By John Schaffner
editor@reporternewspapers.net

It seems natural that a graduate of the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) would become the director of an arts organization, and that is just what happened to Brookhaven resident Gretchen Roberts.

About five years ago, when her daughter was going on 5 years old, the SCAD grad was looking for a new career after being in software sales for many years. She and her husband, Bill, put their heads together, thought about their desire to be more involved in their community, and gave birth to a new child, the Brookhaven Arts Alliance, in 2004. Roberts has run the alliance from her home ever since.

The San Diego native has lived in the Atlanta area since she was 6 years old, grew up in the Chamblee-Tucker area and lived in Lilburn before settling into Brookhaven Heights.

Roberts believes that Brookhaven needs to develop an identity, and she plans for the nonprofit Arts Alliance to play a part in that process. She has pulled together a small but loyal group of sponsors and volunteers to hold two events a year.

The older of the two events, the Brookhaven Arts Festival, is held in the fall adjacent to the Brookhaven/Oglethorpe MARTA station and draws artists throughout the South and beyond to the juried show. The open-air two-day event features a variety of artists and craft vendors, as well as food and activities for children. Admission is free.

The Taste of Brookhaven is the alliance’s summer fundraiser. It highlights Brookhaven and Atlanta restaurants and includes a silent auction and raffle. The event usually is held under a big tent at Oglethorpe University but was canceled this year for lack of sponsors in the recession.

In canceling the Taste of Brookhaven for 2009, Roberts said, “I personally shoulder a great deal of disappointment.”

But every year she shoulders the lion’s share of the work in gaining sponsors and overseeing the operations of both events.

Roberts has received a grant to help her realize her vision for the Arts Alliance. The money will help her put together a business plan and structure the organization with a strong board of directors and a strong volunteer corps.

“We need to form a board in order to take this to the next level with an army of talented people,” Roberts said.

Her mission statement for the Brookhaven Arts Alliance “is to provide art education and cultural events to residents and visitors of Brookhaven with the goal of opening the Brookhaven Center for the Arts.”

She envisions a center with a gallery, a retail element, and space for events and art classes — a storefront presence but preferably a facility somewhat like Park Tavern at Piedmont Park in Atlanta. She points out Brookhaven has no event space to rent.

Although Brookhaven is well-known as a residential area, the community lacks what urban planners characterize as “a sense of place.”

The 43-year-old Roberts and her 44-year-old husband are eager to build a better community for their 10-year-old daughter, Gretchen Nichole (“Nikki”). Roberts believes the Brookhaven Center for the Arts would be a step in the right direction.

She wants the center to become a focal point for the community, although she is not sure where the center should be. She is not sold on a Brookhaven Park site, although that would provide a presence on Peachtree Road.

Roberts said one problem is Brookhaven lacks a business district — a core of businesses that can support community initiatives. “One of the things on my to-do list is to help form a business alliance,” Roberts said, “to work together to support the three major initiatives we have identified in the community: the Arts Alliance and Brookhaven Center for the Arts, a parks committee, and the Ashford Park School.”

To foster a sense of community, Roberts and the Arts Alliance are working with developer Dan Woodley on arts-related initiatives, including the placement of inscribed brick pavers in the park and plaza areas of his Village Place development along Dresden Drive.

Roberts said her organization must grow much larger and become more of a community force, and she is not sure she is the one to head it all up. “I really like doing the things I have been doing, the two major yearly events and building an arts education program,” she added.

She is thankful to have the use of the Ashford Park Community Center for art classes two afternoons a week and hopes to expand that schedule soon.

But the initiative to develop a business plan, a strong board and a volunteer corps “represents the critical momentum necessary to reach our ultimate goal — to build a Brookhaven Center for the Arts — hopefully in the near future.”