond; change was in the air and Atlanta neighborhoods shuddered and shifted and rearranged themselves into something new, not so much because they embraced the dramatic changes all around them, but because they had no choice. As civil rights laws went into effect across the South, housing patterns slowly began to change. Neighborhoods that had been all one thing or another became a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Formerly all-white, all-male institutions began including a few carefully chosen people of color and a woman or two. Maynard Jackson, the city’s vice mayor, was poised to make a historic run to be Atlanta’s first African-American mayor in the following year’s city elections.

It may seem strange to begin an essay about the arts by talking about politics, but in my mind they are inextricably bound. Atlanta had long been a mecca for individual artists from throughout Georgia and across the South who left their small hometowns in search of new city audiences that might respond more positively to a range of contemporary work. By 1972, Atlanta was home to a thriving community of painters and poets, actors and authors, singers and shamans, all responding not only to the demands of each individual muse, but reflecting the soul and spirit of the city they now called home. Along with their Atlanta counterparts, these artists gathered in cafés and bars and restaurants that would let you nurse a beer for three hours if you were too broke to buy another one, debating ideas and aesthetics until the moon set and the sun rose and they staggered back to their studios in search of truth, beauty, and a way to make a living at what they loved.

Which is where the politics comes into the story. It’s only romantic to be a starving artist in the movies. In real life, the challenge of paying for food and shelter is no different for creative people than it is for anyone else, but it was a challenge that government had pretty much ignored throughout Atlanta’s history. Prior to the first Jackson administration, Atlanta had no apparatus in place for channeling public dollars into funding for the arts. The city’s cultural institutions were funded mainly through the largesse of enlightened businessmen and the generosity of wealthy patrons. While this system worked well for the larger, more mainstream organizations, it rarely trickled down to artists operating independently or within smaller institutions like Frank Wittow’s Academy Theatre or Elizabeth Omilami’s People’s Survival Theatre. These artists struggled to piece together their very small budgets from an even smaller pool of supporters who rarely had the resources to pay the light bill, much less pay artists for work well done.

But all of that was about to change. Realizing that a vibrant cultural life is a key component of any world-class city, Maynard Jackson made the arts a centerpiece of his campaign platform in 1972, promising not only support for the fledging Woodruff Arts Center, but for the growing community of individual artists and smaller arts organizations. Promising to model the Atlanta Bureau of Cultural Affairs after the National Endowment for the Arts and to stress both quality and inclusion, Jackson’s idea was grounded in a firm belief that a community in transition may find it easier to accept change if new neighbors can encounter each other at a free concert in Grant Park or at an impromptu street theatre performance before the lunchtime crowd at Peachtree Center. Culture, Jackson believed, was the glue that would bind Atlantans together, whether they loved Robert Shaw and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra or the more raucous Southern rhythms of the Allman Brothers playing free at Piedmont Park to celebrate their new album Eat a Peach, or the heavenly harmonies of the Morehouse College Glee Club’s Christmas concert, he knew that the arts would blend us and bind us, fashion and find us as who we so hoped to be: a new people in a world-class city. And he was right.

Pearl Cleage is a prolific playwright, best-selling author, and journalist that has called Atlanta home for the better part of the last four decades. She attended and taught at Spelman College, and for years was a columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Atlanta Tribune. Her most recent play, the romantic comedy What I Learned in Paris, had its world premiere at the Alliance Theatre this month and continues through Sept. 30.