Sunday June 3 marks the 50th anniversary of the plane crash at Paris’s Orly Airport that took the lives of 122 arts patrons from Atlanta who were part of a European arts tour planned by the Atlanta Art Association. The tragedy stunned Atlanta’s citizens, galvanizing them to build a Memorial Arts Building now part of the Woodruff Arts Center, which celebrates multiple art forms in one location.
The Woodruff will commemorate the tragedy through a special Community Day of free activities at each of The Woodruff’s divisions, including an art installation from the musée du Louvre.
In the half a century since, the Woodruff became the largest visual and performing arts center in the Southeast with a transforming impact on the cultural and economic development of Atlanta. The Woodruff, which today is home to the Alliance Theatre, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, the High Museum of Art, and Young Audiences, serves more than 1.4 million people annually and established Midtown as the cultural center of Atlanta.
On the anniversary, the public is invited to participate in Community Day at the Woodruff on June 3 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., during which the following free activities are planned:
- An Instrument Petting Zoo with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
- A reading of Pearl Cleage’s “Wish You Were Here” – a poem written for the anniversary – at the Alliance Theatre, which will also host acting workshops and performances of “Waiting for Balloon”
- Admission to the High and family art workshops
- Hands-on activities such as storytelling, puppet shows, a community art project, multi-cultural music and more by Young Audiences, including a reading of “The Story of Orly” by Barry Stewart Mann
In addition, the Buckhead Heritage Society will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Orly air crash by hosting a lecture next month by Ann Uhry Abrams, author of Explosion at Orly: The Disaster that Transformed Atlanta, and Chris Moser, the producer of the 2001 GPB documentary film, The Day Atlanta Stood Still, as well as a screening of the film on Friday, May 11 at 6:30 p.m. at the Cathedral of St. Philip at 2744 Peachtree Road.
Through a release, Buckhead Heritage President, W. Wright Mitchell, commented, “The Orly crash was truly a watershed moment in Atlanta history. While it was a tragic event, Atlantans bounced back, as they always do, and used it as a catalyst to develop Atlanta into the arts and culture capital of the South. As the 50th Anniversary approaches, it is important to not only remember the many prominent Atlantans who lost their lives in the crash, but also to acknowledge the citizens who picked up the pieces and turned tragedy into triumph.”
On May 9, 1962, a group of Atlanta’s cultural and civic leaders, including many Midtown and Buckhead residents, embarked on a three-week European adventure and ambassadorial mission organized by the Atlanta Art Association. On June 3, the group’s chartered Boeing 707 crashed upon takeoff from the Orly Field near Paris, France. One hundred and thirty people died, making it the deadliest aviation disaster in history up until that time. Many who formed the heart of Atlanta’s art and cultural establishment perished, including many Atlanta artists.
This loss of many of the city’s most dedicated arts supporters spurred Atlanta to create a memorial that would continue their passion for the cultural growth of the city.
Between 1962 and 1968, the Atlanta Art Association led the city of Atlanta in mobilizing major gifts from organizations and individuals as well as small donations garnered through a grass-roots campaign. The most significant gift was made by Atlanta’s famously “anonymous donor,” Robert W. Woodruff, the retired head of The Coca-Cola Company. The Atlanta Memorial Arts Center (renamed Woodruff Arts Center in 1982) opened to the public on October 5, 1968, in a ceremony that included the French government donating August Rodin’s Le Hombre (The Shade) to the city of Atlanta in memoriam for those whose lives were lost at Orly.
“Today, the Woodruff has become one of the largest performing arts centers in the nation and our visual, dramatic, and musical organizations are internationally recognized,” said Joe Bankoff, president and CEO of the Woodruff in a statement. “It is hard now to imagine the devastating impact of this tragedy on Atlanta. Yet the determined response of the city to build a memorial created a center that has nurtured amazing artistic and economic growth. Thus the 50th anniversary of the tragedy provides a moment to recall this loss – but more importantly to recognize and celebrate Atlanta’s commitment to build and sustain a visual and performing arts center that has achieved national recognition and global stature.”
The development of the Woodruff spurred the transformation and revitalization of an entire section of the city. Today, Midtown is Atlanta’s cultural hub and one of the city’s most vibrant areas, serving thousands of residents and visitors with hotels, residences, restaurants, and parks. Atlanta’s Midtown is home to many other arts and culture organizations, such as the Atlanta Ballet, the Atlanta Botanical Garden, the Center for Puppetry Arts, the Fox Theatre, and the Museum of Design Atlanta.
“The fact that Atlanta’s citizens mobilized to build a cultural center in honor of the Orly victims exemplifies why the phoenix is such a fitting symbol for our city,” said Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed in a news release. “With the support and dedication of our citizens, Atlanta’s art scene literally rose from the ashes in the late 1960s. Since the opening of the Woodruff Arts Center, the city’s arts organizations have grown tremendously. In the process Midtown Atlanta has been completely transformed, and the area has become the cultural center of the region attracting residents and tourists from across the world.”
During the June 3 Community Day at the Woodruff, visitors may also view the painting Allegory of the State of France before the Return from Egypt by Jean-Pierre Franque, on loan from the Louvre to commemorate the anniversary. The painting has never before been shown in the U.S. This gesture echoes the French government’s loan of famous paintings from the Louvre to Atlanta in 1963 to honor Orly crash victims.
Atlanta native Alfred Uhry, the Tony Award, Academy Award and Pulitzer Prize recipient and author of “Driving Miss Daisy,” will participate in a special QA during Community Day. His new play “Apples Oranges,” based on the book by Marie Brenner, will premiere at the Alliance Theatre in October.
On the anniversary, the Woodruff will also host the Orly Commemoration Dinner at 6 p.m., a private, ticketed event in the Galleria of the Memorial Arts Building. The event will showcase the story of the Woodruff’s creation in response to the tragedy through video, performance and guest speakers.
At the May 11 Buckhead Heritage Society event, the story of the Orly tragedy will be brought to life through the works of nationally renowned artists including Todd Murphy, Meg Aubrey, Bonnie Beauchamp-Cooke, Dennis Campay, Carolyn Carr, Debbie de Juan Keating, Ben Jennings, Morgan Kendall, Hailey Lowe, Margaret Motley, Steve Penley, Peter Polites, Serge Raffato, Dawne Raulet, Rossin, Serge Ruffato, Tracy Sharp, Jill Steenhuis, Lou Steed and Katherine Bell McClure. These artists will contribute original works interpreting the Orly Air Crash and its transformative effects on the cultural scene of the city.
The art exhibit will be free and open to the public from noon until 5 p.m. The reception and art auction will be held from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. Tickets for the private reception and art auction are $25 for Buckhead Heritage members and $35 for non-members. Proceeds from the auction will support the Cultural and Historical Resources component of the Buckhead Collection Greenspace Plan.