How Atlanta Makes Sure Olympic Public Art Stays Standing

Olympic public artwork ''Homage to King'' has become an iconic Atlanta structure.
Olympic public artwork ''Homage to King'' has become an iconic Atlanta structure.
Credit Gabbie Watts / WABE


This Cultural Olympiad story was produced in partnership with ArtsATL as part of “Atlanta Remembers: The 1996 Olympics,” WABE’s series on the impact of the 1996 Summer Olympics on Atlanta, 20 years later. For more stories, click here.

In preparing for the Olympic Games in 1996, former mayor Maynard Jackson created the Corporation of Olympic Development in Atlanta (CODA), a nonprofit meant to ensure that the infrastructure work for the Olympics extended beyond the 17 days of athletics.

That infrastructure included public art. Clara Axam was the president and CEO of CODA and in charge of transforming the streets of Atlanta for the future.

For public art, she said CODA wanted “to celebrate our cultural heritage. A second agenda was to beautify and dignify our environment for us. And the third piece was really to do something that made our streets more than just functional.”

After CODA

CODA was never intended to be a permanent organization. It closed its doors in 1997. Axam and some other CODA employees created the Atlanta Public Arts Legacy Fund (APAL), a donor-advised fund at the Community Foundation.

Since then, APAL has given out 175 grants for Olympic artworks, totaling about $500,000. Those funds go toward simple maintenance efforts, like washing the pieces, but sometimes contribute to more extensive repairs.

Of course, APAL is just one funding stream for maintaining Olympic public art. The city of Atlanta’s Office of Cultural Affairs has a full-time staff in their public art department, who dedicate time to maintaining and restoring public art from the Olympics.

One of their current projects is the restoration of Folk Art Park with a grant from the Georgia Department of Transportation.

Also, since the 1970s, Atlanta has had a percent for art ordinance, where 1.5 percent of all city capital projects goes toward public art. That’s for new projects and for maintenance.

Renew Atlanta

Even with these efforts, there hasn’t been enough funding to keep all of the Olympic pieces in tip-top shape.

But Atlanta infrastructure is in the midst of the biggest face lift since the Olympics. The Renew Atlanta bond program, which voters passed in March 2015, designates $250 million to infrastructure work. Because of the percent for art ordinance, some of those funds are reserved for public art.

With the funds, Renew Atlanta’s project manager for art restoration Eddie Gunderson identified nine pieces that needed immediate restoration, which include Olympic works.

“We looked at those works that were in disrepair, as well as where they are located and what kind of impact that they have on the city and also the surrounding area where they are located,” Gunderson explained.

The pieces under contract are Threshold, John Wesley Dobbs Memorial, New Endings, Ex-static, Birth of Atlanta Monument, Carnegie Education Pavilion, 5 Points Monument, De-code/Re-code Atlanta and the Henry Grady Monument.

Public Art After The Olympics

Atlanta did have a number of public art pieces before 1996. But because of the Olympics, Atlanta added pieces to central areas and moved and restored existing ones. The Games also opened up conversations about the impact of public art on the city’s quality of life and initiated plans on how to better maintain and restore public art.

And like it did for so many things in Atlanta, the Olympics elevated Atlanta’s public art to an international stage.

The Office of Cultural Affairs’ public maintenance and conservation specialist Robert Witherspoon shed light on why all of these organizations work together to make sure public art survives:

“Public art is important because it reflects your community and it engages the community and enlightens the community,” he said. “And all great communities deserve great public art.”

Renew Atlanta projects are ongoing, and the Office of Cultural Affairs will continue their renovation of Folk Art Park later this year.

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