Sandy Springs residents offered very different opinions on how the city should use the Abernathy Arts Center property that was recently donated by Fulton County.

Local residents on Oct. 5 told Sandy Springs City Council how they thought the property at 254 Johnson Ferry Road should be used. Opinions ranged from continuing to hold art classes at the site, to using it as the location for the Georgia Commission on the Holocaust’s museum, or both. 

The state Commission on the Holocaust has been searching for a home for the “Anne Frank in the World” exhibit, which has been closed since losing its space at the Parkside Shops shopping center. The hope is to expand the Anne Frank exhibit at a new location and add other exhibits for a museum.

Sandy Springs accepted Fulton County’s donation of the Abernathy Arts Center on Sept. 21. Now Sandy Springs officials are looking at future uses for the site, as well as whether to renovate or demolish existing buildings on the four-acre property. A public comment session is planned for the Oct. 19 city council meeting. 

Mayor Rusty Paul said the city can have a robust arts program and the museum.

“I don’t get to vote on these issues, but I will promise you that we will put together a plan that incorporates the visual arts into a larger scale and scope than what we have today,” he said.

The arts center site includes an annex building and three older buildings constructed between 1940 and 1945, Deputy City Manager Dave Wells said.

One of the older buildings on the arts center property.

Wells told City Council that the annex building constructed in 2001 does not need any major repairs or renovations. But the three older buildings would need an estimated $1.5 million in renovations to meet today’s standards, including a new roof and asbestos and lead remediation. 

Or, the city could demolish those buildings at a cost of $300,000. 

Other repairs are necessary on the site, including detention pond and retaining wall repairs. 

“We have trees actually growing into the detention pond. Looks like there’s a retaining wall that’s failing on it too, which is causing the sidewalks on the back end of the property to be failing,” Wells said.

Parents want to keep art education

Kyle Kurtz, a mother of two, said the city needs to make arts a priority as Fulton County drops its programs.

“I would be on a committee to raise money to refurbish this and make it grander. Make it as beautiful as the Performing Arts Center,” she said.

Taking away the arts center would be wrong, Kurtz said. If space is needed for a museum, find another property, she said.

Valerie Jimenez said the arts center helps her daughter who is in middle school with her stuttering. It bridges the gap as the Fulton County School System offers only one semester of art in middle school.

“The art program cannot be put off or eliminated or sacrificed to a new museum worthy as that project is,” said Joyce Vroon, a former art educator.

Jane Kelly said the City Council may not understand how many arts classes have been held at the Abernathy Arts center pre-COVID.

“In closing Abernathy, we will have no visual arts education, no art classes in the seventh-largest city in Georgia. Arts education in Sandy Springs needs to be expanded, not disbanded. Art classes cannot be held at City Springs,” she said.

Residents of the Mountaire Springs neighborhood don’t want a commercial use like a museum adding to already bad traffic in the area, said Ronda Smith, president of the neighborhood association. They appreciate the need for a museum, along with the services the arts center has provided for decades.

“There are presently more questions than answers. The overarching and most paramount question as this location is considered for any future use is, is this the right place for it? The circumstances created by any commercial use are going to be unacceptable to our neighborhood,” Smith said.

Museum supporters back art education also

Rabbi Joshua Heller, who also serves on the city’s Diversity and Inclusion Task Force, said it was unfortunate that two different conversations were going on and being mixed. He said he believes that supporters of the Anne Frank exhibit don’t want the arts center to go away.

“I think any discussion of the Anne Frank exhibit needs to be secondary to the city’s decision about how it needs to handle the needs of the community for the arts,” Heller said.

He said the story of Anne Frank tells not only her story but that of the 11 million people who died in the Holocaust. It’s not just a Jewish message, it’s a human message, Heller said.

“A promise was made to the state, to a nonprofit, and a community, and we’d like to see that promise fulfilled without taking away what someone else has also been promised,” Heller said.

The Georgia Commission on the Holocaust’s museum project will define the community, and show others who we are and who we want to be, said Sally Levine, executive director of the commission.

Gary Alexander, a member of the Georgia Commission on the Holocaust, who helped raise millions of dollars for its future museum and exhibits, said the organization was approached by the city about the Abernathy Arts Center property as a possible location.

“A partnership with the City of Sandy Springs and its citizens will be committed to preserving the memory and stories of the victims of the Holocaust survivors. Our audience will be prompted to reflect upon choices made by individuals, organizations and governments, which allow the Holocaust to occur,” he said.

Chuck Berk described what he called world-class exhibits planned for the museum, including one that would allow visitors to interact with Holocaust survivors using recorded interviews driven by artificial intelligence to create the interaction.

“The City Council originally asked us to go right onto the city green, and now they feel that that’s not the right place for us. But this Abernathy site could create a beautiful campus for learning in a park-like setting,” he said.

Bob Pepalis

Bob Pepalis covers Sandy Springs for Reporter Newspapers.