Smithgall Arts Center
Operated by a local not-for-profit organisation known as The Arts Council, the Smithgall Arts Center is at the heart of Gainesville’s arts and culture scene. It is a multi-disciplinary space which occupies a former railway depot dating from 1914. Its small permanent collection of art inside and sculpture by nationally-important artists in the surrounding garden are just part of a broader arts syllabus. Other attractions here include an annual jazz season, theatre performances, and summer concerts. Serving Northeast Georgia, The Arts Council, Inc. was originally founded in 1970, as the keeper and creator of the community’s arts calendar and newsletters. Today, it is one of Georgia’s leading arts organizations. It promotes over 30 regional arts affiliates, presents a broad spectrum of performing, visual, literary arts and film programs, and provides many other services that also support its mission. The Arts Council is funded by individuals, corporations, foundations, ticket revenue and facility rental income.
In the late 1960’s, the Gainesville Junior Service League commissioned a feasibility study to determine if the community would benefit from a multidisciplinary arts organization. The study uncovered both need and desire; hence, The Arts Council was established with the help of the Georgia Council for the Arts in 1970 and incorporated in 1972. A small volunteer Board governed and operated The Arts Council, primarily out of their homes; including the home of The Arts Council’s founder, Lessie Smithgall. The key focus of the organization was to maintain the community master calendar and diminish scheduling conflicts to promote arts programs. The Arts Council moved its office from homes to a desk in the Chamber of Commerce building in Gainesville. In 1979, a part-time staff member was hired, broadening the focus to provide programming and services to meet specific needs of the community, members, and affiliate arts organizations. Headquarters were in the Elachee Cottage (now the Chamber of Commerce parking lot) before moving to a home in the City of Gainesville’s Green Street Station. The Station was shared with the Georgia Mountains History Museum (now the Northeast Georgia History Center), Elachee Nature Science Center, and Georgia Mountain Crafts. By 1983, the board believed that a full-time, dedicated staff was needed to truly fulfill The Art’s Council’s mission. Gladys Wyant was hired as Executive Director and continues to lead the organization today.
During the late 1980’s, The Arts Council’s support base and programming expanded, reflecting the diverse needs of the communities. It was during this time that long running programs like The Arts Council Pearce Series, Friends of the Arts, Arts Council Affiliate Organizations, and Arts in Schools began. In 1992, The Arts Council purchased a 2.5-acre tract and 1914 era railroad depot in Gainesville’s central business district. After this purchase, over 400 community leaders and citizens provided input for the intended use and development of the property. The focus groups envisioned a facility that would be a catalyst for the central business district redevelopment used for arts programming and various community activities. The beautiful transformation from train depot to The Arts Council Smithgall Arts Center was completed in May of 1996. Along with this new property came space for program expansion; thus, the Evenings of Intimate Jazz Series and Summer MusicFest Series were added. Visual arts were also incorporated to provide exhibits of The Arts Council’s permanent collection, touring exhibits like Georgia Artists with Disabilities, and a sculpture garden housing permanent and rotating works of arts. In the early 2000’s, the First Methodist Church in downtown Gainesville was gifted to The Arts Council, enabling the organization to offer even more arts programming. The total property is 35,000 square feet and consists of three buildings and a two-story house. The Arts Council Performing Arts Complex continues to seek support for completing the vision of The Arts Council for these additional properties.