Art Works Blog

Postcard from North Carolina, Mississippi, and Georgia (Part Two)

Carlton Turner of Alternate ROOTS and I spoke in front of a group of about 450 when we chatted about creative placemaking at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta. Photo by Jhai James, Georgia Council on the Arts

Here’s part two of my southern arts adventures. (You can catch up on what I did in North Carolina and Mississippi here.) I started my trip to Georgia in Macon. I had lunch with Jim Coleman from the Macon Arts Alliance and Beverly Blake of the Knight Foundation. Where did we have lunch? The Steak ‘n Shake in Macon, of course! (It was delicious, by the way---a first-rate Steak ‘n Shake.) Beverly and Jim were great hosts the entire day, and I was glad they were able to make all the stops with me.

After lunch I delivered the keynote speech at the Georgia Arts Network Conference. The conference was at Macon’s Grand Opera House, which is a beautiful facility. It would be the pride of any city. It’s a gorgeous old opera house built in 1883-84, and it’s just a thing of beauty. I spoke on several topics, including creative placemaking and how we can use the arts to support service members and their families. Wayne Jones, president of the Georgia Arts Network, gave the opening remarks, and my old friend Dennis Scholl from the Knight Foundation introduced me. After the conference I was able to spend some time visiting with Macon Mayor Robert Reichert and Sam Hart, who’s the chair of the Macon City Commission.

Our next stop was the Tubman African American Museum on Walnut Street. We gave them a grant last year to help them extend their after-school arts education program. It’s a powerful museum, and it really chronicles a lot of the African-American experience. I was glad to meet Dr. Andy Ambrose, who’s the museum’s executive director.

Next, I spent some time meeting with a group from the Macon Symphony Orchestra, including Sheryl Towers, their CEO, and several of their board members. The symphony has received a couple of grants from us that they’ve put to good use for music education projects and performances.

My next stop was Atlanta. My first meeting was with Lisa Cremin, who runs the Metropolitan Arts Fund/Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta. We began what I think is going to be a very productive discussion about the engagement of the NEA with community foundations and their work. You know, the community foundations are on the ground every day. They know the territory, they know what works and what doesn’t work. And they know which arts organizations are worth supporting and which ones less so. We need to start coordinating with them to really learn from their expertise and their hands-on knowledge.

The next morning I paid a visit to the Charles R. Drew Charter School, where we were hosted by Principal Don Doran. This is an amazing school, and I came back very fired up about what we are going to do in arts education. This school has been transformative not only of its neighborhood, but of the students who attend there. You see the stats where you had a 50 percent graduation rate and now it’s close to a 100 percent graduation rate. The kids there are going on to college and turning around their performance on the standardized tests. Why? Because it’s a “STEAM” (Science/Technology/Engineering/Arts/Mathematics) school; arts are a part of the curriculum, a part of the ethos of the school.

I can’t emphasize enough how inspiring the Drew Charter School is. If we had thousands of Drew Schools around the country, we wouldn’t have an education problem. And I think part of our job at the NEA is to highlight a school like the Drew School, to showcase it, to bring it to the attention of the Department of Education, to see how we can get a lot more support for it. I saw myself how motivated the kids there are, how committed they are, how well behaved they are. This is something that’s just very inspiring. This is an underserved group of kids who are doing high-quality work and outperforming kids in other school districts by a mile. What’s the distinguishing element from my perspective? It’s the arts.

We were joined at that visit by Karen Paty, director of the Georgia Council for the Arts, who spent the entire day with us. She’s relatively new in her role but she’s a highly energetic, highly committed woman who is really, I think, shaking things up at the arts council in a good way and doing some very, very good work.

Our next Atlanta stop was the Fox Theatre, which is an amazing theater. It reminds me of the Fox Theatre in St. Louis. These were all built around the same time, I think, in the early 1920s. Each room in it is stunning. We were at the theater for a community discussion. It was me and Carlton Turner, the executive director of Alternate ROOTS. Alternate ROOTS is an incredible organization that provides support for the creation and presentation of work in a variety of disciplines. Their name comes from the fact that the work they support is rooted in a particular community of place, tradition, or spirit, hence “alternate roots.” You talk about place-based art, that’s what Alternate ROOTS does. That’s their specialty, and we’ve given them several grants over the years.

Carlton and I had a conversation about creative placemaking from the perspectives of our respective organizations, and then we opened the discussion to questions and comments from the audience. It was one of the best back-and-forths we’ve had in terms of the quality and intelligence of the questions coming out of the audience. It was one of those conversations where you can keep on going and going, and there are so many good questions, that you can’t get to them all. I really like these types of discussions because it gives me a sense, when I do one of these, for what’s happening in a city, in a community. Every place is challenged in terms of the economics, but Georgia is really an up and coming arts scene. There’s a great tradition of the arts in Georgia. I think the state funding has stabilized, and Governor Nathan Deal seems to perceive the value of the arts. His wife, Sandra Deal, is a big supporter of the arts. She’s a former school teacher and really gets it about the role of the arts in education. She’s a huge asset for the state of Georgia, believe me.

After the public meeting I met with a group from the National Black Arts Festival and heard about what they are doing. They are an NEA grantee led by Michael Simanga. I also met some other staff members from Alternate ROOTS, including Keryl McCord, who does development, Cecille Ericta, and Shannon Turner, and some members of their board.

We then had lunch at the Woodruff Arts Center, which is home to several Atlanta arts groups. It was really a star-studded cast at lunch. Sandra Deal, the First Lady of Georgia, whom I fell in love with right away, was there. So was Joe Bankoff, the CEO of the Woodruff Arts Center. He’s retiring soon but he’s leaving a legacy of really building and promoting that place and making it world-class. He deserves a lot of the credit for what the Woodruff has become. I also met Susan Booth, who runs the Alliance Theatre, one of the organizations that lives at Woodruff. The previous night I had seen her show Ghost Brothers of Darkland County. It was a very compelling show, and I think it is going to have a future life. And I’d really like to come back and see more productions by that group.

Also at lunch was Stanley Romanstein, president of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and Michael Shapiro, an old friend who runs the High Museum. Charisse Williams, the president of Young Audiences, was there too, so I was able to meet with all of the organizations that are housed at the center. I also met Chris Cummiskey who’s the Georgia Commissioner of Economic Development. Chris gets it about the arts and sees the role the arts can play in urban revitalization and economic renewal. He really sees the arts as an engine for economic growth. He doesn’t need an education about the arts and economic renewal; he gave me the education! Overall it was a wonderful group, and we had a great back-and-forth about the arts in Georgia and across the country.

After lunch I got a tour of the High Museum by Michael. It’s an impressive museum, it really is. The spaces are big with lots of light, so pieces of scale can really hang and breathe and be appreciated. And the High Museum has become, under Michael’s stewardship, a real world-class destination museum.

I need to come back and engage the other arts in Atlanta. Atlanta is a dynamic arts city. I had not been there before in my official role, and it was great to go there and see what’s going on, and have what I think is just the beginning of a discussion. The arts are alive and well in the South. That’s for sure. I hadn’t stopped before to think that Mississippi is such an arts state or that Atlanta has such a vibrant arts community or that Jackson, Mississippi, has a museum that I want to bring my wife Debby back to when we take our cross-country tour. And Macon is a beautiful town with beautiful architecture, beautiful buildings. There are all these places in the South that I really want to explore now and to engage the very vibrant arts culture that is there. The South is at the top of my list of places I want to come back to.

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