Greater Augusta Arts Council weathers rainy days to observe 50 years as an umbrella group

 

It was just a small notice of two paragraphs published on Page 10A in The Augusta Chronicle on Sunday, August 27, 1967, and yet it would have a major effect on the Augusta area’s individual artists and arts-related organizations.

“Junior League of Augusta will hold an open meeting at 11 a.m., Sept. 12, at St. Paul’s Church parish hall. Jesse C. Reese Jr., executive director of the Arts Council of Winston-Salem, N.C., will be guest speaker.

“The public is invited to hear him lecture on ‘The Arts ─ A Challenge.’”

Out of that meeting emerged what would become the Greater Augusta Arts Council which this year is celebrating its Golden Anniversary.

The Junior League couldn’t have found a more dynamic or qualified speaker to talk about the arts as a challenge in 1967 than Jesse C. Reese Jr.

The 38-year-old native of St. Louis, Mo., was just in his second year as executive director of “the oldest and most successful arts council in the United States,” as the Chronicle informed its readers in September two days before the announced meeting.

But in spite of his newness at the arts council helm, the former theater major at the University of Missouri and graduate student at the Yale Drama School had an impressive background.

That included working for a radio and television advertising firm in New York City and being administrator of an arts program for Chase Manhattan Bank.

He also had traveled 10 Midwestern states promoting musical artists and other cultural programs for the prestigious Hurok Attractions Inc. show business company.

Reese would tell his audience in the parish hall of St. Paul’s that, since the formation of the Winston-Salem arts council, the number of similar groups across the nation had grown to more than 300.

He noted the Winston-Salem organization consisted of about 30 organizations in three categories: performing groups such as the ballet and symphony; associate groups such as the Jaycees and Junior League; and honorary groups such as colleges and libraries.

“It is simply the United Fund setup applied to the arts,” he said.

For the bottom line of his talk, Reese urged those present that day to think seriously of forming such an organization.

“As we become more fluent, as leisure time becomes more abundant, we need more and more to concern ourselves with things of the spirit,” Reese offered. “There is a need to stretch the imagination.”

Three months later, representatives of the Augusta Chamber of Commerce, Junior League of Augusta, Augusta Junior Woman’s Club and local performing groups met at a luncheon in the Old Government House on Telfair Street and submitted proposals for the formation of a local arts council.

The Junior Woman’s Club hosted the luncheon with the speaker being John D. Burke, arts consultant for the University of Georgia.

Burke told those attending that an arts council should raise the cultural climate of the community and should be started on a small scale with limited objectives.

Immediate goals that came out of that meeting were for the building of an auditorium or cultural center, the hiring of a full-time, paid arts council director, the creation of an arts calendar and mailing list and ways of bringing arts education into local schools through the council.

The end result of that luncheon was the “birth” of the Greater Augusta Arts Council on Monday night, February 19, 1968, at a meeting in Aldersgate United Methodist Church, 3185 Wheeler Road.

By-laws were adopted, goals were outlined, representatives were appointed and officers were selected including Augusta civil engineer Clarence R. Jones elected as the council’s first chairman and Pierce Blitch Sr. as vice chairman.

Jewell Bentley Childess, president of the Junior Woman’s Club who headed the steering committee nominating the first slate of officers, was elected secretary.

She talked at the meeting about long and short range goals and of arts-minded local citizens who would help through foundation grants and other contributions.

“These arts people seem to be enthusiastic about the council and so do the business and professional men,” Childress said. “We haven’t had a single person to turn us down.”

Millard A. Beckum, executive vice president of the Augusta Chamber of Commerce who also would serve as the city’s mayor, noted that the Chamber was convinced the council would help the community grow in a well-rounded manner.

“Therefore,” Beckum concluded, “the Chamber lends its support and enthusiastic backing to the new organization which is certain to give Augusta a highly accelerated program of expansion in the cultural areas.”

It took more than a decade, however, before the Greater Augusta Arts Council staged its first festival in October of 1981 on the grounds of Augusta College.

The festival was called Collage ’81, a name submitted by Susan Bloomfield and selected from some 26 entries in a contest.

As stated in a Chronicle article, “The arts festival, designed to become an annual event, is being planned as a showcase for the region to acquaint people with the various arts forms in the Central Savannah River Area.”

Dr. Russell R. Moores, the Medical College of Georgia physician who chaired the three-day festival, observed, “While we’ve had festivals with participation by a number of groups, this is the area’s first festival with participation by every major arts group.”

More than 40 performing groups and more than 25 visual artists took part in that inaugural GAAC festival including The Augusta Players whose performers presented songs from their musical production of “Grease.”

Like the lyrics to the title tune, the Greater Augusta Arts Council for 50 years has got groove and got meaning.

It is the time, the place and the motion, and its support of local arts certainly is the way most of us are feeling.

Yeah, “grease” may be the word in the musical, but “golden” as in anniversary is the word this year for the Greater Augusta Arts Council.

Article appears in the August/September 2018 issue of Augusta Magazine.

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