Sam Gilliam's "Atlanta 2003" is a massive draped canvas, pinned, tied and hung loosely on the wall like a structure in an advanced state of collapse. Though most likely made in the artist's Washington, D.C., studio, the title is a self-referential shout-out. Its folds and edges are indistinct. Its masses are infiltrated with hidden recesses. It's riven with shocking juxtapositions of color and brilliant light. "Atlanta 2003" is a cipher of the city itself.
This landmark of color field painting is one of the centerpieces of More Mergers and Acquisitions, the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center's follow-up to last year's widely praised Mergers and Acquisitions. The earlier installment was famously curated in a state of emergency when a previously booked show fell through at the last minute. To fill the gap, the Contemporary raided some of Atlanta's most prominent private collections and gallery back rooms. In the end, the institution threw a spotlight on the local art-collecting scene while pulling off one of last year's most thrilling exhibitions.
"It was so much damn fun last time," says the Contemporary's artistic director Stuart Horodner, "and it seemed to have worked so well on a bunch of levels that I shamelessly wanted to do another version."
The current show contains fewer daredevil curatorial flourishes, but nonetheless follows the same method of pulling works out from behind closed doors. In the process, More Mergers and Acquisitions again racks the focus on both the promises and the pitfalls of Atlanta's art-collecting ethos.
As important as the artists' names in the exhibit – Frank Stella, Ron Gorchov, Gilliam – are the names of their respective collectors: Missy and Wesley Cochran, Lauren and Tim Schrager, Yolanda and Greg Head.
More Mergers and Acquisitions is as much about who owns the objects as it is about what they are.
By many accounts, the modern phase of serious art collecting in Atlanta began with art dealer Fay Gold, who ran Buckhead's iconic Fay Gold Gallery from 1980 to 2009. The grande dame of the Atlanta art world houses her own collection of blue chip works in her Buckhead home, a spacious, angular, modernist structure that looks as though it's been airlifted from the Hollywood Hills.
"I'm in Fay's world," she declares, "and I create it the way I see it. And that's how the gallery always was as well. I showed [controversial photographer] Andres Serrano, and I showed 'Piss Christ.' And I got many threatening calls. But I had the freedom and the guts to show [Robert] Mapplethorpe and Joel-Peter Witkin and everything that I believed in."
Over the last three decades, Gold has sold work into many of Atlanta's premier collections: the Rubinsteins and the Wielands, for example, names that raise eyebrows in the international coterie of art wheeler-dealers.
But pushing the art market forward wasn't always easy for a Brooklyn girl in a Southern town. "The South is a different culture," says Gold. "I will make some generalizations now. They don't like change. They want what their grandmas and their great grandmas had. They want their homes to look that way. They want a sense of heritage. It's difficult to make them more eclectic, to put a contemporary painting mixed in with their antique furniture."
This conservative sensibility has often meant an uphill battle for the dealer, but Gold and others have been part of a decades-long influx of Atlanta immigrants from the likes of New York, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, who have added vitality and variety to the local collecting scene.
Today, important major collections are no longer a rarity. "There are fabulous collections here," says Gold. "Mind-boggling contemporary photography. Ashcan School. In-depth, valuable collections. But ... ." Here she pauses. "They're not buying in Atlanta."
One of the ironclad laws of collecting in the upper reaches of Atlanta's art world is that location equals prestige. Collectors willing to drop tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars at a go will pay a premium for the privilege of purchasing a work from a New York or Miami gallery by the same artists available in Atlanta from Solomon Projects or Jackson Fine Art, for example.
Sam Romo, whose eponymous gallery was a Castleberry Hill fixture from 2005 to 2008, noticed this trend. "When I started doing the art fairs," says Romo, "I had some Atlanta people buy there. I mean, they never once came to the gallery, but they saw me at the art fair, so that somehow provided some validation. [That happened] in Chicago and then in Miami."
"Art is a society," says Gold. "Part of being a collector is moving up in art society, and it's very competitive and very appealing." That often means buying art from the "right" places: California, not Castleberry; Manhattan, not Midtown.
This trend hasn't escaped the notice of Atlanta's artists, either. "I was sad when I realized that," says one artist who didn't want to be identified. "It's not all about the art or the artist. It's all about how fabulous the collectors think they are."
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