Gladys Wyant, Gainesville’s “First Lady of the Arts,” is taking her last bow this summer, leaving a 37-year legacy of growing and promoting all facets of the arts in the region.
“Even though she’s retiring, she’ll always be a part of the arts community in Gainesville, Hall County and Northeast Georgia,” said Ron Quinn, arts council board member. “She loves this community and has been very driven to make it better. It’s going to be hard to fill her shoes.”
For most of her life, Wyant has lived and breathed the arts. Even as a littler girl, Wyant said she performed in a singing trio with her cousins. She later went on to act in community theater.
When Wyant first started working as executive director for The Arts Council, she said the job was part-time, and she initially planned to stay in the position for six months. The role quickly turned into a full-time job, and the half year continued on for several decades.
“There were so many needs in the community and opportunities for the arts that were not being met,” Wyant said. “A lot of times people leave a job because they get bored, but with this, it kept changing.”
When Wyant became the leader of the nonprofit, she said she was the sole staff member and worked out of the city’s former fire station, now the Gainesville planning department. She remembers the council having three tiny rooms with rusted windows and plaster that would fall off the walls.
At the time, she said the organization’s annual budget was $25,000 with a $5,000 deficit. The nonprofit now has $8 million in assets and various performing arts venues and meeting sites, including the Arts Council Smithgall Arts Center on Spring Street.
During the organization’s early years in the ’90s, Wyant said she looked for facilities within Gainesville to house The Arts Council. Her attention fell on the old railroad depot, which she said was dilapidated at the time.
The building was erected in 1914 as one of the only two-story railroad passengers stations in Northeast Georgia. When Wyant expressed interest to purchase the historic building, she said the “movers and shakers” working with her told her, “Gladys, it will never happen.”
“I continued to keep up the alliances with the railroad, and after four years, I got a contract to purchase it and raise the money to do it,” she said. “This was one of the first historic preservation projects after the Hunt Tower, it kind of stimulated more interest in historic preservation downtown.”
The property was purchased in 1992, and The Arts Council moved into the building in 1996, which is now known as The Smithgall Arts Center. The organization is still undergoing another historic preservation project with the restoration of the old First Methodist Church of Gainesville, which was built in 1904.
In 1985 the building became a Presbyterian church. Wyant said in the early 2000s a limited liability company was formed to purchase the building, and it was donated to The Arts Council. She noted that Times’ founders Lessie and Charles Smithgall played major roles in the LLC.
The old church, located at the corner of Green and Academy streets, is now The Arts Council Performing Arts Complex. Soon after the site was donated, Wyant said the organization began hosting performances, including one from the Zac Brown Band. However, the nonprofit hasn’t held any entertainment in the building for the past several years to focus on renovations.
Wyant was also instrumental in the construction of the organization’s new stage and pavilion structure in downtown Gainesville, which seats nearly 300 guests and can accommodate 3,000 more people on its front lawn.
Wyant said the outdoor space will begin hosting Evenings of Intimate Jazz from April to June, a live series she helped start up around 20 years ago.
A long legacy of promoting the arts
Quinn, who has known Wyant for over 30 years, said the executive director has a long list of accolades, one that would be difficult to fully comprehend. As the leader of The Arts Council, Wyant has carried the torch for providing different programs in the arts and presenting performances and shows with many affiliates. Wyant has coordinated the opening and closing ceremonies for the International Dragon Boat Festival, The Arts Council’s Summer MusicFest and The Arts Council Signature Series, which showcases national and international performing artists.
“The Arts Council has gone leaps and bounds from when it started years and years ago,” Quinn said. “She’s gotten the organization very financially stable, and our membership continues to grow from year to year. She’s been instrumental in bringing new people into the arts that have not been exposed to it.”
Melvin Cooper, who worked for the city of Gainesville for 47 years and as its Parks and Recreation director for 30 years, said Wyant proved a great asset to the organization for many years. Working with Wyant, he said they started a cultural arts day camp program for children who had never been introduced to the arts, which lasted for around 15 years. Parks and Recreation also contracted with Wyant to incorporate arts programs into the traditional day camp program.
“She is going to be very well missed in our community,” Cooper said. “She’s built The Arts Council in Gainesville as one of the premier organizations in the Southeast.”
Dwight Hutchins, assistant director of The Arts Council, said Wyant played a huge role in starting up the nonprofit’s Arts and Schools program in the early ‘80s, which brought artists of all genres into schools and introduced students to programs sponsored by the organization. The program grew from three schools to every school in Gainesville and Hall, as well as several Northeast Georgia communities.
Wyant currently serves as a member of the Vision 2030 public art committee. Elizabeth Higgins, Vision 2030’s executive director, said Wyant helped the group create the criteria for defining public art, and even donated l two sculptures, which are on display in the city.
“She has always been a big supporter of what public art has done for the community, and has even shared different ideas with us,” Higgins said.
Although she is retiring, Wyant said she intends to continue serving as a member of the Georgia Council for the Arts and attending as many local performances and art-centric events as possible. She intends to help The Arts Council’s future executive director, who hasn’t been named yet, transition into their role. Quinn is currently leading a search committee to find Wyant’s replacement.
When she does officially step down, Wyant said she plans to take some time for herself to play golf and travel with her husband. However, she won’t soon forget those who supported her throughout her 37-year journey.
“I’ll miss the people, I worked with great people,” she said.
For more information about The Arts Council and its upcoming events, visit theartscouncil.net.