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How Atlanta Got So High on Art: The Birthing of an Industrious Art Culture

In the course of listening to artists talk about Atlanta’s art scene, a common question calls out, “Why is Atlanta’s art scene 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 that such a significant event? We are very fortunate that Crannell published a historical account of art activities in Atlanta from 1847 to 1926 detailing the events leading up to the establishment of Atlanta’s first art museum in 1926.

In 1847 the newly named city of Atlanta tied together by railroad tracks and cotton was home to a mere 2,000 people, two hotels, a church, a bank and three newspapers. There was a general lack of direction and organization in the city. The city’s elite were self-made and business-oriented without a sense for establishing cultural standards. Consistency in government was lacking as the mayors did not serve multi-year terms during the first 27 years of the city. Streets and buildings were constructed without regard to planning or design. Life is Atlanta was consumed by building business and making a profit, not establishing culture.

Fortunately, those early newspapers were a guiding force in promoting the arts. The belief reinforced by the local editors and writers placed “art [as] a refining influence on the individual and the community at large, and that by embracing it, owning it and being exposed to it would lead to ‘culture.’” Atlanta’s theatrical scene was rowdy and unsophisticated. Culture and refinement were needed as instruments for social order.

In those early days there was evidence of arts patronage. There were public and private art teachers like Mrs. Cunningham and Mrs. Bramuller and practicing artists like Willis Buell, Joseph Van Stavoren, John Maier and C.W. Dill; but most were bi-vocational. The rise of panoramas or “moving pictures” in the late 1850s presented the first means of cultivating a more serious arts culture. A panorama was a long canvas that unrolled across a stage as a commentator or musician added to the experience. The art auction was introduced because of its success in Europe at the time. An exhibition of art preceded the auction allowing one week for the ladies of the community to view works and encourage their husbands on which works to make bids. The press continued to reinforce the understanding that the acquisition of art would lead to self-improvement and culture. The newspapers provided endorsements that “all who can afford them, should have pictures because they are pleasing to the mind, softening and humanizing to the heart and educate as well as books.”

In the 1880s several factors that created great enthusiasm for art including the International Cotton Exposition of 1881, the Art Loan of 1882, the Piedmont Exposition of 1887 and a visit by Oscar Wilde in July of 1882. The exposition of 1881 helped launch a spirit of optimism among a growing city of 37,000 about the progress the South had made since the War Between the States. The display of art at these exhibitions was done under the art direction of Horace Bradley, an artist and organizer who was held in high regard for maintaining a spirit of excellence. He traveled the world to bring back great art treasures to the city. Oscar Wilde’s speech in Atlanta carried the mantle of the Aesthetic Movement as part of an 18-month tour across the cities of American. He exhorted people “to love art for its own sake and… all things that 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 era of the “New South.”

Building on the foundation of many cultural achievements by these and others, nine socially prominent women came together in 1903 and put forth a petition to begin an organization with the expressed goal of establishing Bradley’s vision of an art school and art museum in Atlanta-the Atlanta Art Association. Until May 8, 1926 there had been no philanthropic gifts large enough to create such a center until Mrs. Joseph Madison (Hattie) High presented her 27,000 square foot home at 1262 Peachtree for use as a museum. While coming much later than other cities, Mrs. High’s gift dwarfed the museums already existing in Nashville, Charleston and Savannah.

A city that began with a rowdy industrious spirit and without a leisure class was shaped by a handful of cultural activists who made progress over the course of 80 years with the aid of philanthropists, journalistic evangelists and committed art organizers. With only a modest 36-year heritage under its belt since the establishment 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 moving culture forward.

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