In Atlanta’s New $1.5 Billion Football Stadium, the High-Priced Artworks Will Outnumber the Players

More than 50 artists contributed 180 works to the new billion arena—including the largest bird sculpture in the world.

Gábor Miklós Szőke, Rise Up, the world's largest freestanding bird sculpture, at the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, home of the Atlanta Falcons. Courtesy of Gábor Miklós Szőke via Instagram.

Stadium art is officially a thing. Joining ranks with the San Francisco 49ers, the Minnesota Vikings, the Dallas Cowboys, and the Miami Dolphins, the Atlanta Falcons are incorporating contemporary art into their new Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The arena, which opens August 26, will boast over 180 specially commissioned works, including pieces by Nari Ward, Hank Willis Thomas, and Steven and William Ladd.

The centerpiece of the collection is undoubtedly Gábor Miklós Szőke’s massive steel sculpture Rise Up, which the artist claims is the largest freestanding bird sculpture in the world. The massive falcon, perched atop a 13-foot-tall bronze football, is 41 feet high, with a wingspan of 70 feet. The over-73,000-pound artwork, which stands in front of the stadium, is nothing less than an engineering marvel, as tall as a four-story building.

“I have always liked to spark a reaction,” said Szőke in a statement, calling the commission “a special honor.” According to CNN, however, he almost missed the opportunity, as the initial email from the stadium group went to his spam folder.

Gábor Miklós Szőke bird statue at Groupama Arena Budapest. Courtesy of Groupama Arena Budapest/Marcell Katona via Wikimedia Commons.

Gábor Miklós Szőke bird statue at Groupama Arena Budapest. Courtesy of Groupama Arena Budapest/Marcell Katona via Wikimedia Commons.

The sculpture was built in Budapest and shipped to the US in four sections—it is made up of over 1,000 laser-cut individual pieces. It took more than 150 people over a year to construct, but for Szőke, the time and effort was well-worth the final result. “It looks a little like a transformer, ready and waiting to take flight,” he said.

“We believe the falcon will be one of the iconic, signature statements about this stadium, and we expect it to be an absolute fan-favorite.” Mike Egan, senior vice president and general counsel of the AMB Group, told Atlanta.

The piece is similar to the statue Szőke created for the Hungarian football club Ferencvárosi Torna (FTC), based on their eagle mascot. That sculpture measures 49 feet wide and weighs 15 tons, greeting visitors to Hungary’s largest stadium, the Groupama Arena Budapest, completed in 2014.

A rendering of the mirrored soccer ball sculpture Studio Roso will create for Atlanta United to sit outside the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Courtesy of Studio Roso.

A rendering of the mirrored soccer ball sculpture Studio Roso will create for Atlanta United to sit outside the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Courtesy of Studio Roso.

Major League Soccer team Atlanta United will also call the arena home, with a sculpture of its own, of a 35-foot-high mirrored soccer ball by Studio Roso of London, scheduled to be completed next year. Both teams are owned by Home Depot co-founder Arthur M. Blank, and the collection is being put together by the AMB Group with the assistance of the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD).

“We did joint polling with SCAD, and we were both very surprised at how many fans had visited art institutions within a year prior to the time we were doing the polling,” Egan said For the Win. “There was a high level of enthusiasm in the people we spoke to about art.”

In a statement, SCAD founder and president Paula Wallace praised the “majestic” arena, predicting that with its opening, “Atlanta will be known for the momentous vitality of bespoke public art that redefines the cool factor.”

Melody Postma, <em>Love of the Game</em>(2017).Courtesy of the artist/photographer Susan Dennis.

Melody Postma, Love of the Game(2017).Courtesy of the artist/photographer Susan Dennis.

The university has commissioned pieces from 54 artists, nearly half of whom live in Georgia, including 20 SCAD alumni. The school’s network includes some 45,000 artists and galleries the world over, so it isn’t surprising that over 650 local artists responded to an open call for portfolio submissions. The stadium will feature sculpture, painting, drawing, photography, mixed media, and digital art, with a focus on less-abstract works that will be easily accessible to the average fan.

Some works will draw on Falcons’ history, such as the mural Love of the Game, by SCAD alumna Melody Postma, which incorporates photographs from the team’s first seasons, as well as earlier iterations of the Falcons’ logo. “The piece itself is very layered with maps of Georgia and Atlanta coming through, as well as the Falcons 1966 season tickets,” said the artist, who often incorporates forgotten historical photographs into her work, in an email to artnet News.

Of more recent vintage, SCAD professor Hsu-Jen Huang captured photographs of the construction of the stadium for his piece Falconstruction.

Nari Ward, We the People (2011).

Nari Ward, We the People (2011). A similar piece made using shoelaces is part of the art collection at the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Courtesy of the Will Brown Speed Art Museum.

Atlanta artist Radcliffe Bailey is also thinking local, with an 84-foot-long mixed media painting, Conduits of Contact, inspired by the history of Atlanta’s African-American community. The work incorporates photographs of the city’s historically black colleges from 1919.

Ward may live in New York, but he worked directly with the local community to create his piece, One Voice, spelling out the phrase using shoelaces collected in Atlanta. He specifically sought out members of local professional and high school sports teams, but anyone could drop off their laces at sites throughout the city, or mail them directly to SCAD.

“Originally my knee jerk reaction to the inquiry was ‘no thanks, sports fans don’t care about art at a sports arena,'” said Ward in an email to artnet News about making work for a stadium. “However as I thought about the large number of viewers with their diverse life experiences, I decided that it would be a special yet challenging opportunity to do something visually engaging, site specific and symbolically resonant.”

Hank Willis Thomas, All Things Being Equal... (2010).

Hank Willis Thomas, All Things Being Equal… (2010). Courtesy of Goodman Gallery.

Thomas has contributed a text-based piece that reads “All Things Being Equal…” in polished aluminum, borrowing the phrase from a 1980s issue of EBONY Magazine. “The text speaks to the ongoing struggle for equality in our country.… I see equality to be about balance,” Thomas told artnet News in an email. “As soon as we achieve apparent equality in one area, another area seems to be put off, and therefore we must constantly readjust. This also actually relates to a sports game where the there is constant imbalance, and the the team has to work together to achieve balance in order to succeed.”

Artwork will be on view throughout the stadium, not just in the executive suites, but hanging for all to see in the main concourses and even the nosebleed sections. According to Egan, Blank “wanted something where the art would be part of the experience of everyone in the building, not just the people buying the most expensive seats.”

The building itself is also an impressive piece of design from Kansas City-based firm 360 Architecture (since acquired by HOK), featuring a unique aperture-style roof that opens and closes like the lens of a camera. In the event of rain, the stadium should be able to close the eight retractable roof “petals” in less than eight minutes.

The retractable aperture-style roof of Atlanta’s new Mercedes Benz Stadium. Courtesy of HOK.

The retractable aperture-style roof of Atlanta’s new Mercedes Benz Stadium. Courtesy of HOK.

The $1.5 billion stadium, which seats over 70,000, has already been tapped to host the 2018 college football national championship game and Super Bowl LIII in 2019. The pre-season game between the Falcons and the Arizona Cardinals later this month will mark the arena’s official opening, according to ESPN.

Follow Artnet News on Facebook:

Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.