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Out of ashes, art arises

50 years ago, a plane crash in Paris ripped Atlanta’s heart. Yet it still beats.

As people headed to church all across Atlanta 50 years ago today, horrible news stopped many in their tracks.

A group of 122 people, many of them dedicated arts supporters and artists, were killed when their plane crashed upon takeoff at Orly Airfield near Paris. In all, 130 people aboard perished.

The group on the chartered Air France jet were part of the Atlanta Art Association. Many were volunteers at the fledgling High Museum of Art. They also held influence in the city, as many were descendants of notable Atlanta families. They were on a three-week tour of Europe that was part pleasure trip and part artistic ambassadorial mission.

What the travelers had planned to do upon their return was use their influence to build a culture of art collecting and art patronage in Atlanta, something that the city had lacked since its inception. World class cities had that kind of culture; Atlanta needed to cultivate it if it was to grow into one.

Instead, funerals were held.

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Ralph McGill’s 1962 column about the Paris crash: “A Concentration of Grief”

But from that tragedy grew what is now Atlanta’s pre-eminent arts institution, the Robert W. Woodruff Arts Center. In 1968, the first buildings were dedicated at the current site in Midtown, initially christened the Memorial Arts Center, in honor of those who died.

Here are the voices of four people who were touched by the tragedy and are a part of its legacy.

Ann Uhry Abrams is a 78-year-old Atlanta native who wrote “Explosion at Orly: The Disaster That Transformed Atlanta” (2002). Her family had friends who were on the plane.

Penny Armstrong Hart, also of Atlanta, lost her mother in the crash.

Walt Crimm, who now lives in New York City, was 8 years old back then. He and his brother and sister lost both parents in the accident.

Baxter Jones also was orphaned by the crash. One of three siblings, he was 5 years old. Jones is now an Atlanta attorney and sits on the board of the High Museum and the French-language theater company Theatre du Reve.

Ann Uhry Abrams

Author | “We’ve been running hard to catch up to those cities with big collections ever since.”

In the years after the Civil War, leading up to the 20th century, cities like Boston, Philadelphia, New York and even Chicago already had a tradition of collecting great art. Atlanta didn’t have time for fine art. It was concerned with rebuilding. And it wasn’t in the macho, Southern tradition to collect paintings of nude people.

The interest here was in the decorative arts — furnishings, crystal — things like that, that survived the war. That was mainly the focus of the original High Museum back in the 1920s, when it was in an old Tudor mansion on Peachtree and 15th streets. Of course they had some paintings then, but not the kind of work big Northern museums had. That’s not what people spent their money on here. I’ll just say it, I think their horizons were very limited.

But around the 1950s Atlanta really started to grow. There was a small group of women who had been involved with the High Museum for years, mostly as volunteers. A lot of them were in the Junior League or from long-standing Atlanta families. They were called the Atlanta Art Association. These volunteers were working hard to draw attention to the fact that to really grow and become a major city, Atlanta had to have a true arts culture. They were working against a stone wall.

That’s why they went on this trip to Europe. To draw attention to the fact that Atlanta was growing and could become a cultural center, and to show that people here could become art collectors. They weren’t necessarily patrons, but they were the volunteers who were spreading the word that could help create this new culture. You can tell people to contribute money to the arts but that’s not going to bring you the best art. That’s going to keep the lights on and the staff paid. You need people who are going to build a collection and then donate it if you want the best art.

We were just beginning when the plane crashed. We’ve been running hard to catch up to those cities with big collections ever since.

Penny Armstrong Hart

“We need to preserve these old buildings”

That was so long ago, I have no idea what exactly my mother and I talked about the last time I saw her. But it was in Paris and I was 19 and I was enrolled at the Sorbonne. Since mother had come over on the trip we had dinner together twice, once when she first got there and again the night just before she left. She was so happy. She wanted me to come to the Orly airport to see her off but I was studying and I knew I had classes on Monday and they were leaving on a Sunday. So I didn’t go.

They had a wonderful trip. The Louvre, Amsterdam, Rome, Zurich, they went everywhere and saw all the great works. By the end they were loaded down with their treasures and excited to come home.

I was studying in my room listening to the radio and they were just carrying on, and it was in French you know and the more excited they got it was that much harder to understand. So I turned it off.

A little while later somebody came and told me there was an international phone call for me. In those days you didn’t get an overseas call unless something horrible had happened.I had already lost my father some years before and losing my mother was devastating. But in those days it was considered poor taste to wallow in your sadness. You get right back up, dust yourself off and move on with life.

I went back to the Sorbonne and I became a flight attendant for Pan Am. I flew back to that Orly airport many times afterward. I didn’t look at it as some Holy Grail kind of place. You know, I love my mother to death and I turned out just like her, hard-headed. She liked art, but her thing was preservation and that’s what concerns me now. That crash energized this town to do something about the arts situation. There was a referendum to build an arts center right after that but it was voted down. That’s when Robert Woodruff came up with the $4 million challenge grant to build the Memorial Arts Center. At first he gave it anonymously, but everybody in town knew it was him.

We need somebody, something now like that to preserve all these wonderful old buildings. I love my city. I’m a 6th or 7th generation Atlantan. But my biggest complaint is that we have no respect for our historic buildings. In my mind, they are really works of art.

Walt Crimm

Architect | “I see things that are magnificent artistic expressions and I think about my parents occasionally, because it was something that mattered to them.”

I’m working on a project at the Atlanta History Center now.

In some ways it’s really very sweet that after all these years I’m finally working on a project in my hometown. I’ve worked all over the country redesigning and expanding buildings — the National Gallery in D.C., the Natural History Museum in D.C., the American History Museum. So to be working on something in Atlanta now, on the 50th anniversary, the alignment is a bit odd, I have to say.

I can’t help but think about my parents now, imagining them involved in the arts in Atlanta.

I still have three pieces, including one by David Cogland, who was one of the few artists on the trip who died in the crash, too.

I had just turned eight when my parents died and I had the least capacity to figure it out. A paternal aunt inherited us and we stayed in Atlanta. I remember as a kid I took Saturday morning art classes at the Memorial Arts Center, as they called it after the crash. I don’t remember who enrolled me or what I made there but I was interested in it. But I remember this plaque in the stairwell that had the names of everyone who died at Orly. I almost had to look at it sideways. I could never look right at it.

About the time I was in high school, I got a job at the history center cataloging the architectural drawings. This was seminal for me. So by the time I went to college I knew I was going to study architecture. People say to me now, “Are you sad?” I say, I feel incredibly grateful. With my job, I get to see work in museums that nobody ever gets to see because 99 percent of a museum’s holdings rarely get displayed. I see things that are magnificent artistic expressions and I think about my parents occasionally, because it was something that mattered to them. My wife and I are not really collectors but we’re on boards of different artistic organizations and we’re constantly going to museums, performing arts venues. I don’t care if it’s avant garde or classical, we go the full range. Maybe I forced it into my life or maybe it was just wired in there, but it’s important to me and my wife that our children form their own artistic aesthetic. To me it’s about expression and it’s part of our diet everyday.

That said, I don’t think art has to be for the elite at all. And I don’t think you have to have a Rubens or a Gauguin to be a great museum. There is amazing work being done as we speak. It takes a confident collector and civic-minded person to buy it, put it on display in their home, then eventually give it to a museum. Honestly, the call to Atlanta should be, “Now is your time to collect the art that people in 50 years will call visionary.”

Baxter Jones

“The growth in the Atlanta arts community in the last 50 years has been remarkable.”

My parents were pretty sophisticated about the arts.

My mother had an MFA from the Art Institute of Chicago and she even had a little studio out back. They had a really fine classical music collection.

My sister is six years older than I am and she’s a visual artist, a painter. I’m just an art appreciator and collector, surrealist drawings and prints and work by Atlanta artists. My brother has what few pieces my parents had collected. They were just beginning to collect art. I don’t know what course their collecting might have followed...

Reflecting on the legacy of the crash, it cuts two ways. On the one hand it galvanized the building of the Memorial Arts Center and it pushed city leaders to build a city that incorporated the arts. But on the other hand the loss of all of those people probably put us behind on art collecting in the city. In any city that’s not New York, it’s a fairly small group that’s doing serious collecting, especially in the 1960s.

When you take out of the community several who were starting to do that, what you lose is the ability of those people to influence others to collect. People who have an appreciation of art, we talk to each other — “Have you seen this exhibit at Marcia Wood or Poem 88,” or “I just got back from the Whitney Biennial and let me tell you about this artist.” You drag along a friend to a gallery opening for the first time and that’s how they get started.

But the relative lack of collecting in the 1960s and 1970s likely had a negative impact on museum collections here.

Now you have another generation that has come along. The update is, art collecting now in Atlanta is better than a lot of people think.

The High museum has added some terrific recent additions to the permanent collection. One thing they’ve done is cultivate relationships with living artists rather than just wait for a collector to leave it in their will.

The growth in the Atlanta arts community in the last 50 years has been remarkable, from the symphony to theater. When you look at Atlanta’s theater community compared to 1962 or the symphony, I mean good Lord, it’s just miraculous. We went from having a respectable regional orchestra to one of the better ones in the nation, that people in other countries recognize as well.

But I still run into people who grew up here who are still telling themselves the same narrative they learned in the 1970s: “There’s not much culture here and you have to go to New York for good theater or music.” You just want to gently slap them and say, “Have you checked out anything here lately? Did you see the last two productions at Theatrical Outfit? Have you been to the Carlos Museum?” I’ve taken people to the Carlos Museum and they say, “I had no idea Atlanta had anything like this.”

Ultimately, it’s about the kind of city we want to live in and I want to live in a first-rate city.

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EVENT preview

Community Day at the Woodruff Arts Center

● 11 a.m. - 5 p.m. today. Free. Woodruff Arts Center, 1280 Peachtree St., N.E., Atlanta. 404-733-4200, www.woodruffcenter.org.

● 11: 30 a.m., 12:30 p.m. and 1:30 p.m. The Story of Orly as told by artist Peter Hart.

● 2:30 p.m. Playwright and author Pearl Cleage reads a poem written for the 50th anniversary.

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Joseph R. Bankoff | On the Commemoration

This 50 anniversary comes just as I’m retiring as president and CEO of the Woodruff Arts Center. We’re not looking at this as another funeral. It’s a real celebration of what Atlanta has been able to build and support. Atlanta has always been in the business of looking to the future and what it needs to have for that future.

What I’m most proud of is our art: the center’s capacity to not just display other people’s art but to create our own. Twyla Tharpe’s “Come Fly (Away),” “Bring it On: The Musical,” “Sister Act,” and of course, “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County.” We’re not just a road house, we’re creating our own work that garners national and international attention.

With the High, I think we’ll continue to attract collections. But our strength is not in waiting for collections, but doing something innovative with that which we can find.

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