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Inside and Outside the Perimeter

Atlanta’s art world is expanding—both creatively and geographically.

Kevin Sonmor, The Melody

Kevin Sonmor, The Melody, oil on linen, 62 x 72 inches.

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In a series of inescapable Atlanta Falcons commercials featuring pitchman-actor Samuel L. Jackson and a powerful gospel choir that have run for several seasons, fans of the team have been exhorted to “Rise Up.” The slogan could also apply to the city’s visual arts scene, with Atlanta artists taking a rising profile at the largest museum, the High Museum of Art, and other non-profit institutions specializing in contemporary art, in addition to many of the dozens of privately run galleries that dot the metro area.

Nowhere was this more apparent than at this summer’s opening reception for “Sprawl: Drawing Outside the Lines,” an ambitious showcase of 113 works, all acquired for the museum’s permanent collection, by 76 Atlanta and Georgia artists (up through October 4). While High Museum openings are generally genteel, dressy affairs, this one was rocking. While the exhibition included artists ranging in age from 20s to 80s, the revelers skewed young. There were more tattoos on display than art, even though there was so much of the latter that High modern and contemporary art curator Michael Rooks resorted to hanging parts of the show salon style.

“Sprawl” is a sequel to the smaller 2013 show “Drawing Inside the Perimeter,” which featured 56 drawings by 35 mainly metro Atlanta artists. That exhibition was considered a breakthrough for the High, which often had been criticized for paying scant attention to the local scene while pouring resources into multiyear series of exhibitions with glossy partners such as the Louvre and the Museum of Modern Art. Not that the museum is eschewing ambitious loan shows; this fall it will host “Habsburg Splendor: Masterpieces From Vienna’s Imperial Collections” (October 18–January 17), which will include nearly 100 artworks and artifacts from Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, many never before seen in the U.S.

“Sprawl” and “Drawing Inside the Perimeter” have gone a long way toward mending fences—not just with Atlanta artists but with the galleries that represent them. Rooks purchased works for “Drawing” from an array of Atlanta art haunts, from respected standard-bearers to an array of up-by-their-bootstraps spots that have made the scene in recent years. Rooks cites many factors for Atlanta’s creative flowering that the two exhibits have emphasized: local colleges turning out new talent, a profusion of artists who hold down day jobs in a booming film industry, and art nonprofits that increasingly provide an infrastructure for artists on the rise. “Atlanta is a really creative city, and there’s so many creative people in the city, from many different disciplines,” Rooks says.

Rooks titled the current exhibit “Sprawl” because he was widening the GPS from the first show, which was mainly limited to artists residing inside the city of Atlanta. But the title also alludes to something of a divide in the metro area. It’s a geographic one instead of the racial one you might suspect, a long-time schism between those who are ITP and OTP. For those unfamiliar with the alphabet soup of Atlanta, that stands for Inside the Perimeter vs. Outside the Perimeter. The Perimeter in question is Interstate 285, the 64-mile asphalt ribbon that encircles the city. People who live inside it tend to think of themselves as the real Atlantans—urban and urbane, hip, and cultured—and of those who live outside it as literally and figuratively out of it. OTPers think it’s cute that ITPers are so full of themselves and believe that the suburbs—yes, even with, ahem, sprawl-related woes such as choking traffic—offer the best lifestyle the metro area has to offer. That extends to a slowly blossoming OTP art infrastructure independent of the High Museum of Art and the cluster of smaller, more agile non-profit art institutions, including Atlanta Contemporary and the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia, that help feed the city’s diverse gallery scene.

When the Atlanta Braves made the surprise announcement that they would build a state-of-the-art stadium in OTP’s northwest suburbs, ITPers responded as if Benedict Arnold had been named general manager. Still, the $672 million SunTrust Park, set to open in 2017 in Cobb County, gave new fuel to those who believe OTP forces will be the bigger player in the metro area’s future.

So does this mean Atlanta’s visual art institutions and private galleries will be following the lead of the baseball team, who some now derisively refer to as the Cobb Braves? In a word, no.

It’s safe to say that ITP’s high-rent Buckhead district, the city’s largest center for private galleries (though, unfortunately, few are close enough to walk from one to another), will retain its long-time hold. Midtown and the Westside, generally dotted by art spaces more daring than their Buckhead brethren, will continue to cultivate new contemporary collectors. And the recent growth spurt on south downtown’s urban frontier, aptly described by Atlanta Zine Fest organizer Amanda Mills as “kind of like an arts community for artists,” will keep spurting.

But with 4.2 million people now calling Atlanta’s 10 core counties home, there are encouraging signs that the metro area’s suburban arts scene will go forth and prosper too: Just 13 miles north up I-75 from the SunTrust Park site, Kennesaw State University opened the 9,000-square-foot Bernard A. Zuckerman Museum of Art in 2014. A work of architectural flair with oddly angled metal panels and soaring glass, the contemporary structure boldly declares its presence on KSU’s campus of mostly mundane red-brick buildings.

The exhibition program, challenging with conceptual and multimedia art, stands out similarly in the conservative Cobb County bedroom community. In fact, ITP and OTP met there harmoniously this summer when Dashboard, an Atlanta nonprofit that has garnered national attention for a series pop-up art exhibitions in neglected urban spaces it tries to help revitalize, celebrated its fifth anniversary by mounting a group show this summer on the broad theme of social connections at the Zuckerman. A half-hour east, the Hudgens Center for the Arts handed out its third Hudgens Prize. The winnings for a Georgia artist include a $50,000 award and a solo show at the center. The winner, Bethany Collins, creates challenging work that, she said, is an “attempt to navigate the binary paradigm of race in the American South.”

To be sure, this zeitgeist-pushing art is the exception to the rule of OTP art, which tends toward the aesthetically pleasing—okay, decorative, if you must. You’ll encounter plenty of that at the Marietta Square Art Walk, held the first Friday of every month from April to November, but if you go with a snobby attitude you’ll miss all the fun. Not only do the handful of art emporiums in 19th-century storefronts facing historic Glover Park participate, but so do the square’s restaurants and watering holes and its history and art museums. A spontaneous arts festival takes over the sidewalks, with performers performing and artists and craftspeople peddling their wares.

During one recent art walk, there was a drum circle pounding away on one side of the square and, on another, outside Lenny’s Hair Salon, a photo shoot with pin-up girls posing on and in hot rods. What that had to do with finding a painting to go over the sofa would have been anyone’s guess. But Donna Krueger, owner of leading art showplace dk Gallery, said she wouldn’t be anywhere else: “With the Braves coming eight miles south of the square and with the residents and new people moving out this way who are such a great audience of art lovers and patrons, I think we’re sitting in the mecca of opportunity for arts, entertainment and culture.”

dk’s best-selling artist is Susan Easton Burns, an equine painter who was the official artist of the Kentucky Derby in 2014. Like a lot of dk’s work, her animal portraits are evocative and easy on the eyes. If little of what dk exhibits qualifies as edgy, the gallerist hardly feels the need to apologize. “People might say we’re decorative. Amen, we are,” Krueger says. “We work with designers all day long. People come in here with their fabric swatches. That’s okay, I’m not insulted at all. What we show is absolutely art. I’m proud of that.”

The truth is that a lot of intown galleries have similar designs on the design trade. You’ll find quite a few in that category amid Buckhead’s Miami Circle Market Center, where art spaces butt up against fine antique stores, Oriental rug emporiums, and a home theater and automation shop.

Amid all that commerce sits Pryor Fine Art, which boasts a stable of 60 North American artists, ranging from abstract painters to figurative sculptors. This summer, the gallery marked its 25th anniversary with a solo show of new work by owner Susie Pryor, a painter of attractive still lifes, evocative cityscapes, and large gestural figures. It’s easy to see Pryor’s agreeable aesthetic at work in the 5,700-square-foot gallery and to understand why roughly half of its sales are tied to the design trade. “Yes, there’s an aesthetic thread that will run through the gallery, but I think we’re fairly diverse in what we show,” Pryor says. “I kind of want to say that that thread has a level of beauty about it, but I hesitate to use that word because it can be misread as just being pretty and decorative.” Pryor thinks such a characterization shortchanges her collectors as well. When she started out, a “conservative aesthetic” was the norm, but now she caters to many clients who like their art “outside the box.” She says, “Bringing in artists who are doing more progressive things in their work and seeing collectors positively respond to it is one of the most exciting things that we do.”

Opened under another name in 1981 and at the same heart-of-Buckhead location since 1991, Alan Avery Art Company mixes emerging Atlanta artists with the blue-chip ones such as Jim Dine, Chuck Close, and Kara Walker. Gallery president Avery says he’s prevailed by only showing artists who have something to say. “We represent artists who are creating meaningful and significant works that are ever changing and pushing their limits,” he says. Avery is proud that emerging Atlanta talents are among the limit-pushers. A prime example is Alabama-born Michi Meko, whose breakout summer exhibition “Pursuit: Almost Drowned” took gallery-goers on a powerfully troubling voyage, touching on slavery, segregation, and church burnings.

Another Buckhead fixture, in a separate hybrid art-design district called the Galleries of Peachtree Hills, a cluster of townhouse-style structures that rise in the shadow of the Atlanta Decorative Arts Center, is Tew Galleries. Founded in 1987 by Timothy Tew, it presents a blend of national and international artists working in a wide range of styles. Tew will present a one-woman show by Mississippi figurative artist Cathy Hegman, who employs watercolor, acrylic and mixed media, from September 18–October 16. Gallery director Jules Bekker said that the gallery operates with a “very specific aesthetic. We have a very specific view of what we select, and our artists tend to hang together really well even though they’re very different.” So gallery patrons can in one visit smoothly move from viewing New Mexico abstract artist Kimo Minton to abstract figurative works by Ukrainian painter Serhiy Hai, then to the Southern gothic narratives of Charles Ladson of Macon, Ga. “The linkage is more the integrity of the artists,” Bekker says.

Matt Kendall of Kendall Fine Art enjoys playing matchmaker, finding exceptional paintings, works on paper and sculpture for beginning and experienced collectors worldwide. Kendall, who shows work by appointment out of a private residence, founded the gallery in 2004 after a career in advertising. He particularly pursues Impressionist and modern paintings and works on paper created by leading artists between 1865 and 1980. Kendall Fine Art will be exhibiting at the Houston Fine Art Fair, September 8–12, and will hold an online exhibition and sale beginning in October of small “jewels” from its inventory, ranging in price from $3,500 to over $50,000.

Lovers of fine antiques have worthy choices in Atlanta, as well: Great Gatsby’s Auction Gallery touts its 31 years of “selling the rare and the unusual,” including antiques, art, objects of vertu, and classic cars. Its 60,000-square-foot showroom, between Buckhead and the Chamblee’s Antique Row, brims with finds such as 18th- and 19th-century American and Continental art, African artifacts, Chinese porcelains, billiard tables, saloon-style bars, garden accents, and architectural elements. On October 10–11 Great Gatsby’s will hold a single-owner sale of property from the estate of James W. and Dorothy Mitchell of Tampa, Fla., prominent landowners, cattle ranchers, and collectors. From the this collection, over 600 pieces of 19th- and early 20th-century European porcelain will be on offer, from such prominent makers as Royal Vienna, Sevres, Dresden, and Meissen, as well as over 100 19th-century oil paintings—including several monumental works—and over 60 19th-entury French and Italian marble sculptures.

Tucked into an unassuming Buckhead commercial strip, Beverly Bremer Silver Shop is a national resource for fine sterling, selling from a 40-year collection of estate and new flatware (more than 1,200 patterns), hollowware and gifts. The shop staff enjoys the challenge of finding the just-right discontinued, obsolete or other hard-to-fine sterling silver patterns and pieces for its customers.

“It’s a really fun business,” Bremer president Mimi Woodruff says. “We deal with people who are excited and happy: brides getting married and people inheriting things from grandparents, maybe missing a piece or two, and we have the inventory. We do showcase a lot of things and change the displays all the time. It’s like going to a museum. It’s a museum where you can touch it and feel it and buy it.”

By Howard Pousner

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: August 2015

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