EconSouth (First Quarter 2006)
‘We Are Changing Perceptions’
Q & A
An Interview with Shelton Stanfill, President and CEO of the Woodruff Arts Center
Atlanta’s Woodruff Arts Center is one of the anchors of Georgia’s campaign to boost cultural tourism. In November 2005, the center’s High Museum of Art opened a $130 million expansion that more than doubled its gallery space. The Arts Center is now trying to raise $300 million for a symphony hall designed by renowned Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. Shelton g. Stanfill is the Arts Center’s president and chief executive officer.
EconSouth: Is it a new idea to consider economic development as part of running an arts organization?
Shelton Stanfill: Some portion of it came into fashion when the Rockefeller family got together and created this thing in New York City called Lincoln Center. That [experiment] did not pay off in terms of real estate development as quickly as they first expected. But anyone who looks at what that area—the west side of New York City—was like before 1960 and what it is today sees that it just took longer for it to develop. And you can see that same kind of economic development here.
ES: Is it important to have traditional economic developers think of cultural amenities as engines of economic development as opposed to merely being elements needed to attract knowledgeable workers?
Stanfill: I think it is. Getting there may not happen in my particular generation. And I act in the knowledge that the Woodruff Arts Center is an economic catalyst. There’s no doubt it has the ability to effect significant changes. I make the case that Midtown [Atlanta] would not be what it is todayÑand it would not be what it’s going to be in 10 yearsÑif the Woodruff Arts Center had not been built. There had not been a major building built in 40 years in Midtown other than an apartment complex designed by Neil Reed. The area had strip joints, streetwalkers, and down-and-out bars all over the place. What gave people the faith to reinvest in Midtown, to take their money and take their chance, was building this place.
ES: When you work to secure money from the city and state for the new symphony hall, is economic development potential part of the pitch?
Stanfill: There are two ways to look at that. One is the longer term, in real estate and development terms. The other, and one we normally look at, comes out of all the operational economic impact—day to day, how many people are buying tickets and therefore going out to dinner and doing X, Y, and Z. We’ve never successfully found a way to put those two things together. So mostly what we deal with when we go to the state and the city comes off the operational, day-to-day impact. For example, right now more than 40 percent of the people who come to a major art exhibit at the High Museum come from outside the Atlanta metropolitan area, meaning some of them are staying with relatives, or they’re staying in hotels. They’re here long enough that they’ve got to eat at least one meal here. Some of them are then going to see something else while they’re here.
ES: Is cultural tourism competitive, city versus city?
Stanfill: There’s a kind of regional competition because if you’ve got the wherewithal to fly to New York City or Chicago or London, more than likely that’s where you’re going to go. Let’s take Dallas, Atlanta’s equivalent in the Southwest. If I gave you a choice between going to Dallas or Paris, you’d go to Paris. But regional decision making means that, actually, Fort Lauderdale thinks they compete with us. Miami most definitely thinks they compete with us. Up until the tragedy of the Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans competed with us. So there is that kind of competition. Next year, we have a huge project with the Louvre. For three years, we will have a mini-Louvre here—one building totally dedicated to nothing but objects from it. Then, believe me, for the very first time we’ll be competing for some people’s decision about whether they go to Chicago to the Art Institute to see a show or they come to see this exhibit—or whether they go to New York, San Francisco, or Los Angeles.
ES: How do you know when you’ve reversed negative perceptions about a place’s cultural offerings? Has Atlanta done that?
Stanfill: We are changing perceptions. And the nice thing is, we’re not really coming off a negative; we’re coming off of a blank. Nobody had colored in that part of the picture to say Atlanta’s one of the worst arts towns, or Atlanta has absolutely nothing in culture. They weren’t even talking about it. Really, cultural tourism here started about eight years ago with the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau. We had the fifth director of cultural tourism in the country. The very first city we know of to use that title was San Francisco in the 1990s. There now may be 70 or 80 of them.