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Rialto Center for the Arts

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Rialto Center for the Arts

Rialto Center for the Arts at Georgia State University

The Rialto Center for the Arts is an 833-seat performing-arts venue owned and operated by National Black Arts Festival, and many others.


Movie Premiere at the Rialto - 1940

In the fall of 1916, a 925-seat theater, the Southeast's largest movie house, opened in the Central Business District (and the original theater district) of Atlanta. The theater was called the “Rialto,” which is defined as an exchange or a marketplace. The Rialto continued to operate throughout the Depression, and at one point even boasted the largest electric sign south of New York City above its marquee. In 1962, the original theater building was torn down, and a new 1,200-seat Rialto was erected on the same site. It was the first movie theater to be constructed in downtown Atlanta in 35 years and remained open until 1989 before falling victim to a declining downtown economy.

In 1991, Dr. Richard Koehler, then-director of the School of Music at Georgia State University, was approached by a real estate consultant about relocating the School to several vacant buildings in the block bounded by Forsyth, Luckie, Fairlie, and Poplar streets. As an advocate for a downtown performing arts center, Dr. Koehler quickly recognized the opportunities offered by a move to this historic district: a chance for Georgia State to make a major cultural contribution to the city with a first-class performance hall and an avenue for the University to further weave itself into the fabric of downtown Atlanta.

Following a successful $14-million fund-raising campaign, led by Georgia State University President Carl V. Patton and A.W. "Bill" Dahlberg, a GSU alumnus and then-president of the Southern Company, construction began in the fall of 1994 on the old Rialto Theater and the adjacent Haas-Howell and Standard Buildings. Extensive renovations were needed to make the Rialto a state-of-the-art concert and performance hall.

Rialto Ushers circa 1940s

In March 1996, the reopening of the 833-seat Rialto Center for the Performing Arts marked a turning point in the revitalization of an historic section of downtown Atlanta. Since this time, more than 600,000 patrons have experienced performances ranging from theater to dance to musical offerings including jazz, blues, rock, and classical. The 1960s-era Rialto Theater was successfully transformed into a first-class performance venue.

The Rialto Center for the Arts now boasts superb acoustics after the theater's roof was raised 12 feet. Interior renovations included a larger lobby to handle patrons; box office facilities; ADA-accessible improvements; a new stage with a proscenium; an orchestra pit; and 833 new seats. The eight-floor Haas-Howell Building houses the backstage facilities, the Dahlberg Room (the theatre’s Green Room), and administrative offices for the Rialto Center on the second and third floors.


The Rialto Center’s offers an annual subscription series, which focuses on international performers and world music—representing the growing global community in the region and the varied student body of Georgia State University—and the finest names in contemporary jazz, Broadway & Cabaret, and contemporary dance.

In addition to the Rialto Series, the Rialto Center offers many other performances and events throughout the year. As a rental facility, the Rialto is home to arts organizations large and small and host to countless events. In recent years, the theater has played host to hundreds of high-profile clients. The major-studio film The Gospel had its premiere at the Rialto—an event that was broadcast on BET. Similarly, HBO utilized the Rialto for the premiere of the film Walk Out, which chronicled the historic protest by Mexican-American students in California in 1968. And the nationally acclaimed Atlanta Film Festival has partnered with the Rialto for many of its screenings.

Atlanta’s True Colors Theatre Company regularly presents its performances at the Rialto, as does the Youth Ensemble of Atlanta, the Moving in the Spirit dance company, and the National Black Arts Festival, among many others.

Education outreach

Rialto Jazz for Kids

The Rialto Center provides educational outreach programs to school students and the general public alike. Among the activities the Rialto offers are Master Classes for university and high-school students; open rehearsals and pre-show lectures for the general public; as well as workshops and demonstrations for students and families, utilizing the Rialto Series artists’ world-class talents.

The Rialto, in collaboration with the Georgia State University School of Music, has also developed a jazz education program offered to elementary and middle school students.

Partnering with schools across metro Atlanta, the “Rialto Jazz for Kids” ensemble visits campuses throughout the school year, beginning in September and ending in May, and features consecutive programming and concludes each with Rialto Jazz Jam on the stage. “Rialto Jazz for Kids” crafts a multidisciplinary program that brings lessons of culture and history to life for young children through music. The activities and materials connected with the Rialto's educational jazz outreach are curriculum-driven, stemming from, reflecting, and meeting the Quality Core Curriculum (QCC) standards of the public school systems. As stated in the Georgia QCC, "students in the early stages of music education learn by doing. The experience further enables them to understand connections and relationships to other disciplines. Students must be exposed to and understand their own historical and cultural heritage as well as others."

Rialto Jazz for Kids

The Rialto’s Master Classes, like its series of lectures and demonstrative performances, are two-fold in their approach. They feature both internationally recognized Rialto Series artists and talents offering structured, pre-performance lectures on-site for audiences of all ages or conducting classes, presenting lectures, or offering demonstrations in their respective art forms either on-site or at schools. Additionally, they feature local artists presenting free, on-site, instructional, and entertaining mini-performances through the monthly “Feed Your Senses” sessions. Some recent offerings have included Dance Master Classes with Noche Flamenca as well as a Jazz Master Class featuring Ahmad Jamal. Many lectures and demonstrations as well as Master Classes are accompanied by outreach materials such as study guides, artist biographies, and book lists.

As mentioned above, every third Wednesday of the month the Rialto hosts a lunch-and-learn session called “Feed Your Senses.” The program features a different artist or speaker each month providing a casual and fun insider's look at their craft.

Visual arts

The Visual Arts Series at the Rialto Center is an ongoing collaboration between the Rialto, Turner First Thursdays, the Comer Art Advisory consulting firm, and the Ernst G. Welch School of Art & Design at Georgia State University. The series regularly transforms the Rialto lobby and mezzanine into an exhibition space for projects organized by Comer Art Advisory. Exhibitions typically relate to Rialto presentations or city-wide arts initiatives such as the Atlanta Film Festival, the National Black Arts Festival, Atlanta Celebrates Photography, and ATLart06. Recent years have highlighted the work of Charles H. Nelson, Jr., Alejandro Aguilera, Ruth Laxson, Matt Haffner, among other local, national, and international artists. Additionally, in a special visual arts presentation, the Rialto Center partnered with the Atlanta-based NAMES Project to present panels from the AIDS Memorial Quilt throughout the theater. All of these visual arts exhibitions are free and open to the public.


The Rialto Center annually presents the “Pioneer Award,” honoring notable arts leaders in the Atlanta community. First presented in 2004, the award has been given to Georgia State University President Carl Patton, Joanne McGhee, Mr. and Mrs. Bill Balzer, and JoAnn Haden-Miller.

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