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The Tragedy & Triumph Behind Atlanta's Woodruff Arts Center

A plane crash in 1962 nearly left Atlanta without art—until the city rallied together to show that triumph can indeed come from tragedy when charity and community are involved. What resulted was the creation of the spectacular Woodruff Arts Center.

Outside Atlanta’s esteemed High Museum of Art stands The Shade, a larger-than-life bronze sculpture of a man with his head eternally bowed. This powerful work by Auguste Rodin was a gift from France to a mournful Atlanta in the wake of one of the city’s most devastating tragedies.

In early May 1962, 106 of Atlanta’s arts supporters and leaders embarked on a three-week tour of Europe sponsored by the Atlanta Art Association. On June 3, the group boarded its return flight at Orly Field south of Paris, France. The chartered Boeing 707 lifted only 6 feet off the ground before a mechanical failure sent the jet into a blazing crash. The wreckage claimed all but two of the 132 lives aboard—the deadliest civilian plane crash the world had ever seen.

Orly plane crash, Woodruff Arts Center, Atlanta, GA
Crews inspect the crash site of the Air France Boeing 707 jet chartered by the Atlanta Art Association after it crashed during take-off at Orly Airport. (©Agence France Presse/Getty Images)

In 1962, Atlanta and its arts community were a fraction of what they are today. The plane’s passengers represented nearly all of the city’s arts leadership, including Atlanta Art Association President Del Paige and board members Raiford Ragsdale, Ruth McMillan and Sidney Wien. In all, 33 children were orphaned, 46 adults lost a parent (some both), and 21 spouses were widowed.

The city stood still as it mourned the tremendous loss—even Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. canceled an organized protest when he heard the devastating news. But for a city well-versed in rising from its ashes, giving up was not an option.

Galvanized by the tragedy, the city raised more than $13 million in just four years to build the Memorial Arts Center. This massive cultural complex would eventually house the architecturally stunning High Museum of Art, the Grammy Award-winning Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the Tony Award-winning Alliance Theatre.

High-profile figures were recruited to helm the city’s new cultural institutions. Legendary conductor and 14-time Grammy Award winner Robert Shaw became the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s music director and conductor in 1967. Under his leadership, the orchestra became internationally renowned, debuting at Carnegie Hall a mere four years into Shaw’s 21-year tenure.

Atlanta Symphony Hall, Woodruff Arts Center, Atlanta, GA
Atlanta Symphony Hall is just one cultural institution under the Woodruff Arts Center umbrella. (Courtesy of Woodruff Arts Center)

The Memorial Arts Center was renamed in 1982 in honor of its biggest supporter, Coca-Cola Co. magnate Robert Woodruff. Woodruff’s donations over the years, including an anonymous $7 million gift in 1966, were instrumental in helping to rebuild Atlanta’s cultural community.

As the city grew in size and artistic complexity, so did the newly named Woodruff Arts Center. In 1983, famed American architect Richard Meier designed a sprawling 135,000-square-foot addition to the High Museum. In 2005, the museum doubled in size after receiving three expansions designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano, who was recognized as one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people just a year later.

Currently, the Woodruff Arts Center spans 12 acres of exhibition, performance and instruction space. The High’s permanent collection now encompasses a staggering 15,000 pieces, and the Woodruff’s educational programs share art history, appreciation and theory with Atlanta’s next generation of arts patrons.

Living Walls, Atlanta, GA
"Night" mural by California artist Swampy, who painted the piece as part of the Living Walls conference. (©Zlatko Unger/Flickr)

Artistic expression plays a pivotal role in strengthening the culture of a city as diverse and multifaceted as Atlanta. Today, art is not confined to Atlanta’s galleries, theaters, exhibition spaces and museums; rather, it is brightly plastered on the sides of otherwise blank-walled buildings, layered inside tunnels, curated on social media and entrenched into each neighborhood’s sense of identity.

Traces of Atlanta’s complex yet inspiring arts history can still be seen throughout the city. Once a symbol of sorrow, Rodin’s bronze figure now welcomes thousands of visitors to the thriving Woodruff Arts Center each day, an ever-present reminder of the city’s cultural resilience.