Doug Shipman is the first to admit that he became president and CEO of the Woodruff Arts Center at a particularly healthy time in its history. The Alliance Theatre has just unveiled a brand new space. The High Museum of Art has just undergone renovations. Woodruff has had four years of budget surpluses.
Shipman — the founding CEO of the Center for Civil and Human Rights before taking the Woodruff position — seems the right person to carry the momentum forward into a new era. In his 18 months at the helm of Atlanta’s mecca of high arts, he has taken steps to broaden the arts center’s reach. In his first months on the job, Shipman made a point of meeting with numerous smaller arts groups with a simple message: how can we help each other? His openness and desire to give Woodruff a deeper imprint on Atlanta’s arts community are palpable.
In this wide-ranging Q&A, conducted with ARTS ATL executive editor Scott Freeman on a warm afternoon outdoors next to Sifly Piazza, Shipman talks about the challenges that face Woodruff, the arts ecosystem and his first major initiative: a new home for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.
ARTS ATL: You’re from Arkansas and first came to Atlanta to attend Emory University. How did you get from Arkansas to Emory, and how was your love of the arts cultivated?
Doug Shipman: My family was not cultured, but it was musical. My father had been a barbershop/gospel quartet singer in the forties and fifties and knew some of the guys who went on to back-up Elvis. One of his cousins was a gospel music producer in Oklahoma. My brother was a trained musician and a session musician in Austin. Very few of those genes fell to me, since I was the youngest.
I really didn’t have a lot of arts and culture in my life growing up. My town was 1,200 people. I would go to summer camps and get just a smidgen, but it wasn’t who I was. I wasn’t an artist growing up.
I had a counselor in high school who basically said, “You’re academically talented enough to leave here” and started putting college brochures in my hand. And she put an Emory brochure in my hand and said, “I think this would be a great place for you; there’s a scholarship, and I’m willing to nominate you for it.” It was the Robert Woodruff Scholarship.
ARTS ATL: That’s ironic.
Shipman: That’s very ironic. So I went to Emory for free with the Woodruff scholarship. Then I went to the Center for Civil and Human Rights, which was built on land donate by Coca-Cola. And now I run the Woodruff Arts Center. Robert Woodruff’s philanthropy is very real for me [laughs].
ARTS ATL: How did living in Atlanta broaden your horizons?
Shipman: When I got to Atlanta, I got very infatuated with Atlanta’s civil rights legacy; I used to go to church at Ebenezer and such. And I had a college roommate who was also from Arkansas, and he was an arts guy and a theater major. He said, “We need to get you some culture. You don’t have any.” My freshman year, there was a little table on campus that said, “Student tickets to the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.” So we got season tickets, a 12-ticket student packet for Thursday nights, second row. He was on scholarship, I was on scholarship, and several others were on scholarship, including a seat mate of our’s named Jennifer Barlament. We got all of our tickets reimbursed by the scholarship program. All our tickets were free to any cultural event. And that started to get me into the notion of the arts.
ARTS ATL: You spent a good deal of time in your first few months on the job meeting the leaders of smaller arts groups around Atlanta. What were you looking for?
Shipman: I wanted to turn the view outwards, understand how the broader arts community wanted to partner with the Woodruff Arts Center. I wanted to know what we did well, the things we didn’t do so well, and try to make our support of the ecosystem deeper and broader. I think we’ve made some good progress there. There’s still more work to do there, and there’s probably always going to be more work to do there until we can get public funding and a different ecosystem support.
We’re trying to find broader ways to support the ecosystem. What I’ve been happy about is there’s been a real embrace of that attempt by the rest of the arts community. They’ve said, “You want to help? Let’s try to figure it out.” A lot of people have rolled up their sleeves and tried to help, or they’ve come to talk, and they have great ideas. So I think that’s been good.
ARTS ATL: This is the 50th anniversary of the Woodruff, and you’re very in tune with using history to inform one’s perception of today. What have you learned about Woodruff’s history that helps inform you about what the mission is today?
Shipman: If you go back to the original pitch documents from 1964, there were a few things that were outlined. One was this would be a place that would bring world-class artists and music to the center. At that point, the city was still a burgeoning place, it was still a regional place. I think that’s something that is a nice foundation to build from.
There was also a great intentionality that there would be multiple disciplines on the same campus and they would be talking to each other. In those original documents, dance was a key component, and there was an education/college/school component that was key. There were multiple components, and education was a key foundation.
Education has always been important here, but lately it’s become much more important to the life of this place. We’re being very specialized with programs for middle schoolers, with curators of color who have just come out of college. We’re really trying to get certain ages and certain populations and serve them in particular ways. I think that’s very deep in the DNA of the place.
The other thing that’s informative is — and I did not know this until recently — Mayor Ivan Allen was trying to pass a bond offering for the arts in 1962. It was on the ballet for August, an $80 million bond offering that would have funded an arts center. Orly happened that June, and it still failed in August. Voters didn’t want it. I think this sort of relationship the arts center has always had — trying to break it down from being a particular place for a particular population, a wealthy place, an elite place, and make it a much more popular place — that’s always been a struggle over the 50 years, and we’re still working on that.
ARTS ATL: You’ve talked about opening up the campus itself.
Shipman: The one thing I would change, and I’ve had conversations with the good folks at Colony Square who are re-vamping that whole place — the two were built around the same time, and they were both essentially trying to protect themselves from a not-so-great neighborhood. They were trying to make it difficult for the neighborhood to encroach on these two great things they were building. And now we’re in the exact opposite position. These are fabulous neighborhoods. There’s an enormous amount of action. There’s tens of thousands of people within walking distance of here who would love to come over on a Tuesday night or a Saturday afternoon. So how do we think about that equation now? How do we open this up physically? How do we think about not turning our back to the MARTA station but really embracing it? How can we make it so that when you walk by, you can see rehearsals and see the activity?
In the summer, the piazza will be full, and we have the great summer exhibitions, but how do you make it that way all the time and have that vibrancy? That’s something we’re talking about right now, and I think it’s going to influence how we think about the future. This place was built at a time when we didn’t want to interact with the urban space. And now we do.
ARTS ATL: The High Museum just got a makeover. The Alliance just debuted its new space. The Woodruff tried to raise money for a new Symphony Hall a few years ago. What’s the future in terms of the symphony’s home?
Shipman: We’re having that conversation right now. From my perspective, we need to have a space that is up to the level of the art and that also embraces the patron and the artist experience. If you tour any of the two new stadiums, the amount of money put into the locker rooms is enormous.
We have to think about patron and artist experience as we think about the venue. We’re in those conversations right now. I want to put the vision for a Symphony Hall space — whether that is a refurb or a hybrid or a new space — I want to put that front and center in the next capital campaign. I want to get it done.
We have done other things on the campus, and the momentum that the symphony has right now — we should take advantage of that, and we should get this structure done. That will be in the near-term.
ARTS ATL: Any leanings yet in terms of refurbishing the current space or building a new structure?
Shipman: Not yet. We’re going through that process. There is room on the campus. You could do a hybrid where you added on or shifted things. You could also do a free-stander.
ARTS ATL: Speaking of the symphony, last year the ASO very quietly negotiated a new contract with the musicians. Unlike the previous two contracts, there were no musician lock-outs and no public rancor. How important was it to settle that in a harmonious, we’re-all-in-this-together way?
Shipman: First and foremost, we know that the way an artist feels has an enormous impact on how their art is conveyed. So if you’re an artist and you have this storm hanging over you, it’s going to impact what’s happening. So I think for the integrity of the art, it was very important to find something that was mutually agreeable between management and the musicians.
Even more, a shared vision of what everyone is trying to build and where everyone is trying to go is really why that was able to be accomplished. The credit here goes to Jennifer Barlament and her team. Jennifer is a trained musician, Jennifer is a great leader, Jennifer is greatly in tune and built a lot of good relationships with the board, with other people on the campus, with musicians, with donors, and I think she was uniquely positioned to understand where the commonalities were and where the differences were and to be able to find a way through.
There was a real understanding that by having a contract and having a smooth process, it was going to open up the doors for more people in the hall, more people donating, the potential to do something about Symphony Hall once and for all — all those things were going to open up if we could find a way through. Everybody embraced that notion. It was hugely important and a great accomplishment and what that relationship can now foster for the future.
ARTS ATL: The symphony is very much at a crossroads with the upcoming retirement of Robert Spano. What are you looking for in a new music director?
Shipman: All three of the arts partners here have talked about a couple of interesting desires. One is to be distinctive. That doesn’t mean to be the biggest, it doesn’t mean to be the only. It means to be distinctive, to carve out spaces that are theirs, which I think is really smart.
ARTS ATL: Tomer Zuvalen is doing exactly that with The Atlanta Opera.
Shipman: Oh, yeah. And that’s how you build something that people support. And it’s not a zero-sum game. Tomer can be distinctive at the opera, and the symphony can build something distinctive here, and both can be happy and be in completely different spots. If you’re the “biggest,” there’s only one of those. But if you’re distinctive, that opens up a lot of doors. And you can also collaborate when you’re distinctive, it just comes together.
There’s also a real desire to embrace what’s unique about Atlanta. If you go back to the founding of the arts center, it was, “We need an arts center because we’re a big city” and “We need an arts center in order to be relevant.” But now it’s more of how do we embrace what’s unique about Atlanta? How do we showcase that?
The symphony has a world-class chorus. The first time I sat down with [principal guest conductor] Donald Runnicles, I asked him, “What do you think of when you get on the plane to come to Atlanta?” He said, “I get so excited because I hear those voices and I think about that sound that comes from them.” It was very visceral for him. That’s one legacy that’s distinct, and it’s all Atlanta, and it goes back to Robert Shaw. And whoever is here for the future needs to embrace it, as Robert Spano has.
The other thing we have is Robert Spano’s legacy of new works. Both creating a cadre of new composers and creating an audience that is willing to accept new works. That is also something the next music director needs to have an appetite for. I want somebody who’s excited about those things. I want somebody who is excited about this opportunity because of those elements. It will continue what’s happening right now.
The symphony is at a crossroads, but it’s at a crossroads with a lot of momentum and with an identity that’s really coming to the fore. It’s not just the music director — there are musicians who are really embracing that and enjoying that and pushing on that notion.
ARTS ATL: The Woodruff was founded to be the hub of the arts, and that was needed 50 years ago. But today, smaller arts groups often complain that the Woodruff sucks up all the money. People and corporations donate to the Woodruff and think they’ve done their fair share to the arts. You’ve spent a lot of time reaching out to the smaller arts groups and meeting with them. How do you spread that wealth?
Shipman: The last year has given us some progress along these lines. The Bloomberg grant, which went to 45 organizations.
ARTS ATL: Including ARTS ATL.
Shipman: It didn’t get us. It wasn’t designed for us, and didn’t go to us. That’s great. The city’s increase in arts funding didn’t go to us — it went to others. I think we’re naturally starting to see a change in the way of thinking that there’s only one place and it’s only people who go to certain clubs or certain board rooms and that’s it. We’re starting to see a much deeper relationship because people are coming from different places. And that will continue to evolve.
But without robust public funding, either from state or local resources — that covers 20 to 25 percent of most medium and small arts organizations — it’s going to be a struggle to build the kind of ecosystem we want. It’s just difficult to do without that piece.
There was a component of the Amazon pitch that was about arts and culture. That’s important. It’s important that arts isn’t just this other thing off to the side. It’s got to be central because more and more jobs and economic progress are related to creativity. And creativity is directly related to the arts. We’re not just creating great violinists and great visual artists, we’re creating coders of the future, we’re increasing the ability of the great technology companies to recruit people here.
I want to see the arts ecosystem be embraced in the broader template of Atlanta. I think we have a long way to go on that. But we’ll keep plugging away at it.
ARTS ATL: Georgia ranks 49th or 50th in public funding for the arts. A few years ago, Georgia couldn’t accept some of the NEA grants because the state didn’t have matching money. How do you turn that around?
Shipman: I think no matter where you live in Georgia, a key conversation is how do you develop an economy that works for everybody? In rural areas, it’s how do you development an economy for folks who grew up here so they don’t have to leave? In the city, it’s how do you make sure that everybody no matter what geography they were born in or what zip code they’re in has an opportunity to thrive?
Personally, I think there’s an argument to be made that arts and culture are a key component of that development in both rural areas and urban areas. But frankly I think it’s more difficult to do it in rural areas. In urban areas, any time a company moves to town, arts and culture are always a key component of what they want. You have bigger companies with a microphone who will tell you that arts and culture matters. In rural areas, it’s a more dispersed and nuanced view and longer term view, so the argument is harder to make.
So I think we have to make both cases. If we can get arts and culture folks at affordable housing tables and at education tables and at economic tables, and get business leaders and political leaders interacting with arts folks and understanding what they contribute in the broader social fabric, then it’s much easier to make the case that this is an economic development input you’re going to make just like you do with education, roads, hospitals or anything else.
ARTS ATL: How do you make that breakthrough with state leaders?
Shipman: I think the breakthrough for Georgia, and for the region, is going to be at the county and the city level because I think that the economic development argument is much easier to make. It’s a longer term perspective we have to take to show how it relates to rural areas. And to show that the development of rural areas and the quality of life and economic sustainability can be really changed and uplifted by arts and culture. I think that’s how we have to do it. We have to do it through relationships, and information. It’s very powerful when you see that tens of thousands of people are employed in arts and culture here. And we have to stay at it. The way you change these policy decisions is you stay at it.
San Francisco just passed Prop E, a ballot initiative that’s going to take 1.5 percent of their hotel/motel tax, which is about $30 million a year, to spur arts and culture in San Francisco. That’s a major economic investment. We’ve seen that in Dallas, we’ve seen that in Austin, and we have to continue to make that case here.
ARTS ATL: Killer Mike is now on the High’s board of directors, and someone made the joke: What’s next? Gucci Mane on the ASO board? He is not your typical board member.
Shipman: Mike had a relationship with the High as he was growing up. He tells the story that when his voice changed, he basically got kicked out of the choir, and he had a real crisis of confidence. And his art teacher said, “You ought to go to the High, and you ought to start drawing. You ought to start expressing yourself through the visual arts.” And so he did. As a teenager, he came to the High and took a couple of classes, really explored visual arts, and it restored his confidence in himself. And then when his voice settled, he returned to music.
So he has this long-standing relationship not only with the High, but with what a big arts organization can do for an emerging artist. I think a lot of people saw Killer Mike on the board and thought, oh, this is a celebrity play. But actually, there’s something really specific about him and tangible. And also Mike’s desire to bridge the geographies of this city and populations of this city between high art and the street. And between economic classes and between races. That’s what Mike has done in so many ways. He has a barber shop at the new State Farm, and I think that’s more than just what it is. I think it’s very sophisticated what he’s doing. And I think it aligns with what the High is trying to do.
ARTS ATL: Has the job been fun? You seem to be embracing this role.
Shipman: Oh yeah. For sure. It’s absolutely fun. It’s always fun when it’s healthy, right? We’re in our fourth year of surpluses. At the moment, everybody’s healthy and everybody’s in good shape. That makes it much more fun than the alternative. A great part of the credit has to go to our arts partners leaders, Virginia Hepner, my predecessor, the board. I jumped on this just over a year ago, so I inherited this. There’s a lot of health here, and that makes it fun.
I have been in Atlanta now a long time. And I have great affection for this place, and also a fair sense of what it struggles with. But there is something really, really different happening with the arts community right now. There is a depth across disciplines. You can pick any discipline, and there’s not just one or two, there’s six or 10 artists or organizations doing interesting stuff. I think there’s a real embrace of the social commentary side across disciplines, which obviously appeals to me given my background and the things I’ve worked on before. Even now, I’m looking out on Tommy Smith’s statue with his raised arm and the fact that that show is here during the Super Bowl. That is exciting to me. It’s exciting that kind of work is embraced here. There are lots of people willing to say, I am commenting on what’s happening in the world today through my art. That’s exciting for Atlanta.
Overall, I have been welcomed into this ecosystem pretty well. People have been pretty friendly and pretty open, which is nice. I like going to art openings; it’s great fun. I tell people, “If you can blend your social and your professional lives, it’s a fabulous job. If you don’t like to blend your social and professional lives, it can be a chore.”
I have a seven- and a four-year-old, and luckily, they both think it’s really cool that I work here. They come to things here. We took them to Dance Theatre of Harlem a few weeks ago. We’ve taken them to the opera, both the kids show and the main stage show. It’s also fun to see the whole thing through their perspective. And to see the arts broadly being more open to trying to embrace younger audiences and younger audiences on their own terms. It’s just fabulous that young people can have a high-quality arts experience on their own terms. So that’s all fun. Totally fun.