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Speakeasy with Hope Cohn 

From a restored farmhouse in Dunwoody, the Spruill Gallery offers a quaint oasis of culture among the strip malls, giant restaurant chains and fancy condo complexes. The current exhibit PLAY, on view through April 25, showcases the lighthearted facets of creativity from more than a dozen artists, including Avantika Bawa, Barrett Feldman, Jason Fulford and Staci Stone. As Hope Cohn observes her first anniversary at Spruill, the exhibitions director explains PLAY's origins and how she expects the gallery to maintain its accessibility when its new, larger facility opens in 2010.

What were the origins of PLAY?
The catalyst of the show was the economy. The economy has been so challenging for artists. Studios have closed, galleries have closed, and we thought we needed to bring back a sense of joy and play in the work, something that inspired us to make the work in the first place.

Even the word PLAY invites a sense of optimism. I called it “the artistic stimulus exhibition.” In the outdoor part of the exhibit, sculptor George Long placed these wheelbarrows full of dirt, and they also had seeds in them that just started sprouting, which creates a sense of hope. There are still things growing.

Speaking of the economy, how is the Spruill Gallery doing these days?
Spruill is actually doing fairly well. Our membership’s good and our numbers are extremely healthy, so that’s a good sign for us. Maybe people feel like, if they’re not working right now, they’ll take a class, do something creative or learn a new skill. We have a program coming up related to that called Barter, which emphasizes the word art in the word barter. It’ll bring artists and professionals together, so they can work together and help each other. There are artists that might need things like financial advice, and they can offer art classes or web design in exchange. We’re not the first to do this — they’re being done around the country.

Is the exhibit playful for the visitors as well as the artists?
For PLAY, George Long and Mario Schambon provided outdoor sculptures that people can bang on. John Douglas Powers is as much like an inventor as a sculptor, so we created a little inventor’s shop in one of the rooms. I typically try to include some kind of participatory element in our shows, maybe because I have three children.

I don’t want to have the kind of gallery where you come in and everything says “Don’t Touch!” My first show here was Breaking New Ground, and was very participatory and multisensory. It was about new technologies, including music and sound. Walking into a gallery isn’t limiting if there’s just interesting things to see, but a gallery can appeal to all of the senses, not just sight. There’s just nothing to taste here.

What other kinds of ideas and goals do you have for the gallery?
I’m like John’s sculptures — the wheels and gears are always turning in my head. I came here from New York and have resources up there that I want to be able to provide for things that we couldn’t otherwise have here. There are areas and different cultures that haven’t been addressed. I’m very much about making relationships, sharing artists and experiences with institutions like Georgia Tech.

What’s it like having a gallery in the middle of this part of Dunwoody?
It’s different. [Laughs.] You’re not wanting for shopping and food. There’s a real contrast between this gallery and this vernacular architecture. There’s nothing else like this out here, so our great challenge and opportunity is to provide this for people who never get down to the High Museum. Even when we have the new gallery and the new center, people will always remember this house. It’s like the children’s book The Little House [by Virginia Lee Burton], in which the house stays the same, even though all these new buildings and construction sites go up around it.

When will the expanded center open?
We’re looking at fall of 2010. We’re hoping to get started any day. We’ll have 45,000 square feet for the entire center and the gallery will be 12,000 feet on two floors. Right now we have 2,500 feet, so we’ll be able to show a lot more than just one exhibition at a time. The house is going to stay; it’ll just be an extension of the bigger gallery and the center. It’s always committed to the art.

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