A new generation of Atlanta artists takes center stage

The Woodruff Arts Center’s new CEO wants to boost Atlanta’s arts groups

Doug Shipman
Photograph by Mike Colletta

When Doug Shipman was named president and CEO of the Woodruff Arts Center in early June, a cynic might have observed that the 44-year-old Atlanta executive had landed the cushiest job in town. After all, the Woodruff, already the country’s third-largest arts center, had just collected an impressive $112 million in donations to expand its endowments—on top of the $14 million raised through its annual corporate giving campaign.

Shipman, an Arkansas native and the former CEO and managing director of BrightHouse, an Atlanta-based creative consulting firm, has stepped in at a time when the city’s economy has rebounded from the Great Recession, when the Woodruff member institutions—the Alliance Theatre, High Museum, and Atlanta Symphony Orchestra—are all on strong financial footing, and after a restructuring of the Center’s board of trustees streamlined the management process. It might seem that the new Woodruff chief’s main job is to avoid derailing a train already hurtling full steam ahead.

But in addition to keeping the arts center on its upward trajectory—and overseeing an ambitious $22 million renovation of the Alliance—Shipman views his new job as an opportunity to help improve the financial sustainability of local arts groups that don’t have the Woodruff’s resources.

“The overall health of the Atlanta arts ecosystem is of great interest to the Woodruff,” he says. “It’s the small and mid-sized groups that attract young artists to town. Being an advocate for the arts community as a whole is something I’m enthusiastic about.” It’s a role that Shipman is well-positioned—and personally suited—to take on.

“Doug is an exceptional guy who knows small and mid-sized arts groups in the city,” says Louis Corrigan, founder of local public art organization Flux Projects. “He enters the job knowing the Woodruff is more than just what happens on the campus and that the arts community is bigger and more diverse than Woodruff.”

Since its founding nearly 50 years ago, the Woodruff Arts Center has been something of an ivory tower of the Atlanta arts scene. With Georgia ranking 49th among states in per-capita public funding for the arts and municipal arts grants in decline, the Woodruff has long faced criticism of vacuuming up much of the remaining pool of corporate and private contributions.

In recent years, however, the Alliance has shared its stages with area theater groups, including several shows with the edgy Dad’s Garage, and the High has made a point of showcasing Georgia artists such as painter Medford Johnston and photographer Lucinda Bunnen. Shipman looks forward to strengthening and expanding those local connections.

Shipman’s own connection to the arts community is deep and long-standing. As a student at Emory University in the mid-’90s, he was an ASO season-ticket holder. Returning to Atlanta as a consultant in 2001 after earning master’s degrees in theology and domestic politics from Harvard, he became a regular patron of 7 Stages and Out of Hand Theater, joining the latter’s board. When he was tapped in 2007 to launch the Center for Civil and Human Rights as its founding CEO, Shipman reached out to local arts leaders for advice on managing a cultural nonprofit. While he was there, the center forged its own collaborations with local artists, such as Atlanta photographer Sheila Pree Bright.

Shipman says he would like to use the Woodruff’s visibility and resources to help break the notorious cycle of young artists being forced to leave Atlanta in order to earn a living.

In addition to fostering new partnerships, Shipman wants to see the Woodruff step outside of its Peachtree Street campus and seek new audiences in places where people already go—Bach on the BeltLine, anyone? And he would like to attract millennials with more themed events like the dress-up “Factory Party” held in conjunction with the High’s Andy Warhol exhibit in June.

Finally Shipman, who was often traveling as a consultant, relishes the chance to spend more time in town with his family and go to local arts events at the Woodruff and elsewhere. “I’m looking forward to experiencing a lot of what Atlanta has to offer.” —Scott Henry

Major Moves
The Woodruff isn’t the only one going through some big changes. Below, four notable projects:

  • Kennesaw State University opened a 450-seat theater on its Marietta campus in March dedicated to dance performances. In May KSU debuted the Bentley Rare Book Museum with a collection of more than 10,000 items.
  • Augmenting its celebrated Museum of Fine Art, Spelman College has announced a new Center for the Arts & Innovation, which will consolidate the school’s arts and curatorial programs with computer and IT studies. Half of a $1 million gift from Barnes & Noble founder and chairman Leonard Riggio, announced in late 2016, is designated for the center.
  • In June the City of Atlanta agreed to shelve an ordinance requiring approval from the mayor and council for all public murals, even on private property. Even before the settlement was reached, the Center for the Arts & Innovation debuted 12 new murals on buildings across Atlanta.

    Outer Space Mural
    OuterSpace Project mural in Summerhill

    Photograph by DV Photo

  • Also in June Reynoldstown’s WonderRoot received a $150,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant for arts programming and community beautification in Atlanta’s Oakland City neighborhood. —Scott Henry