Pat Gann dies at 87, ran Atlanta arts festival 22 years

Pat Gann, organized and ran one of Atlanta's premier events, the Atlanta Arts Festival, for 22 years. (PHOTO AKILI-CASUNDRIA RAMSESS/AJC STAFF)

Credit: AJC

Credit: AJC

Pat Gann, organized and ran one of Atlanta's premier events, the Atlanta Arts Festival, for 22 years. (PHOTO AKILI-CASUNDRIA RAMSESS/AJC STAFF)

For more than two decades, Pat Gann negotiated with Atlanta’s mayoral staffs and its parks department, corporate officials, public relations personnel, homeowners, vendors, volunteers and employees, artists and food sales people, meeting almost round the clock for days on end.

To her, the pacey schedule was heaven, because the final product was the beloved Arts Festival of Atlanta, a multi-day extravaganza featuring dance and theatre performances, food, demonstrations, visual art, sculpture and stunning crafts. Held in Piedmont Park most years, the festival routinely drew more than a million visitors. At the close of each year’s event, Pat would be already focusing on future ones.

“There were big hurdles, but my mother loved it,” said Betsy Gann. “She was a dynamo and was never happier than when she was solving problems. She thrived on the process of getting things done.”

James Wiley, who managed facilities for the festival for 16 years, said Pat Gann was “unflappable. She dealt with the city and the parks department, and they could be difficult. She interacted with so many people, but never got anyone mad — she was very pleasant.”

Pat Davis Gann, 87, died June 14, seven months after a debilitating stroke, said daughter Whitney Gann. “One minute she was talking and driving and then she wasn’t.”

Gann was born on February 17, 1936, the only child of Edward and Emma Davis, in Washington, D.C. Her father worked for the state department and traveled to India to help with agricultural matters. Her mother was from Baton Rouge, and every Christmas — and sometimes Thanksgiving — Pat would make a gumbo with the turkey carcass, following her mother’s recipe.

“It was the best thing in the world, and I’m never going to have it again,” said Betsy Gann “There wasn’t a written recipe, she just made it.”

Her adventurous spirit led Pat into getting a pilot’s license as a teenager. She graduated from the University of Maryland with a math degree. After she married Archibald Gann, they moved to Atlanta, where he had a position with IBM. Nine months later, their first child was born, followed soon after by a second daughter and eventually by a son and another girl. Pat joined the Junior League and began volunteering, including her involvement with the creation of the Center for Puppetry Arts. She was working for a recruiting firm in 1976 when she spotted the job of directing the arts festival. At a friend’s suggestion, she applied and was hired.

The Arts Festival of Atlanta had grown rapidly from its 1954 backyard beginnings in Buckhead. The next year, it moved to Piedmont Park, gradually increasing in scope to include theatre and dance performances, sculpture, a curated arts display, children’s activities and an artists market.

“She wasn’t artistic, she was organized,” said Whitney Gann. As the youngest child in the family, Whitney just “hung out” at the festival the entire time it was going on and rode on the horses of the mounted police officers.

Pat had an “ability to get people to do what they didn’t want to and love her for it,” said Jennifer Gann. “All the charm just barely hid a will you didn’t want to cross.”

In 1979, the Alliance Theatre brought Richard Dreyfuss and Paul Winfield in a festival production of “Othello.” Regional and national artists exhibited. By 1985, almost 2.5 million people came to Piedmont Park for the festival, which seemed to unfold without a hitch.

“I loved working with Pat, she was always open to new ideas,” said retired University of Georgia art professor and artist Bill Paul of Athens. He curated visual art for the festival and remembered mounting important exhibitions in the Bathhouse space in the 1980s, including ones by Howardina Pindell and Betye Saar. He said he and Pat “tried to fairly represent the diversity and population of Atlanta community with a mixture of local and national artists.”

The Arts Festival of Atlanta moved from Piedmont Park in 1997 to Centennial Olympic Park in downtown Atlanta, where it ran into severe financial troubles. Pat resigned and the Atlanta Arts Festival was no more.

After retirement, Pat wanted something to do so she started walking dogs and taking care of cats. She liked having things on her calendar, Betsy Gann said, so she routinely lunched with friends when she wasn’t tending people’s pets. She was also “a news junkie,” her daughter said, until she had the stroke.

In addition to her daughters, Pat Gann is survived by a son, Edward Gann, and a granddaughter, Hollis Crosby.