How Atlanta Got So High in Arts and Culture :In listening to artists talk about Atlanta art, a common question arises, “Why is Atlanta art the way it is?” The Orly Field plane crash in Paris claimed the lives of 106 of Atlanta’s most influential art patrons in 1962, but what makes it so significant? We were fortunate that Crannell published a history of art activity in Atlanta from 1847 to 1926 detailing the events that led to the founding of Atlanta’s first art museum in 1926.
In 1847 the newly named city of Atlanta tied together by railroads and cotton was home to just 2,000 people, two hotels, a church, a bank, and three newspapers. There is a lack of direction and organization in the city. The city’s elite are self-made and business-oriented with no taste for setting cultural standards.
Consistency in government was lacking as the mayor was not in office for several years during the city’s first 27 years. Roads and buildings are built without regard to planning or design. Life is Atlanta consumed by building a business and making a profit, not building a culture.
Fortunately, those early newspapers were a guiding force in promoting the arts. A belief reinforced by local editors and writers places “art [as] a subtle influence on individuals and society at large, and that embracing it, possessing it, and being exposed to it leads to ‘culture’.” The Atlanta Theater scene is rowdy and unsophisticated. Culture and refinement are needed as instruments of social order.
In the early days there is evidence of artistic patronage. There are public and private art teachers like Mrs. Cunningham and Mrs. Bramuller and practicing artists such as Willis Buell, Joseph Van Stavoren, John Maier and C.W. Dill; but most are bi-vocational. The emergence of panoramas or “moving pictures” in the late 1850s was the first way to foster a more serious artistic culture.
Panoramas are long canvases that stretch across the stage as commentators or musicians add to the experience. The art auction was introduced due to its success in Europe at the time. An art exhibition preceded the auction which gave women from the community a week to view the work and encouraged their working husbands to bid. The press continues to strengthen the understanding that the acquisition of art will lead to self-improvement and culture.
Newspapers advocated that “all who can afford them, should have pictures because they delight the mind, soften and humanize the heart and educate as well as books.”
In the 1880s several factors created great enthusiasm for art including the International Cotton Exhibition of 1881, the Art Loans of 1882, the Piedmont Exhibition of 1887 and the visit of Oscar Wilde in July 1882. The exhibition of 1881 helped to launch a spirit of optimism among the developing city. . population of 37,000 about the progress the South has made since the Wars between the Nations.
The art performances at this exhibition were carried out under the artistic direction of Horace Bradley, an artist and organizer who is highly respected for maintaining the spirit of excellence. He travels the world bringing back incredible art treasures to the city. Oscar Wilde’s speech in Atlanta carried the name of the Aesthetic Movement as part of an 18-month American city tour.
He urged people “to love art for the sake of art itself and … all the things you need will be added to you.” His presence in Atlanta gave the newspapers the fuel they needed to move the city toward culture in the “New South” era.
Building on the foundation of many cultural achievements by these and others, nine socially prominent women came together in 1903 and petitioned to start an organization with the stated goal of building on Bradley’s vision of an art school and art museum in Atlanta-Atlanta. Art Association.
Until May 8, 1926 there was no philanthropic gift large enough to create such a center until Mrs. Joseph Madison (Hattie) High dedicated his 27,000-square-foot home at 1262 Peachtree for use as a museum. Despite arriving later than other cities, Mrs. High dwarfs the existing museums in Nashville, Charleston, and Savannah.
A city that started with a spirit of boisterous, industrious and classless recreation was shaped by a handful of cultural activists who made progress over 80 years with the help of committed philanthropists, journalistic evangelists and arts organizers. With just 36 years of modest heritage under its belt since the founding of this new art museum, the cultural slate was wiped clean in 1962 leaving a new generation of pioneers to rise to the challenge of advancing culture.