A great city needs great art

Earlier this month, the Woodruff Foundation thrilled all of us at the Woodruff Arts Center with a $38 million gift. The largest donation in our 46-year history will benefit all of our arts and education programming as well as the first-ever major renovation of the Alliance Theatre.

The gift throws open the door to a world of new possibilities for the arts center. It’s a real game-changer. It will serve as a launching pad for a campaign to bring about needed physical updates and long-term financial sustainability. But I would argue what’s most important about the gift is the message it sends. With this unprecedented gift, the Woodruff Foundation has said, “The arts are important. The arts deserve the public’s support.“

That message is so welcome. Perhaps the greatest challenge all arts organizations face today is the sense that the arts are discretionary, something “nice to have.” But that’s not right. Great cities become great when they have research-driven universities, beautiful parks and green space, major corporate headquarters, professional sports teams and world-class art institutions. Great communities need great art.

The Woodruff Foundation understands that. So do others in this community. For example, the Alliance Theatre’s Board of Directors has pledged more than $4 million to a capital campaign to assist with the renovation of the theater. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s board raised more than $1 million in a very short time when it became clear that would help resolve the recent negotiations with our musicians. And the board of the High Museum of Art led one of the most successful fundraising campaigns in Atlanta history when it raised more than $110 million to support the High’s expansion a decade ago. We are extraordinarily grateful for this support.

We know we can’t take any of this for granted. The arts world is changing, impacted by everything from an uncertain economy to new technologies, and Atlanta arts organizations have suffered casualties in recent years. Collectively, we must address important issues that will impact art’s role in the community in the future. Some examples:

Public funding: The unfortunate reality is that Georgia ranks 50th – dead last – among the states in its support for the arts. Most of the institutions or attributes that define a great community get significant public support. The arts do not. While we appreciate any support we receive, the arts center pays far more in sales tax to the state than we receive in financial support from all government sources.

There are real-world economic reasons for public funding for the arts. In 2007, the city of Atlanta arts and culture task force focused on the importance of attracting the “creative class” to the state’s workforce. It concluded, “Arts and culture offerings are central to attracting these highly mobile knowledge workers.”

A region is defined by its arts and cultural vibrancy. It deserves investment from our local governments. Surely Georgia can do better than dead last in its support for the arts.

Arts education: The arts make a difference in how our children learn.

The last couple of decades have seen a significant decline in the time and resources dedicated to the arts in our schools. That trend runs counter to reams of research that show how important the arts are in improving learning. A 2011 report of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities said, “America’s children will need to be inventive, resourceful and imaginative in the future. The best way to foster that creativity is through arts education.” Plus, there are clear connections between success in math and science and the arts. It helps explain why so many Georgia Tech engineers also play musical instruments.

The arts can be central to helping our students build 21st-century skills like critical thinking, communicating and working in teams. We and other arts organizations have great arts education programming. We need to work with educators and donors to find new, more impactful ways to use them.

Broadening our case: We have benefited from the community's unfailing support over the last 50 years. And we hope we can count on it continuing for the next 50. But to assure that, we must broaden our base of supporters and patrons. We must expand our creative footprint to reach further into the community. We must provide greater access to and activation of our campus. We must connect with a whole new generation of patrons and donors who will vote with their feet and their pocketbooks to support the arts.

We believe they will — because everyone will want to play a part in helping a great community stay that way.

Virginia Hepner, a former banking executive, is president and CEO of the Woodruff Arts Center.