Massive expansion ahead for ambitious WonderRoot arts group

A decade ago, when three Atlanta friends in their early 20s were launching WonderRoot as a non-profit community arts group with a strong social mission, its bold, recently announced expansion plans would have been inconceivable.

“You know, when you’re 20 years old, both everything and nothing seems possible, right?” WonderRoot co-founder and executive director Chris Appleton said recently, standing outside the 54,000-square-foot Memorial Drive former schoolhouse that will be retrofitted soon into its new home. “But while we always had big dreams and big goals, the support and community’s embracing of WonderRoot has exceeded any expectation that we would’ve had.”

The extent of that support and embrace is about to be tested, big time.

Earlier this month, the Atlanta Public Schools board approved a lease agreement with the grassroots group covering 10 years with two five-year renewal options. The annual lease amount is $51,434 with an yearly escalation rate of 3 percent.

Roughly $1 per square foot is several floors below market value, but it’s still quite a stretch for an outfit that operates on a modest annual budget of $410,000 in a somewhat ramshackle, 4,000-square-foot house-turned-community-arts-center across Memorial that it has greatly outgrown after seven years.

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This in addition to the fact that WonderRoot plans to raise $2.8 million to renovate the red-brick schoolhouse, opened as John F. Faith Elementary in 1922, renamed C.D. Hubert Elementary in 1963 and vacant, with paint peeling in many of its spacious, sunlit classrooms, since Tech High public charter school shut down in 2012.

Yet no one, from staff to board members to community partners, seems to doubt that WonderRoot can not only raise the dough but can grow into an even more influential, change-making organization commensurate with its bigger headquarters.

“They are ready for the next step,” said Camille Love, director of Atlanta’s Office of Cultural Affairs. “They’re going to have some growing pains because this is going to be a big undertaking for them. But I think they have the right spirit and the commitment and they have a whole community that is cheering them on.”

While hesitant to predict a time-frame to complete the capital campaign (now in its initial “silent” phase), Tina Arbes, Public Broadcasting Atlanta’s chief financial officer when she’s not chairing WonderRoot’s 19-person board, asserted, “We’re very confident the support is there.”

That confidence is grounded not only in good vibes surrounding WonderRoot — for which more than 70 groups and individuals, including Mayor Kasim Reed, wrote letters of support to the school board — but in a financial model that seems to minimize risk.

The classrooms will be converted into 40 to 60 artist studios ranging from 150 to 1,000 square feet and renting for $1.50 per square foot. WonderRoot had signed letters of interest for roughly 40 percent of the converted classrooms when the expansion was announced. Ten days later, it had logged another 118 applications.

The studio spaces are expected to fund the operation of the 8-acre campus, including a full-time arts center staff that is anticipated to at least double to 16.

Beyond the favorable economics, Appleton, 31, is excited about the beehive of activity that WonderRoot will become with the addition of the studio artists. He believes it’s the perfect complement to its long-standing Open Access Studio Program, which makes available a variety of arts production facilities (from a pottery studio to a digital media lab) to art center members on the cheap.

Not only will those facilities grow in the new building, as will gallery and education space, but WonderRoot will add a performing arts venue, cafe and distinct spaces for community events and meetings.

With that growth, one might reasonably wonder if WonderRoot can remain, well, rooted in its original mission to lift communities through the arts.

The planned name for the new facility, WonderRoot Center for Arts & Social Change, suggests it intends to stay that course. And Appleton and Arbes addressed the issue straight on in an open letter posted on its website the day the expansion was announced. “Our original mission of uniting artists and community to inspire positive social change rings as true today as it did a decade ago,” they wrote, “and this new facility reinforces our efforts to achieve this mission.”

Reynoldstown Civic Improvement League president Catherine Woodling believes they will walk the talk.

“The (new center) will allow them to reach that next level, to provide the best of the best in community-based programming and to really get to that point of social change, that ultimate social goal,” she predicted.

WonderRoot has momentum in that direction. Major projects in recent months have included …

  • The unveiling of a 90-foot-long public art work by Atlanta sculptor Fred Ajanogha on University Avenue, just south of Turner Field, a homage to a proud past and brighter future for the blighted area. With funding by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, WonderRoot oversaw the artist selection and creative process with extensive input from residents of Pittsburgh, Adair Park, Capitol View Manor and Capitol View. More than 650 attended the unveiling.
  • “Deconstructing Binaries,” a public art program with Georgia Equality that addresses gender representation in bathroom signage. Five Atlanta artists created LGBT-sensitive signs in response to a community conversation at Charis Books, and they have been reproduced and made available for sale.
  • The announcement of six artists commissioned for the fourth WonderRoot CSA (community supported art), a creative twist on the traditional agricultural CSA in which 40 investors can purchase “shares” good for six works of art.

 

Atlanta printmaker Jessica Caldas, who WonderRoot commissioned for the inaugural CSA and who is completing her 2013-14 Walthall Fellowship with a group exhibition at Gallery 72, said the latter experience led her to give up her Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation job helping domestic violence victims to focus on her art.

“It’s incredibly helpful, incredibly powerful to have the support of WonderRoot through this program,” she said. “It’s not often that you get that kind of attention when you’re an emerging artist.”

Woodruff Arts Center president and chief executive officer Virginia Hepner said she especially appreciates WonderRoot’s focus on working artists.

“They’ve been very innovative,” Hepner said. “Along with many other organizations that might be flying below the radar, I think they’re essential in creating a vibrant community in Atlanta.”

She’s not the only one at Woodruff showing support: Director of facilities Ed Brownlee and chief engineer Steve Trott are volunteering their expertise in helping assess needed improvements to WonderRoot’s future home.

WonderRoot, in turn, commissioned Atlanta artist Kevin Byrd to create a fluorescent light installation to be displayed on the Woodruff Art Center’s Sifly Piazza Sept. 19-25 as part of the High Museum of Art’s interactive design exhibition “Mi Casa, Your Casa.”

An Atlanta native, Appleton points to “Mi Casa,” which is tapping dozens of metro performing and visual artists to make free presentations this summer and fall, as evidence that the city’s arts scene is making progress.

“We are getting somewhere,” he said. “There’s a buzz (nationally) about what’s happening in Atlanta. What remains to be seen is if can we sustain the momentum.”

What the future holds for Appleton, who in June was honored by Americans for the Arts with the American Express Emerging Leader Award for 2014, becomes an intriguing question.

“I get goose bumps being asked that question because I feel more invested and passionate about WonderRoot’s mission and work than I ever have before,” he said. “I’m so moved by the support that has surrounded WonderRoot, by the team that has rallied around me — board members, volunteers, staff members — and I’m excited to be part of the organization for the next 10 years.”

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