Director makes Rialto into 'crossroads of culture'

By H.M. Cauley, For the AJC

Most people think of a theater as a space to see drama, dance and musical performances. Leslie Gordon sees more than a building: The director of the Rialto Center for the Arts at Georgia State University sees the theater as a way to connect community.

“The Rialto is a major center for the arts in downtown Atlanta, but it’s also a crossroads of culture for the city,” said Gordon, who has headed the 833-seat theater for almost nine years. “We showcase the diversity of Atlanta and bring a lot of people together to celebrate that.”

During her tenure, Gordon has particularly focused on making connections to the city’s international residents.

“I’m very committed to the international component and to bringing  audiences together who don’t usually interact,” she said. “We present a lot of diverse work and often partner with refugee communities, new immigrant communities and groups that have been living in Atlanta for many years but whose traditions have not necessarily been presented on a main stage. So at any event, you’ll find the people who are the performers’ fans; people who are curious and don’t know exactly who they’re going to see but are willing to take a chance; and people from around the international community.”

That goal is accomplished by booking artists that are sometimes only known to a handful of followers in Atlanta.

“We often feature lesser-known companies that are important to showcase,” she said. “For instance, we had an artist from India who has traced the roots of flamenco music from India all the way through to Spain. That’s the kind of unusual thing we’ll do that’s part of our mission to reflect the growing demographics of Atlanta."

Gordon is also committed to collaborating with other arts groups and has made the Rialto the venue for such varied performers as the satiric comedy troupe The Capitol Steps to the local Moving in the Spirit youth dance ensemble.

“We collaborate with so many other performing arts groups that don’t have a permanent place  or groups that are mission-driven, like the Hammonds House [Museum],” she said. “It’s another wonderful way to build community around the space.”

Gordon’s efforts to connect and promote the arts across the city and beyond recently earned her a prestigious honor: The 2011 Mary Beth Treen Award  salutes those who contribute to a thriving performing arts community. The recognition was given jointly by the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation, the New England Foundation for the Arts and South Arts (formerly the Southern Arts Foundation) during a conference hosted by all three organizations.

The award’s criteria singles out an acknowledged arts leader who has staged exemplary programming; championed collaborations among presenters, managers and agents; and has left a positive impact on the arts.

“I was delighted to receive the award, even though I knew so little about it,” said Gordon with a laugh.

The honor reinforces what Gordon has made her mission for many years. In 1992, she left her job as Savannah’s director of cultural affairs to move to Atlanta and work on the Cultural Olympiad, staged in conjunction with the 1996 Olympics. After the games, she was part of the Atlanta-based National Black Arts Festival before moving to the Rialto in 2003. Throughout her stay in Atlanta, Gordon watched the Rialto come back to life.

“In 1992, Georgia State undertook the campaign to redo the Rialto, and I watched the progress,” she recalled. “So I’ve known the Rialto since it was reborn. . . It has a wonderfully fascinating history since it opened in 1916 as a vaudeville house and then a movie theater. Now, it’s a beautifully outfitted facility that awes people who come in here.”

The Rialto is also the link between the university and the community, Gordon pointed out. The venue’s schedule is crowded with many free faculty and student performances from the music, dance and opera departments.

“The gift Georgia State gives with the Rialto is allowing the theater to show that the arts and culture are important, not just in education, but in a well-rounded human being,” she said."Milestones" covers significant events and times in the lives of metro Atlantans. Big or small, well-known or not -- tell us of a Milestone we should write about. Send information to hm_cauley@yahoo.com; call 404-514-6162; or mail to Milestones, c/o Jamila Robinson, 223 Perimeter Center Parkway N.E., Atlanta, GA 30346.