The Orly Crash Forced Atlanta’s Art Scene to Grow Up Fast

A tribute to Atlanta’s fallen artists

Like the alkaline dust that coated lower Manhattan for months after the Twin Towers crumbled, the 1962 disaster at Orly Field near Paris hung in Atlanta’s atmosphere for years afterward. On June 3 of that year, a Boeing 707 carrying 106Atlantans—some of the city’s most passionate arts patrons, returning from an art tour of Europe—crashed on takeoff, killing everyone aboard except for two flight attendants. Gone were Atlanta’s cultural elite—its artists, collectors, and those who sustained the still-embryonic High Museum and its school, the Atlanta Art Institute.

Grief over the deaths at Orly affected generations. The tragedy entered the room alongside the families—including thirty-three orphaned children and young adults—changed by their losses. It became part of an identity that followed them to board meetings and cocktail parties. Orly signaled the loss of Atlanta Art Association members who would have served as role models.

“With the Orly crash, we lost that important time period of the fifties and sixties when masterworks were readily available and affordable,” says Buckhead gallery owner Alan Avery. “And our big philanthropists did not get to teach their families what true philanthropy meant.”

But instead of devastating Atlanta’s arts landscape, the disaster became a tipping point for the city. In the months and years to follow, Atlanta had a choice: It could either mourn the loss, not only of its arts patrons, but of its future as an arts city, or it could prove to the world and to itself that that future did not perish as well. Orly “spurred us to think bigger,” says Larry Gellerstedt, chair of the Woodruff Arts Center’s Board of Trustees and CEO of Cousins Properties. Suddenly art was central to Atlanta’s identity.

Within weeks of the crash, Life magazine’s cover story proclaiming “the enduring art legacy the plane victims left behind” hinted at what was to come. As Ann Uhry Abrams recounted in her 2002 book, Explosion at Orly: The Disaster That Transformed Atlanta, “Atlantans, who had previously ignored the arts, were beginning to take notice.” Plans were launched for a new arts center. City leaders and benefactors who might not have given a whit about Picasso or Pissarro saw the need to honor the people who did. Coca-Cola magnate Robert W. Woodruff donated $6.5 million to establish the Memorial Arts Center in 1968. The center—which would grow into the Woodruff Arts Center and encompass the High Museum, the Alliance Theatre, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and Young Audiences—helped lure Robert Shaw as conductor. “Atlanta took on an image nationwide of a city that was developing rapidly in the arts and enabled us to recruit tremendous talent,” says Beauchamp Carr, executive vice president of the Woodruff Arts Center.

For Rickey Bevington, the Woodruff Arts Center is a monument to her grandmother and great-grandmother, who both perished at Orly. “Knowing that beauty came from the pain and tragedy that we went through and that Atlanta went through is so healing,” she says.

Like Bevington, who is board chair at the Oglethorpe University Museum of Art, many of the Orly heirs have carried on their relatives’ legacies.

Atlanta attorney Baxter Jones and his brother and sister lost their parents in the crash. Jones was only five. But his mother’s passion for art and his father’s love of modernist music live on in their son, who inherited his father’s record collection. Jones is an avid collector of work by local artists as well as surrealist works and is a tireless advocate for Atlanta nonprofits. Currently serving on the High Museum and the Théâtre du Rêve boards, Jones sees a simple takeaway from Orly: “Find your favorite arts group and support it.”

Bevington’s and Jones’s desires to carry the memory of Orly into the present are instructive. There is much talk in contemporary city-building of the importance of the arts in creating a modern, destination city. It’s on the minds of business leaders like Gellerstedt when they recruit new talent to Atlanta. “It’s proven to create a sense of vitality in the community,” says Gellerstedt. “The arts do generate jobs and do generate economic development and quality of life, so it’s very important.”

>> JUNE 3: On the fiftieth anniversary of the Orly crash, the Woodruff Arts Center will host a free, daylong commemoration from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Community Day at the Woodruff will feature an instrument “petting zoo” at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra; free High Museum admission; an Alliance Theatre reading of a memorial poem, “Wish You Were Here” by Pearl Cleage; acting workshops; and a Theatre for the Very Young performance of Waiting for Balloon. The High will also exhibit a Jean-Pierre Franque painting, on loan from the Louvre for the Orly anniversary.

In the decades following Orly, the city has proven its commitment to the arts in numerous ways, from the Richard Meier–designed High Museum in 1983 to the construction of the $178 million Renzo Piano expansion in 2005—bolstered by a significant gift from Atlanta arts patrons. And the post-Orly rise has continued. A recent Americans for the Arts research project ranked Atlanta number one out of the 100 largest American cities for its per capita number of arts-related businesses.

“We have come leaps and bounds in the last three or four years,” says Avery, whose gallery just celebrated its thirtieth anniversary. “I attribute that to a greater working relationship and greater presence and collaboration between the High Museum—finally—and local galleries. That is a major breakthrough.” Avery identifies previous High Museum modern and contemporary art curator Jeffrey Grove and current modern and contemporary curator Michael Rooks as being involved in the local arts scene in a way previous High curators have not been.

What could be considered a rebirth in Atlanta’s cultural life is traceable to the Woodruff Arts Center’s renewed engagement with the city itself. Much of Atlanta’s national arts exposure emanates from the Woodruff, including the recent premiere of the Stephen King and John Mellencamp musical Ghost Brothers of Darkland County and the debut of Twyla Tharp’s Come Fly with Me in 2009, both at the Alliance Theatre. The Grammy-winning Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the success of events like the hipster Culture Shock parties, in conjunction with High Museum exhibits on Salvador Dalí, Picasso, Andy Warhol, and KAWS, have turned the Woodruff from an impenetrable citadel on the hill to an institution enmeshed in the life of the city.

When so much of the local arts community was wiped out, the city might have taken a step backward. But Atlanta has always thrived when reinvention beckons. Neither Sherman’s armies, nor the horror of the devastating plane crash at Orly, nor a dismal economy will wipe out this resilient and evergreen cultural center.

Arts patrons, from left, Ruth McMillan, Lydia Black, and Raiford Ragdale on the European tour days befor the crash; photograph courtesy of the Woodruff Arts Center

Felicia Feaster is one of our editorial contributors.
Learn more about her | Contact her