Arts center targets outlying Atlanta auds

Atlanta’s government is building it, and they’re hoping audiences will come.

On Feb. 2, Georgia’s Fulton County Arts Council, which serves Atlanta and surrounding neighborhoods, broke ground for the second phase of the Southwest Arts Center. Located in southwest Fulton County, the Center is an ambitious complex that brings art and live performance to a community often isolated from the city’s downtown cultural life.

The cornerstone of the new development is a 375-seat theater, designed to host visiting companies as well as theater produced by the Center itself.

Theaters have been programming in the existing facility, which includes a 125-seat space, since it opened in 2001. This gives them a unique chance to reach the area’s mostly affluent, African-American residents.

Urban sprawl often discourages that audience from traveling to downtown Atlanta for theater. South Fulton is 30 minutes below city limits, and it can be daunting to convince patrons they should commute.

The Center, however, brings art directly to the neighborhood. Located in a residential district, it offers everything from concerts to dance recitals, art classes and film editing suites.

Locals have embraced its programming. In 2004, more than 2,500 people attended the Center, and by 2006, the number had grown to 6,000. Center director Michael Simanga says growing attendance is proof of neighborhood need.

“Throughout the country, you don’t really find this kind of facility in African-American communities,” he explains. “The fact that we’re community centered, that people don’t have to travel across town, makes our programs much more appealing.”

Simanga also is aiming to make the rest of Atlanta travel to him. Recent projects include a reading by poet Sonia Sanchez and installments of Pulitzer-winner Suzan-Lori Parks’ “365 Days/365 Plays” project. A film festival and a performance from jazz thrush Cassandra Wilson are also slated.

On Feb. 15, the Center will continue edging into legit production with musical revue “Heart ‘n’ Soul.”

Though his legit ambitions are large, Simanga concedes that mounting shows through a government-sponsored org can be complicated. For instance, legal issues like rights and royalties involve extra layers of red tape.

And the county’s coffers are not boundless. The new theater will require additional staff, and the process of year-to-year budget approval means funds used to pay box office managers in one season may not be available the next.

At present, the Center operates on just under $900,000 a year, which puts it at the high end of Atlanta arts orgs. Events like “Heart ‘n’ Soul” generate additional funds through ticket sales, but with so much programming happening in so many different disciplines, money stays tight.

“We’re not able to pay people what they might always make, but fortunately people are responding to what we represent,” Simanga notes.

True Colors Theater — a company dedicated to minority writers and performers, headed by Broadway helmer Kenny Leon — already has seen the advantage of traveling to South Fulton. Last year, the company hosted a reading series of scripts in development, and since then, its ticket sales in the neighborhood have spiked.

Atlanta flagship Alliance Theater has sent scribe Regina Taylor to help Center participants develop autobiographical work, and the company is in talks to have its playwrights host roundtables about their upcoming plays. Alliance artistic associate Celise Kalke says each type of programming carries benefits.

She explains, “I would never email another theater and say, ‘Can my playwright come talk to your audience?’ But an arts center funded by the county is an open invitation. (The Center is) part of ongoing thinking about community relations being both an artistic mandate and a marketing mandate.”

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