Atlas arts center names Sam Sweet as executive director

(Michael Moran)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 17, 2011

In an effort to increase its visibility and expand productions, the Atlas Performing Arts Center has named Sam Sweet, a veteran manager of Washington theaters, to be its new executive director.

Sweet, who has served as a consultant and interim executive director at Atlas last year, takes the post immediately. The goal, Sweet said Tuesday, is to steady the organization financially and build on the program successes of the first 41/2 years on H Street NE.

"It's a launching pad," he said, for several initiatives, while keeping a status of what Sweet and board Chairman Jane Lang call the "artistic heart" of the burgeoning corridor. The arts center is credited with being a catalyst for the ongoing revival of the business area that was almost demolished by the 1968 riots.

Atlas has had some stumbles, especially with the financial downswings created by the recession. "Operations weren't as capitalized as they should have been and that led to issues and the center not being as dynamic as it could have been. Then the recession," Sweet said.

His long history in Washington includes being managing director for both Shakespeare and Signature theaters. He also worked at the Corcoran Gallery of Art and its College of Art and Design, where he was chief operating officer.

Sweet was chosen, Lang said, because he believed that the organization should not dial back on its commitment to the neighborhood or the arts community. "Sam brought the growing recognition that we should continue to reach out, achieve our mission and demonstrate that we are here to stay," Lang said. Sweet follows Patrick Stewart, the former executive director, who returned to San Diego to work with an arts group.

Atlas's $1.5 million budget is financed through fundraising and rentals from its partner organizations - Joy of Motion Dance Center, Step Afrika! dance troupe, Washington Savoyards, Congressional Chorus and Capital City Symphony, among others. The Atlas has four theaters, three dance studios and rehearsal space.

This mix of partners is a growing trend among arts centers, but even one group's hardships can hurt the overall operations, said Lang. "As their contributions were hurt, their capacity to use Atlas was diminished. That reduced the vibrancy of Atlas."

Apart from the tenants' productions, Atlas has had three successful programs, including a training course and an arts education collaborative. The third, Intersections, is a festival of Washington artists, from drummers to playwrights to dancers. In 2009, without the festival, Atlas had 18,500 patrons, and in 2010, with Intersections, the center had 25,000. Another feature, the D.C. Shorts Film Festival, attracted 1,700 people in 11/2 days, and Sweet estimated that 50 percent of them had never been to H Street.

Part of Sweet's plans include developing a presenting series, giving more support to Atlas's arts groups by marketing more aggressively and spotlighting "programming relative to people's lives."

The Intersections format is returning for nine days over three weekends starting Feb. 25. The calendar has ticketed and free performances, including mingling and performances in The Washington Post Cafe.

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