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Martha Polk


Creative License: Making the arts accessible and inclusive for all Atlantans

Doug Shipman, president and CEO of Woodruff Arts Center

Photograph by Mike Colletta

When Woodruff Arts Center‘s President and CEO, Doug Shipman, greets me on the fourth floor, he’s dressed in a plaid blazer, sneakers, and colorful socks in the style of a cool politician or a millennial tech magnate. It’s a fitting look for someone who both wields immense power and embraces nontraditional priorities, namely to diversify Woodruff Arts Center (WAC)—which is composed of artist partners Alliance Theatre, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and the High Museum of Art—while also uplifting Atlanta’s entire arts ecosystem.

Before he got to WAC, Shipman had spent 10 years launching the National Center for Civil and Human Rights (NCCHR). The mission of the museum spoke to him in more ways than one. He’d studied civil rights history in college, but he also saw his role at NCCHR as a way to be part of a transformative experience in people’s lives: bringing them into history, exposing them to new ideas, and providing an instrumental space as Atlanta continued to navigate the ideals of living in a diverse America. Such a deep sense of purpose grew from his previous role as a principal at the Boston Consulting Group, and aligned with his later role as CEO of BrightHouse, a consulting firm that helps companies discover their purpose.

“In the business space, you have a lot of impact and can do things with wide reach, but it’s not as often that you get a note saying, ‘My life is fundamentally better because of the work you helped make happen,’” Shipman says. “That’s what feeds me.”

High Museum of Art galleries

Photograph by Cat Max Photography

In 2017, when the CEO role at WAC opened up, Shipman saw another opportunity to be part of an institution that could intimately connect with and transform people—this time through the arts. He was also compelled by WAC’s work to grow its reach and bring more people into conversation with the visual and performing arts.

“When I realized it was a deeply held ambition of each of the disciplines—the museum, the theater, and the symphony—to expand their audiences and really think about serving Atlanta, and that the work was already well underway, that’s when I took this position,” he says.

When he talks about diversifying audiences, Shipman’s not just referring to racial and ethnic representation, but also about ensuring there are programs for every age, that you don’t feel like you need a PhD to enter the building, and that it’s equally accessible for those living down the street and for art enthusiasts from around the region.

“What was really compelling to me was this 50-year-old institution that was, frankly, built to be quite exclusive, and now you have all of the folks on this campus wanting to change and make this institution authentically Atlanta,” says Shipman.

Growing up in Arkansas, Shipman didn’t live in a particularly artistic household, a fact which lies in stark contrast to the Fahamu Pecou painting now adorning his office, the Yoyo Ferro hanging in his Old Fourth Ward home, and his professed love of jazz clubs, folk art, and the Tony-winning playwright George C. Wolfe. These days, a passion for art is a family affair for Shipman. He and his wife, Bijal Shah, have intentionally sought to immerse their two daughters, 5 and 7, in Atlanta’s cultural offerings—in fact, they’ve already been to the opera. Shipman says he hopes they continue to cultivate the creativity, curiosity, empathy, and emotional connection to others’ stories that only the arts can inspire.

Woodruff Arts Center

Photograph by Carlton Taylor

His desire for his daughters to gain these qualities through experiencing the arts is precisely the sort of personal, deeply embedded value system that Shipman wants to understand in others—especially donors. Whether talking to corporate partners or individual philanthropists, Shipman is focused on connecting with people’s sense of purpose. “Most philanthropy is trying to accomplish something, so instead of going to a donor and saying, ‘I have the greatest thing since sliced bread and you ought to fund it,’ the best situation is when the donor’s values and their vision for the future matches what you want.”

Increasingly, those values—particularly from the corporate sector—include ongoing relationships and engagement with the arts, such as volunteer work or employee programming, rather than just writing a check. This kind of deeper relationship between corporate sponsors’ employees and WAC pays itself forward by bringing new patrons into the center of arts.

Cultivating such a culture of arts engagement in Atlanta is important to Shipman. “I’m fortunate enough to be in a position where I can open doors for people,” he says, so in addition to using WAC as a platform to showcase, partner with, or help propel Atlanta artists forward, Shipman says he sees a major part of his role as being a cheerleader for the whole sector. “I try to carve out time to go to openings and shows and to help people make connections—and I use social media to do the same.”

Since Atlanta is still under-tapped in terms of both arts philanthropy and audience engagement as compared to other major cities, every effort to involve Atlantans in any corner of the arts scene ends up benefiting the whole artistic ecosystem. In other words, the arts don’t have to be a competitive zero-sum game. Raising up the arts as a whole in Atlanta helps all individual organizations. Shipman comments, “The truth is we’re not competing against each other; we’re competing against Netflix.” The challenge is to inspire enough enthusiasm for the arts that people break their binge-watching schedule, get off the couch, and out to a show.

This concern for the whole Atlanta arts community is why Shipman is so thrilled about arts venues opening in the suburbs, citing the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre as kicking off a trend that now includes Sandy Springs and Lawrenceville, as well as renovations to Grove Park’s theater on the west side, a potential performing arts project south of the city, and burgeoning ideas for other outdoor arts spaces on the BeltLine and in the new quarry development project.

“I’m so excited to see these communities making these investments because I would rather people go to the arts much more frequently so it’s a part of the fabric of their lives, rather than just coming to WAC once a year,” he says. “It’s sort of like parks—you need a park within walking distance, and we need to put the arts within reach for everyone.”

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

Photograph by Jeff Roffman

These days at WAC, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra continues to lead the way by diversifying orchestras through its Talent Development Program, and it also housed the Atlanta Music Project until this past summer. The Alliance Theatre has made “radical inclusivity” its mission, continues to curate a diverse slate of shows, and hosts a series of development programs with the goal of featuring underrepresented voices. Meanwhile, the High Museum of Art gained national attention for tripling its non-white attendance by 2017, and in 2018 embarked on a reinstallation of its permanent collection to display more pieces by women and people of color. Shipman is especially excited about the High’s current exhibition featuring Virgil Abloh, the eclectic artist who is creative director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear (on display November 9–March 8), which he feels exemplifies the direction of the museum, and of WAC as a whole: a deeply and broadly talented young, black artist whose genre-bending work offers multiple entry points for all audiences.

As for the future, Shipman says he’s still holding out for a few things that would be transformational for the arts in Atlanta: a dedicated source of public funding; a major outdoor venue to rival New York’s Central Park or Chicago’s Millennium Park; and casual, mid- to low-budget art collecting to become more of a norm.

When I ask if any of that feels utterly daunting, Shipman takes a beat for the first time in our conversation, and then says, plainly, “No,” before following up: “There are daunting things in the world, but we are very fortunate; we are in the joy business. It doesn’t mean we’re not provocative, or that we don’t challenge people, or take on political things, but at the end of the day, people should be glad that they came. Even if it’s hard or if it’s a release, it should lift them in some way. That’s our role in the world: We are the expression of deep humanity.”

These Atlanta world records will remind you that anything is possible


Atlanta Guinness World RecordsTis the season of resolutions and goal-setting, and as new diets, workouts, and sobriety regimens have taken hold, there’s perhaps no better time to be inspired by our fellow Atlantans’ accomplishments. Think your new gym membership is going to be tough to maintain? Try three days straight of playing Guitar Hero. Atlanta’s entries into the Guinness Book of World Records offer not just a window into the zaniest corners of our fair city, but also proof that we can do anything we put our minds to. After all, not just any city can boast the “Largest Simultaneous Whoopie Cushion Sit.”

You probably already know Atlanta has the busiest airport (both in terms of number of aircrafts and passengers) as well as the longest freestanding escalator (looking at you CNN Center), but let’s focus instead on Atlantans who devote themselves to a wholly uncommon vision. Enter: The “Largest Biscuit / Cookie Mosaic (Flag).” This title was earned this past June at Congregation Beth Jacob. The cookie version of the Israeli flag measured 3,224 square feet and raised more than $100,000 for Israeli charities. Perhaps most incredibly, the fact that it won only the sub category of “cookie flag” indicates a wealth of competitors in the broader giant cookie mosaic business.


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In general, “huge foods” seems to be a category Atlanta is pretty good at, further evidenced by our world record for “Most Pancakes Made in 8 Hours by a Team.” On May 9, 2009, 175 volunteers used 37 griddles to make 76,382 pancakes for approximately 20,000 people. The math on that works out to almost four pancakes per person, which in itself is pretty impressive, as is the fact that the same group also holds the record for “Most Omelettes Made by a Team.”

Along similar but even sweeter lines, Coca-Cola got in the world record game in 2007 with “Largest Soda Float,” which featured 3,000 gallons of soda poured in a 15-foot tall glass over 7,200 scoops of ice cream. That they used Vanilla Coke over the classic formula may feel unforgivable to some Coke purists (and also hints at the marketing behind the endeavor), but a world record is a world record.

We’re not just big eaters though, we’re also athletes. But look past Josef Martinez’s goal scoring, Deion Sanders’s various dual-sport records, and the whole of the ‘96 Olympics to find perhaps ATL’s most impressive sporting triumph: the title for “Largest Cupid Shuffle Dance.” On August 25, 2007, 17,000 people danced for eight minutes as a part of the Ebony Black Family Reunion Tour, a group also previously responsible for “Largest Line Dance.”

In terms of other unusual coordinated group records, the National Exchange Club set up the “Most Valuable Line of Coins” at the Marriott Marquis on July 25, 1992. It was comprised of 1,724,000 quarters, which—save yourself the math—works out to a 25.9-mile line of change with a value of a whopping $431,000. If this strikes you as money not particularly well spent, let’s remember world records aren’t about rational or utilitarian goals. Which brings us back to the “Largest Simultaneous Whoopee Cushion Sit” title, earned by 5,983 hometown heroes on October 6, 2005.

Lil Jon Atlanta Guinness World Records
Lil Jon with his record-breaking “Crunk Ain’t Dead” necklace.

Photograph by Michael Buckner/Getty Images

Beyond these group efforts, we also have several exceptional individual records, including the “Largest Pendant (Non-religious),” which was earned by our very own Lil Jon. The gold pendant weighs over 5 pounds, is 7.5 inches tall, and features the words “Crunk Ain’t Dead” in 3,576 white diamonds.

Beyond Lil Jon’s 73-carat, $500,000 pendant, Atlanta has a few other music-related records, including Outkast’s 2003 hit “Hey Ya” holding the “Longest Number of Consecutive Weeks at #1 or #2.” The late musician Jane Little also earned a record for “Longest Career as a Player for a Symphony Orchestra;” she played bass for the ASO for an astonishing 71 years and 101 days. And in the world of virtual music, Atlantan Patrick Young put his fingers on the line to obtain the record for “Longest Video Game Marathon on Guitar Hero,” which lasted an epic 72 hours and 17 minutes and raised money for the American Heart Association in the process.

Atlanta Guinness World Records
Alpharetta dentist Val Kolpakov with his record-breaking toothpaste tube collection

Photograph courtesy of Guinness World Records

Finally, those compelled by the most obscure of world records will be thrilled to hear that an Alpharetta dentist, Val Kolpakov, holds the title for “Largest Collection of Toothpaste Tubes.” His collection features 2,037 toothpastes from around the world and, of all ATL Guinness World Records, is perhaps the most steadfast testament to living your own personal truth. It’s 2019, Atlanta. Shoot for the stars, go for the gold, make a gigantic dessert, and collect as much toothpaste as you want.

Georgia’s Amendment 1 might finally be something voters can agree on

What is Georgia Amendment 1
Providence Canyon State Park

Photograph by W. Drew Senter, Longleaf Photography via Getty Images

In an era of divisive politics and amidst a gubernatorial race that’s no exception, protecting Georgia’s natural resources might be the one thing voters can agree on this Tuesday. If approved, the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Amendment (Amendment 1) would provide a dedicated source of funding to conserve Georgia’s lands, protect the state’s waters, and support local and state parks—all without raising taxes.

Amendment 1 would reallocate a portion of the already existing sales tax on outdoor sporting goods for a period of 10 years. This fund—at least $20 million annually, for a total of $200 million by 2028—would support Georgia conservation efforts without creating any new taxes or fees. Outdoor stewardship projects have usually been funded by an annual appropriations process under the gold dome. “Some years, there was good support for these kinds of projects, and other years, not so much. It fluctuated,” says Georgia Conservancy President Robert Ramsay. “That’s why having a dedicated source of funding was attractive to all of us,” he says, referring to the coalition of organizations that have been working 10—and in some cases 20 or more—years to bring an amendment like this to the ballot. Long-term conservation efforts especially benefit from the certainty of dedicated funding. “There’s a difference in what’s possible with projects when you know $200 million is definitely going to go toward land conservation over the next 10 years,” says Michael Halicki, executive director of Atlanta nonprofit Park Pride.

In addition to Georgia’s lands and waters, the state’s $27 billion outdoor recreation industry also stands to benefit from Amendment 1, says Georgia Chamber of Commerce President and CEO, Chris Clark. “When we talk about the Georgia economy, what we don’t talk a lot about is the eco-economy and the green economy, but manufacturers like Yamaha, or industries like hunting and fishing, all those things drive the Georgia economy and also rely on public lands.”

Other economic perks of the amendment: supporting rural communities, many of which rely on the outdoor industry and tourism, as well as attracting millennials and the next generation of workers, many of whom value access to green space and state parks. For all these reasons and more, Clark says, “It was really a no-brainer to work with the conservation groups on Amendment 1.”

This broad business case for Amendment 1 is certainly part of the reason why it’s enjoyed bipartisan support, with only one legislator voting against the bill and 8 out of 10 voters saying they would vote for the amendment if given the chance. Ramsay comments on the wide-ranging benefits of the legislation saying, “If you like to see critical landscapes conserved, or like to recreate outdoors—or even if you don’t like either of these things, but you breathe air and drink water—this is a good thing for you as a Georgia citizen.”

Still, such broad support for an environmental measure might feel like an anomaly in the current political landscape. “We have to give a little bit of credit to our state,” says Ramsay. “In Georgia, we find that natural resource conservation is not a partisan issue, nor has it been really throughout our history.” Halicki adds, “Georgia has a rich tradition of people enjoying the outdoors. We have a great state from the mountains to the coast and all the places in between, so there’s a lot to connect with what we’re trying to do here.”

The coalition of organizations that have worked for a decade or more to bring this amendment to the ballot certainly hope voters will feel that connection to the state’s lands and waters while at the polls on November 6. “We’re not going to manufacture any more land in the state of Georgia,” says Ramsay, “so we have to find creative and more efficient ways to both use and preserve our land as we move forward. The Georgia Stewardship Amendment provides that opportunity.”

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