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Paris plane crash spurs cultural growth in Atlanta

Thursday - 5/31/2012, 10:44am  ET

Associated Press

ATLANTA (AP) - Fifty years ago, a group of 106 influential cultural and civic leaders from Atlanta traveled to Europe to visit famous museums and demonstrate the ascendant southern city's commitment to culture.

The Atlanta area's population in 1962 had recently hit a million people, but political and business leaders worried the growth wouldn't continue if the city didn't improve its museums and venues for theater and music. The city's cultural development would be altered forever by the trip, but in ways that had to do more with its tragic end.

The group was on its way home June 3 when its chartered Air France plane crashed on takeoff at Orly Field in Paris, killing all but two flight attendants. It was the worst single plane crash at the time.

"The community was just in shock," said Joe Bankoff, outgoing president and CEO of the Woodruff Arts Center in Atlanta. "I mean, to lose over 100 people in a moment was just unbelievable. But to lose such a cross section of Atlanta was particularly important."

On the flight were artists, company leaders, the first woman elected to the city's school board and other leaders. Among the sights on their packed agenda were the Louvre in Paris, the Coliseum in Rome and London Bridge.

Out of the city's grief grew a sense that something needed to be done to memorialize them, to improve on its tiny art museum in an old house and struggling art school.

"These people were heads of companies in Atlanta. They were the wives who did a lot of the volunteer work at the art association," said Susan Lowance, who had traveled with the group but had decided to stay in Europe longer to visit friends.

She believes the development of the arts center is a fitting tribute to her travel companions.

"These were people who had a stake in what was going to happen, and what happened was wonderful," Lowance said.

Atlanta is now home to a world-class art museum that has collaborated with the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Louvre, a Grammy-winning symphony orchestra and other top-notch cultural institutions.

Several business leaders led the efforts to create a permanent home for the arts. They wanted to honor the dead, but also shared the belief that to attract big business they needed to have big arts.

"It was about doing something that would put Atlanta on the map, and that vision was driven really by people who were not themselves passionate about the arts," said Bankoff, who retired as head of the arts center Thursday.

The idea was to create a single entity that would house all major art forms. It led to the establishment of Atlanta Arts Alliance and the Memorial Arts Center _ now named the Woodruff Arts Center, after former Coca-Cola president and major donor Robert Woodruff.

The groundbreaking for the Memorial Arts Center was held on June 3, 1966, the fourth anniversary of the crash. It took about two years to complete with a final price tag of more than $13 million, according to "Explosion At Orly," a book by historian Ann Abrams.

When the center opened in October 1968, the French ambassador to the United States presented to the city a casting of sculptor Auguste Rodin's "The Shade." Today it sits on the grounds of the High Museum of Art in a memorial ringed by polished stone etched with the names of those who died in the Orly crash.

The center has grown over the years to include the Richard Meier-designed High, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, the Alliance Theatre, the 14th Street Playhouse and the Atlanta College of Art.

Speculating on what the Atlanta arts footprint would look like today if the crash had never happened, both Abrams and Bankoff said they believe the city was destined to grow into a major arts center.

"Frankly, it would have happened anyway, but it might have taken a little longer, and it might have taken a few different turns," Abrams said.

The different artistic entities would likely have been scattered instead of winding up on a single campus in Midtown Atlanta, Bankoff said. The visual and performing arts were grouped under combined management, which may have accelerated their development and strength.

While Atlanta's profile in arts bloomed, the families of the crash victims put their lives back together.

Penny Hart was a 19-year-old college sophomore studying at the Sorbonne in Paris when her mother, Henrietta Collier Armstrong Ayer, came over on the trip. They ate dinner together the night before the crash.

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