It's 6 o'clock on a breezy March night, and I'm in the last place I'd normally look at art: a gallery opening.
Critics aren't necessarily fixtures at openings -- boozy, crowded, intensely social affairs where art tends to recede into the background behind networking and partying. That's not true only in Atlanta.
"Mostly, it's not about seeing work," says Village Voice art critic Jerry Saltz. "It's about seeing people seeing the work."
Openings are social events, cheap dates, a chance for 9-to-5ers to lap up the city's cultural nectar. They provide an opportunity to meet artists, talk about ideas, drink, gossip and look sophisticated.
Together with a companion craze -- neighborhood art walks -- they represent an aspiration in Atlanta's fractured art scene to forge a community out of chaos.
For the galleries themselves, openings offer a chance to ply potential customers with wine and cheese, and perhaps entice someone to come back and buy. For artists, they're a chance to talk about their work to potential buyers and bask in the all-too-rare limelight after lonely hours in the studio.
In a distinct break from habit, I haunted openings from Buckhead to Grant Park for three weeks. I soaked in the ambiance, and I hoped cheap wine and too much driving wouldn't kill me. It wasn't easy. But it was fun: It gave me a chance to reconnect with the people and galleries that make Atlanta's art scene such a disorderly collage of wealth and poverty, intellect and affectation.
Turner First Thursdays
Downtown Art Walk
As darkness encroaches and office workers flee their glass hives, I move against the flow, venturing into downtown for the First Thursdays Art Walk. It's one of several such events that allow galleries to fling open their doors in unison in hopes of pulling in a bigger crowd.
A self-guided tour inaugurated in 2000, First Thursdays is one of the truly walkable gallery strolls because the participating galleries are arranged in a tight cluster.
But "walkable" in a car-centric city like Atlanta is a relative word. Inappropriate footwear choices suddenly reveal themselves. The light wanes. Men grow frisky.
"You look goooood," a scruffy middle-aged man coos as I pass, reminding me that I am deep in the grit of downtown, after-work Atlanta, when the pleasures and perils of city life are accessible to anyone willing to get out of the car and hoof it.
There are certain common features to big-city downtowns, whether it's Manhattan or Calcutta. Assaulting food smells. Horse manure in the streets. Discs of spittle and tar-blackened gum pocking the landscape like urban sarcomas. Turner First Thursdays are an opportunity to take in not only art, but the funky and not uncolorful experience of city living so often missing from our car-encased daily lives.
My peers on Peachtree are Japanese tourists and Middle American conventioneers who venture tentatively from their downtown hotels to strap on a feedbag at one of the theme restaurants lining the street. Attempting to bait the hook, a line of Hooters waitresses have assembled by the restaurant door to entice passersby with a hootin' and hollerin' cheer. Is that art?
Turner First Thursdays couples a come-one-come-all open-house attitude with a paradoxical degree of inaccessibility that assures you must really want to see art to make this scene. My first stop, SunTrust Plaza, is in after-business lockdown, so patrons have to ring a buzzer and plead "gallery opening" for the kindly wizard behind the curtain to offer admittance. At the Atlanta Public Library, featuring work by the collective Sistography, your bag will be inspected before you enter.
There are human obstacles, too. Outside the library a demonstrative young couple is using the sidewalk as their personal Chevy backseat. A tattered man leans toward his companion with liquor-pickled conspiratorial closeness.
"Whaddaya, a drug addict?"
It beats the bourgeois sameness of a lot of openings, I think to myself.
Couples milling around the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia's satellite gallery at SunTrust Plaza feel like an after-work crowd. Most make a beeline for the bar.
The bountiful spread may be part of the draw at MOCA-GA. Around the corner, at the Museum of Design, there's just one lonely gallery-goer and one desolate bottle of Merlot available for self-pouring.
At the Arts for All Gallery in the Fairlie-Poplar district, I run into an old friend, Atlanta Contemporary Art Center's Stan Woodard. Woodard's a heavy user on the openings circuit, but even with Stan now in tow, I have difficulty locating the next stop, artist Paige Harvey's studio on Cone Street. We join a friendly couple also bagging game on this urban art safari and locate the nondescript door to Harvey's building.
We huff with a spirit of convivial adventure up the stairs to the airy studio, where the intimate group includes a microbiologist, and a criminal defense lawyer who happens to be Bruce Harvey, the artist's husband. Suddenly, openings seem like a good idea, a chance to meet people you might ordinarily not meet and to commune over a mutual interest in art.
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