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WonderRoot, troubled arts organization, is disbanded

Fahamu Pecou with support artists Denisha Claxton and Fabian Williams worked  on a mural called "The People Could Fly" at the Ashby Street MARTA station as part of the  Transformation Alliance, coordinated by WonderRoot.  CONTRIBUTED BY JOY BARNES
Fahamu Pecou with support artists Denisha Claxton and Fabian Williams worked on a mural called "The People Could Fly" at the Ashby Street MARTA station as part of the Transformation Alliance, coordinated by WonderRoot. CONTRIBUTED BY JOY BARNES

Credit: HANDOUT

Credit: HANDOUT

Troubled non-profit arts organization WonderRoot announced suddenly Thursday afternoon that it will cease to exist.

In a letter posted on its website, the group said it will “wrap up the operations” and look for “permanent homes” for the projects that are already underway.

“Regrettably, since the departure of WonderRoot’s founder, Chris Appleton, the organization has not been able to reestablish the financial support needed in order to continue,” the statement read.

Appleton, the co-founder of the 15-year-old group, resigned in February after a group of Atlanta artists, including a former program director at WonderRoot, posted a letter online accusing him of causing “egregious and systematic harm.”

ExploreThe letter can be seen here.

Though Appleton was accused of financial impropriety and of using racial insults, a three-month investigation by an independent employment law firm found him innocent of those charges. His most serious infractions, the investigation determined, were “unprofessional behavior,” paying bills late and occasionally yelling and using profanity when upset.

ExploreThe results of the investigation can be seen on the WonderRoot website. 

Since its founding in 2004 WonderRoot has become a significant player in the Atlanta arts community, commissioning visual arts projects and conducting community workshops.

It recently helped coordinate the “Off the Wall” project, in which artists painted more than two dozen murals celebrating the city’s civil rights legacy in downtown Atlanta and in historic neighborhoods in anticipation of the Super Bowl.

WonderRoot co-founder and former executive director Chris Appleton resigned under pressure in February, and the organization has determined that it can't survive without him. KENT D. JOHNSON/KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM
WonderRoot co-founder and former executive director Chris Appleton resigned under pressure in February, and the organization has determined that it can't survive without him. KENT D. JOHNSON/KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM

Credit: KENT D. JOHNSON / AJC

Credit: KENT D. JOHNSON / AJC

At its height WonderRoot had eight staff members and an annual budget of close to $1 million.

Interim director Brian Tolleson said that neither he nor any members of the board will have any comments about the end of the organization outside of the note posted on the WonderRoot website.

That notes reads:

“The WonderRoot Board has voted unanimously to wrap up the operations of the organization. Regrettably, since the departure of WonderRoot’s founder, Chris Appleton, the organization has not been able to reestablish the financial support needed in order to continue.

We are collaborating with the community to find permanent homes for the projects and programs of WonderRoot. We firmly believe in the need for the work that we began and we look forward to supporting the work of organizations who pick up where we left off.

Each of us remains personally committed to WonderRoot’s mission: improving the cultural and social landscape of Atlanta through creative initiatives and community partnerships.”

Atlanta artist Shanequa Gay painted three outdoor murals as part of the Off the Wall project, and said WonderRoot was instrumental in giving her nascent arts career a boost. “Oh my gosh, the Super Bowl opportunity, I can’t believe the exposure I got from that,” she said.

Gay said she never saw a toxic environment at the organization: “I cannot speak to other people’s experiences, only to mine, but I had great experiences with WonderRoot as an organization.”

WonderRoot had been working to prepare a new headquarters in a 54,000 square-foot former Atlanta public school building, and had left behind its ramshackle quarters in a 4,000-square-foot former residence on Memorial Drive. The status of that arrangement is still up in the air.