Atlanta’s art world develops confidence in a varied mix of expressions.
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Art recently helped stop Saturday night traffic cold on Atlanta’s Peachtree Street—which is saying something in a city typically more into cheering University of Georgia football, closing business deals and digging into the hippest new cupcake topped by a skyscraper of icing than matters aesthetic. At the grand opening of “Mi Casa, Your Casa,” an interactive design installation on the High Museum of Art’s entry piazza, a dancer with the gloATL troupe took interactivity right out onto Atlanta’s main artery as the strolling audience gawked.
Created by Mexican designers Héctor Esrawe and Ignacio Cadena, the grid of 36 house-shaped metal-frame structures is serving as the setting for a profusion of free performances and activities through early November. It also is acting as a welcome mat of sorts for Atlanta’s biggest museum and the adjoining Woodruff Arts Center. Neither the Mexican designers nor High officials intended for this grand arts invitation to be extended to moving traffic, however. Fortunately, startled Midtown drivers braked so that the unfazed dancer could glide back to safety and her troupe’s continuing performance.
In a way, the momentarily startling incident could be taken as a symbol of the inroads that Atlanta’s art scene has made in recent years. Art and artists (especially local ones) seem to be popping up all over the sprawling metro area—in galleries, museums, enormous wall murals and public art projects—becoming more a part of the everyday experience. Even as the city sheds the last vestiges of a recession that KOed several highly regarded private galleries, art appears on the rise.
The High has had a high-profile role in that. Though major exhibitions of international treasures, such as “Cézanne and the Modern: Masterpieces of European Art from the Pearlman Collection” (October 25–January 11) remain important in its mix, the museum exhibited a renewed commitment to the increasingly vital local art-making scene with the show “Drawing Inside the Perimeter” last year. Not only was the work all Atlanta-made, but the museum acquired nearly every one of the show’s 56 drawings by 41 metro artists from Atlanta galleries. Making many best-of-the-year lists, “Drawing” was such a success that new patrons stepped forward to support a sequel exhibition of additional acquisitions, expected in 2015. Michael Rooks, the modern and contemporary art curator at the High, predicts that the show has the potential to be “a catalyst for contemporary art in Atlanta for years to come.”
That is marked progress from the situation back in 2007, when the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia launched its Working Artist Project, providing a monthly stipend and other support to a trio of honorees each year to create solo shows. The idea was to try to reverse a talent drain in which accomplished artists were leaving Atlanta in search of career-building opportunities and support elsewhere. It appears to have worked: 20 of the 21 project fellows continue to call Atlanta home today, and the yearly Working Artist Project exhibits at the nonprofit in the Buckhead district are much anticipated.
While increasing in prominence, local art is of course only part of the mix that visitors to Atlanta’s galleries and museums will encounter. It helps to know where to look, however, since Atlanta doesn’t boast a central gallery district but rather a series of satellite art-centric areas. And since it’s hard to get there from here without a car in the metro, it’s wise to choose one or two neighboring districts to explore, rather than trying to hopscotch to several through life-force-draining traffic.
Perhaps the place where visitors can hit the most galleries in one stop is the Miami Circle Design District off Piedmont Road, near Buckhead on the city’s north side. As the name indicates, this narrow byway is lined with showrooms hawking Oriental rugs, lighting, bathroom fixtures and other home options. Amid all the merchandising, some of the art galleries seem unapologetically pitched to the design trade, with large (in volume and size) paintings hanging on the walls, leaning against them and spilling out of storage areas.
“Atlanta is the design capital of the Southeast,” longtime gallerist Thomas Deans of Thomas Deans Fine Art notes. “Art plays a role, but typically within the context of design. Depending on your view, this can be a good thing, or not.” But the Miami Circle galleries cannot be dismissed as places content to peddle pretty art that merely complements the sofa purchased just down the street. Take, for instance, Deans’ gallery, whose menu mixes historical art (largely British works on paper) and contemporary art, as well as photography. “Our special niche is in the sheer diversity of work that we offer,” Deans says. “Having owned galleries in London and Florida, my aesthetic is constantly revitalized and revisited, and my connections with the European art market and collectors throughout the U.S. give the gallery a unique perspective on both decorative and investment opportunities.”
His next-door neighbor, Anne Irwin Fine Art, presents a palette of 35 American artists, mostly painters who cover the gamut from realism to abstraction, many of them eye-pleasing colorists. “Art is powerful,” Irwin says. “I want it to challenge people’s sensibilities but in an uplifting manner. It’s much more challenging to uplift someone’s spirit than it is to depress it.”
Prominent among the roster of 66 artists who show at Pryor Fine Art, at the end of Miami Circle, is proprietor Susie Pryor, a painter of inviting landscapes, flower blossoms and children. Because the gallery is artist-owned, it is “uniquely positioned to coach artists through the trials of growth in their work while advancing their careers,” Pryor believes. The free-flowing advice doesn’t stop with the artists, including a growing number of sculptors, either. Staff consultants advise customers on collection display choices as well as additions that mesh with their existing pieces. “We establish relationships for life with our collectors,” Pryor says.
Another combination design-art district, with several worthy art stops, is less than 10 minutes away in the Galleries of Peachtree Hills, a row of expansive three-story townhouse-like structures that rise in the shadow of the Atlanta Decorative Arts Center. Among them, Tew Galleries has come a long way since 1987 when owner Timothy Tew, just back from a year’s sojourn to Paris during which he fell in love with French art, sold paintings to designers out of the trunk of his 1968 Cadillac Sedan de Ville. The gallery grew to become a fixture on the Atlanta scene, and Tew mixes rising Atlanta artists with new finds from across Europe. Alongside his more than 30 artists, whose works range from abstraction to landscapes and figurative art, Tew has added estate, antique, and contemporary jewelry.
Two photography emporiums are his neighbors in the Galleries of Peachtree Hills: Hagedorn Foundation Gallery and Lumière. Art lovers elsewhere are likely unaware of what a photography town Atlanta has become since the 1998 launch of Atlanta Celebrates Photography. This extended annual festival of exhibitions, lectures, commissions, and more held every October has flourished to encompass events at more than 150 venues. Atlanta’s photography scene has mushroomed in other ways, too. The city now boasts five full-time showplaces of the art form: the Atlanta Photography Group Gallery and Jackson Fine Art in Buckhead and the Arnika Dawkins Gallery in Southwest Atlanta, in addition to Hagedorn and Lumière.
Open since 2012, Arnika Dawkins is the rare Atlanta gallery of any sort specializing in African-American work. That might appear to be a void in a city that has nurtured so many accomplished African-American artists—including Radcliffe Bailey, Larry Walker and his better-known daughter, Kara Walker—and that also boasts a thriving black middle class. But three longtime nonprofits provide deep dives into the culture: Hammonds House Museum in West End and two museums affiliated with historically black colleges: the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art and Clark Atlanta University Art Galleries.
Another place where visitors can touch Atlanta history while gazing at art is at Whitespace Gallery, a late 19th-century carriage house adjoining the rambling Inman Park Victorian home of gallerist Susan Bridges. “I’m not exactly running a big-box store here,” Bridges wryly commented to a recent visitor to her intimate red-brick back-yard gallery, a showcase for edge-pushing Atlanta and Southeastern artists. For championing Atlanta artists and for her contributions to the broader art community, Bridges was recently honored with the 2014 Nexus Award from the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center. A thriving in-town gallery sub-scene that specializes in presenting 20-something art school MFA graduates and other newbies (including Mammoth, Beep Beep and Mint galleries) can’t grow fast enough to accommodate them all, so Bridges recently converted her wine cellar into a wee emerging-artist gallery that she cleverly named Whitespec.
Atlanta artist Thomas Arvid has made a national reputation by concentrating very intently on one subject matter—wine. Bottles, accouterments such as corkscrews, glasses, and most of all the rich liquids inside them fill Arvid’s tightly-composed still lifes, which approach hyperrealism in style. He says that after he moved to Atlanta over 20 years ago, he used to paint in a café, and “every time I did a wine painting, it would sell off my easel. Does anyone just paint wine, I wondered. Nobody did!” Now Arvid sells his work through over 40 galleries across the country, including, in Atlanta, Vinings Gallery (the name is purely a coincidence).
A very eclectic selection of art and objects is always available at Great Gatsby’s Auctions, which is celebrating its 30th year in business. A dealer as well as an auctioneer, it has a huge, 60,000-square-foot space on Peachtree Industrial Boulevard stuffed with 19th- and 20th-century European and American paintings, antique furniture, lighting, and a wide variety of collectibles large and small. Perhaps the largest is a 24-horse carousel made in the 1930s by the Allan Herschell Company in North Tonawanda, N.Y. At Great Gatsby’s October 12 auction, a Louis XIV inlaid desk by André-Charles Boulle will be among the highlights.
Unlike the big attractions huddled around Centennial Olympic Park art spaces have not established a foothold in downtown Atlanta. But less than two miles from that tourist-friendly gathering spot, the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center led the charge to make the Westside warehouse district an art haven. Now it’s home to long-time galleries Sandler Hudson and Fay Gold, as well as relative newcomers Poem 88 and Kai Lin Art. Sandler Hudson showcased local and Southeastern art before it was cool. “We always felt that the work being made here is just as good as the work being made anywhere else and that it was crucial to support what was going on in Atlanta,” says co-owner Robin Sandler.
One of several entities that has picked up that mantle is Midtown’s Get This! Gallery, whose roster includes South Korean-born Gyun Hur. At the ripe age of 27, the Atlanta artist won the first $50,000 Hudgens Prize from the Jacqueline Casey Hudgens Center for the Arts, a gallery/community arts center in the city’s northern suburbs. Since scoring one of the country’s largest cash prizes for an individual artist in 2010, Hur has gone on to be selected for an Artadia Award and national and international exhibits.
Also in Gwinnett County along with the Hudgens Center is R. Alexander Fine Art, a gallery that is bringing “transitional” representational work (meaning with a bit of abstraction added) by contemporary U.S. and international artists to the well-heeled Peachtree Corners area. The gallery, which will celebrate its grand opening September 11–12, is set amid an expansive botanical garden, featuring a waterfall overlooked by a nearly one-ton Marton Varo marble sculpture, which is an attraction unto itself.
Well north of Atlanta’s established art zones, Peachtree Corners is essentially uncharted territory in terms of private galleries. But R. Alexander partner Robert Harris points out there are a profusion of luxurious homes nearby in developments such as Country Club of the South and St. Ives. “Certainly there’s a culture and clientele out here that we think would probably just as soon prefer something close by than to go intown and fight traffic and all that,” he said. “We think there’s some opportunity.”
Two time-tested stops back in the Buckhead district are the city’s longest-running crafts and art galleries. Founded in 1962, Signature is best known as the home of the nationally acclaimed Moulthrop family of wood-turners (the late Ed, son Philip and grandson Matt), whose gleaming vessels never go off view. Opened under another name in 1981, Alan Avery Art Company mixes emerging Atlanta artists with the blue-chip ones for which the gallery has built a wide reputation, from Robert Rauschenberg and Louise Nevelson to Chuck Close and Donald Sultan. “The artists we show are not painting to please the decorative sense of the buying public,” gallery president Avery says. “They paint because the have something to say. It is our job to merge that with individuals who are interested in collecting.”
Though several neighboring arts spaces moved or closed during the recession, when construction on the ambitious Streets of Buckhead mega-development nearby ground to a halt, Avery remains bullish on Buckhead and Atlanta. “There are a great variety of galleries, artists and venues here that cater to any price or sophistication level,” he said. “Atlanta as an art destination has always been underestimated and undersold.”
By Howard Pousner