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Mission accomplished Featured

12:12pm EDT October 10, 2005

After a decade as leader of the Robert W. Woodruff Arts Center, Shelton g. Stanfill announced his resignation, marking the departure of the leader who oversaw the largest expansion in the organization’s history.

The Woodruff Arts Center campus, which includes the Alliance Theatre Company, High Museum of Art, Atlanta College of Art, 14th Street Playhouse, High Downtown Folk Art & Photography Galleries and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, has seen significant growth during Stanfill’s tenure.

“Since I’ve been here, we’ve built seven new buildings plus a new garage,” Stanfill says. “There’s also been a significant expansion in the diversity of our audiences and patrons from 10 years ago.”

During his time on the job, the center has seen operating activity increase 245 percent to $145 million, placing the organization, along with the Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center and the Los Angeles Music Center, as one of the top arts centers in the country. And although Stanfill is moving on, he’s not necessarily leaving the community.

“I’m stepping down; I’m resigning to go on and do something else,” he says. “I’ve got the fortunate circumstance that I’ve got the time to decide what that is. I do very much want to, if at all possible, stay in the Atlanta area. ... I really am invested in this community. My intent is to stay here.”

Stanfill will leave his post in June 2006. Smart Business spoke with him about knowing when it’s time to go and how he’s helping make the transition happen.

How did you know it was time to move on?

The process came in preparing what was going to be the annual report and my 10th budget to the board. I realized in doing that report that we had accomplished so many things — not just what I was doing, but what all the division heads here were doing.

I knew that we were probably going to be entering into a period of consolidation, of refinement, of restructure, of maintaining. It hit me — I’ll never get to make this exciting and impressive report again.

You don’t get very many chances to go out on the top. That’s what started me thinking about it.

Are you concerned about becoming a lame duck leader?

My board, through my board chairman, has asked that I not get into thinking of myself as a lame duck. They’ve instructed me to act as though I were here on a continuing basis. That is my intent.

It could come to a special circumstance in which I would make the judgment that would be more productive for the institution if my successor made that decision, and (if) there is time in which that can be allowed to happen, I might do that. In general, I’ll go ahead and make decisions and continue to send out directives as I always would and have.

What role will you have in the selection of the new director?

The entire agenda will be my talking to (the selection committee) about the position, telling what I think the strategic challenges are and opportunities are going forward. I’m also meeting with each one of those committee members individually to give them a chance to ask me questions about the office and to give them some personal background and dialogue about the position.

The intent would be somebody who is there in the spring so that when I leave June 30, they’ve either had a month of transition here with me or they’ve at least had time to prepare to come into the position.

How will you help with that transition?

It all depends on who the individual is and what their background is. It could be somebody who comes out of the business world, in which a lot of time would be spent introducing them to both the international and national arts world and the people who are in that field.

If they come out of the arts field, then it will be much more about spending time on the particulars of this arts organization — the Woodruff Arts Center. No other performing visual arts center is structured the way we are in this country. It’s a model that most people, if they’re in the arts world, will not know about, and therefore, (I) will probably spend a great deal of time on that.

What are you looking for in a new director?

It could be somebody who is out of a lifetime or a long-term arts administration or it could be somebody out of the business world or education world. That’s going to be a very interesting set of discussions that the search committee will have here.

For the next five years, the skills that are really necessary, that you really need to have deep pockets on, are not necessarily my skills. And there are a lot of good people out there that do fit that profile. I care about this place passionately, and so I want it to have the best person possible.

What are the goals in your final six months?

First of all, the integration of a new division, Young Audiences, fully into the life of the center — that’s been a huge investment of time to make that happen. And it’s critical that goes well.

The only thing still remaining is the creation of a presenting division ... one that is bringing a whole variety of different programs of arts from the outside to here, whether it be blues festivals, world music, world dance, a whole variety of programs that, in large part, bypass Atlanta. (We’re also) creating a business plan as well as a lyric theater and preparing all the research and the basic statistical information that one would need for the new president to be able to form their own strategic plan once they get here.

What metrics do you look at to measure success?

I measure it in several ways. One is how many people in the community feel they own a piece of this real estate, feel they are proud that this is here, that this is an asset to the community. That’s one.

Two ... whether or not it enhances their appreciation of life, I believe the most important function we serve is keeping other people alive to life. There are a lot of people who go dead on life.

The arts, one of their greatest attributes is to help people think, to have people react, to help people feel, to help people transpose in their minds what’s on stage into their own lives or what’s in their own minds to the stage.

Stand outside a theater or a museum as people are leaving and see if they act differently than when the walked in. Do they seem more lively? Do they seem more engaged? I do this with children’s tours when they come here. When you see children walking out of a concert totally animated, alive with energy, spinning and singing songs, you know you’ve touched their lives. When you see them going quietly into a theater and they come out and they are telling stories to each other and they are comparing ideas and notes, you know you’ve touched their lives.

That’s what we’re about; we about enhancing and elevating life.

What has been your biggest challenge?

The symphony strike at the end of my first year ... was the most difficult time. This has actually been, of all of my former experiences running arts centers and arts programs, this has been the most collegial. It’s also been the most productive time that I’ve spent in my career. Part of that has to do with (the fact that) Atlanta is a very easy and open place in which to do business and a very supportive city for the arts.

I got through it day-by-day. Because of very good people who were running the symphony and good people in the orchestra, all of that has been healed. It was the strike and the departure of Yoel Levi as the conductor and the controversy surrounding that. Those were the toughest times — people of good heart who worked to put all those pieces back together and actually grow from beyond there, and the symphony is a much stronger organization and certainly a much more productive and joyous organization than it was 10 years ago when I arrived.

Any regrets?

Coming to Atlanta was one of the best decisions I ever made. In all honesty, Atlanta was not on my radar ever within my professional career.

I was sold on this job, and I was seduced into this job, and it turned out to be wonderful. It’s been one of the most fascinating, productive periods in my career, and I’ve had really interesting career.

HOW TO REACH: Woodruff Arts Center, (404) 733.4200 or http://www.woodruffcenter.org