Connecting Atlanta and the Arts
Faculty and alumni of the College of the Arts keep the city’s arts scene thriving.
BY TONY REHAGEN ♦ PHOTOS BY STEVE THACKSTON
Susannah Darrow (M.A. ’13) grew up on 7th Street in midtown Atlanta.
Her mom was a graduate student at Georgia State, so Darrow had always known the school as part of the city’s downtown landscape — but not much else. She got her art history degree at the University of Georgia, but when Darrow returned home in 2008, she found Georgia State’s profile in the arts community had grown.
“When I started working in Atlanta, I got familiar with the artists in town, and many of them were professors or students at Georgia State,” Darrow said. “I was very impressed with the work they were doing.” She was so impressed that she decided to get her master’s degree in art history from the university.
As a student, she witnessed firsthand the school’s increasing commitment to and involvement with the city’s burgeoning arts scene — not just in the visual arts, but in the music and film industry as well.
When the College of the Arts began operations in 2017, Georgia State formalized its partnership with the Atlanta arts scene.
Comprising the Ernest G. Welch School of Art & Design, the School of Film, Media & Theatre and the School of Music, the college connects students with artists, organizations and the booming film and music industries of downtown Atlanta, the leading cultural and economic center of the Southeast.
The college’s renowned faculty artists work in the field themselves and bring with them connections to arts professionals and institutions across the U.S. and around the world, not just in Atlanta but in New York, Los Angeles and beyond. Recognizing the changing needs of today’s artists, the college trains students not just in mastering their craft but in making a living with it.
Setting Georgia State apart from most other schools, this blend of art, entrepreneurship and other business fundamentals ensures students have everything they need to pursue dynamic, successful careers in the arts, whether as artists, performers, creative specialists or savvy business and management professionals like Darrow.
She’s the former executive director of ArtsATL and a co-founder of Burnaway, two nonprofits that advocate for the arts and publish thoughtful, critical coverage of the arts in Atlanta and the Southeast. She owns a consulting firm with an emphasis on supporting the growth of the arts and culture sector in Atlanta, and acts as the arts and culture adviser to District 2 of the Atlanta City Council.
You can also count Darrow among the college’s faculty who are active in the arts. She taught Critical Issues in Contemporary Art last fall.
“More so than other schools, Georgia State has such a strong partnership and relationship with the city,” she says. “The school and the students have deep ties to things happening across Atlanta.”
As the arts scene in and around the university steadily grows, other faculty and alumni use their experiences to create a pipeline for our students, connecting them to Atlanta’s arts economy through a network of practicing professionals.
On the Saxophone
When her husband got a job with Georgia State’s History Department in 2006, Jan Baker admits she was less than thrilled at the prospect of moving from Chicago to Atlanta. A world-renowned saxophone soloist and chamber musician, Baker was front and center on a major stage of the global music scene in the Windy City. Would she have the same opportunity in Atlanta?
The answer surprised her. When she first toured Georgia State’s campus, Baker was struck by how seamlessly the school physically integrated into the downtown Atlanta landscape. After she started teaching at Georgia State in 2008, she found her office was just down the street from talent magnets such as the Alliance Theatre, High Museum of Art and Woodruff Arts Center. There was always a Hollywood film being shot at Woodruff Park or a couple blocks away. Galleries, studios, theaters and concert halls abounded throughout the city’s emerging arts scene.
“Here, we have the opportunity to impact our community and be in the middle of everything,” says Baker, now an associate professor of saxophone. “You’re not in a sequestered area. You’re interacting with artists daily.”
Since her arrival in Atlanta 12 years ago, her career has flourished. She has played with the Atlanta Ballet, Atlanta Opera and Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. She has performed in Austria, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Mexico, Switzerland, Ukraine, the United Kingdom and throughout the U.S. She’s perhaps most proud of her work with Bent Frequency, a nationally recognized Georgia State ensemble-in-residence (co-founded by Stuart Gerber) that commissions and performs works from contemporary composers.
Baker uses these connections to plug her students into the local music scene. The Georgia State Choir has performed with the Atlanta Symphony, the Atlanta Ballet and even landed a gig on the set of AMC’s “The Walking Dead.” Graduate students have had the opportunity to work with music programs in many of the bigger local churches. Baker is eager to help. She knows what it’s like coming into the scene as an outsider.
“I moved here with virtually no connections but have been able to create the career I wanted for myself,” she says. “The opportunities in Atlanta are astounding and more than I found in Chicago because the scene is open here. You can create anything.”
Stephanie Kolpy (M.F.A. ’10), A Brush With Life
For years, Stephanie Kolpy considered her dream of living the artist’s life as just that — a dream. She attended high school in Snellville, Ga., and studied geology at DeKalb Community College. She travelled across Europe. Then she was diagnosed with cancer. And suddenly her world stopped.
After battling and finally beating the dreaded disease, Kolpy decided she was going to do the things she had always wanted. She enrolled at the Art College of Atlanta and as soon as she graduated in 2006 headed to Georgia State for her master’s degree in painting, drawing and printmaking.
Kolpy was an older student, a cancer survivor who wasn’t interested in painting as a hobby or earning a degree as just some rite of passage. Kolpy wanted to work and teach, and she wanted to do both as soon as possible. Georgia State was happy to oblige.
“They told me they were going to train me to teach in the first year,” Kolpy says.
Utility and practicality are at the heart of what Georgia State teaches. Students don’t just learn how to create art. They also learn how to sell those skills, shop their work, copyright their material and protect their creations. They are pushed out into the community and introduced to gallery owners and curators. For seniors in Kolpy’s courses, submitting work to at least one gallery show per semester is mandatory. She also uses her connections in the community to set up other public art shows and exhibitions for her students looking to showcase their work.
“I know all the curators in the major galleries in town,” says Kolpy. “We have a dialogue, and they let us know when certain shows are coming so we can seek out students for specifically themed shows.”
In addition to five years as an instructor at Georgia State, Kolpy has also taught at private schools all over Georgia. She says Georgia State students stand out for the same practical drive and maturity she had.
“What separates them is the discipline,” she says. “They’re not spoiled or entitled. Many of them are older. They have two jobs. They have children. They come to Georgia State to be great. And Georgia State is great at making that happen.”
(B.A. ’08, M.A. ’13),
A first-generation American, Christopher Escobar and his family moved from Miami to Georgia, in part, so he could attend college on the HOPE Scholarship. Escobar chose Georgia State for its music management program but was quickly swayed to film studies. He was attracted to Georgia State’s deep roots in film as well as its accessibility.
“People of all economic backgrounds can come to Georgia State,” he says. “As long as you work hard, you’re welcome.”
Georgia State’s film program was also more comprehensive. Some schools taught film theory and history but not the craft of filmmaking. Others taught filmmaking but nothing about the industry or the business. At Georgia State, Escobar could find classes on everything from screenwriting techniques to how the emergence of media conglomerates has affected the economic landscape.
Escobar’s time at Georgia State coincided with the national television and film boom, which solidified Atlanta as a film industry hub. Students who aspired to become screenwriters or directors could suddenly pursue star-studded careers without leaving town. But Escobar says his professors at Georgia State were quick to see that opportunities weren’t limited to Hollywood productions.
“There’s more out there than commercial television and feature films,” he says. “Creating content for commercial brands, such as Coke, Home Depot and smaller businesses, is a big part of the scene. And unlike commercial entertainment, that’s where the full-time jobs are.”
Through his experience with Georgia State, Escobar has dedicated his professional life to the permanence of the film industry and local film community in Atlanta. In 2017, Escobar teamed up with some friends to buy the Plaza Theatre, the city’s oldest and only remaining independent cinema. As the executive director of the Atlanta Film Society, which produces the annual Atlanta Film Festival, he wants to make Atlanta more than just a movie production hub. He wants Atlanta to become a capital of the industry, from preproduction and development to postproduction and distribution.
“Entertainment is the biggest American export,” Escobar says. “We have a real opportunity to see our homegrown talent cultivate this industry here in Atlanta.”
That means encouraging artists and other professionals who work in front of and behind the camera to make their homes here and discover what the city of Atlanta and its largest university have to offer, just like he did.