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."
"There's a whole long history of Atlanta collectors who love buying Radcliffe [Bailey] in New York," says Horodner. "They look to New York to see what's OK.
"The local collector who isn't supporting the best of the local scene for the most part isn't buying from the best of the local galleries. And so there's an ecology that's not happening. And you want it to happen. I can't tell people what to buy; it's their money. They can do whatever they want. But as a piece of advice ... it would not cost a lot of money, compared to significant kinds of dollars, for a local collector to make a major difference in the life of the local arts ecology in Atlanta."
Horodner hopes the Contemporary's current show demonstrates the kind of collecting he thinks is important: integrating local and regional artists with artists of national and international renown. It's something he says he doesn't see happening nearly enough.
Then again, some in Atlanta have already taken up the call.
A RACIAL DIVIDE
Greg and Yolanda Head's Stone Mountain home has one of those extremely vertical living rooms that demands big art. When asked about their favorite pieces, Greg gestures toward the row of nails that, until recently, held the Sam Gilliam drape painting now on view at the Contemporary.
But what's perhaps most notable about the Heads' collection of African-American abstract art is its mixture of artists occupying every rung of the art world ladder, from those with local to national to international reputations. Atlanta residents Freddie Styles, Paul S. Benjamin and Eric Mack share wall space with Chakaia Booker, Shinique Smith and Howardena Pindell, all bona fide international art stars.
"I think what's really nice about collecting in Atlanta," says Yolanda, "is the relationships you develop with the artists. ... They've been in our home, we've had dinner with them, they stay over the weekend. You really get to know them intimately. So as you begin to know more about them, you begin to enjoy the piece even more. It's nice to be able to call up Kevin Cole. Those relationships that we've developed in Atlanta are somewhat unique and it makes the collection that much richer."
It's precisely this intimate style of collecting Horodner claims is vital for a strong local art scene. But like much of Atlanta's culture, a history of segregation has led to two distinct, and sometimes incompatible, cultures: a white collecting culture and a black collecting culture. According to Gold, it's the black collectors who tap into the local scene, while top-tier white collectors usually go elsewhere.
Karen Comer Lowe has been consulting on art collections since 2003. When asked about support among her clients for local artists, she offers a hard look. "Well, you know I consult mainly with African-American collectors. I do see support for local artists. But I assumed that was true across the board."
Comer Lowe often has to begin from scratch, guiding clients into thinking about art seriously and looking at art critically, and it's the local community of artists that's most available. After surveying the work in the local market, Comer Lowe encourages clients to consider national figures such as sculptor Elizabeth Catlett and photographer Carrie Mae Weems. To Comer Lowe, these artists are seen as an extension of learning about locally based artists.
Non-black collectors with significant mixtures of locally based and international artists are fewer. Andrea Weyermann and Tim Goodwin count multimedia artist Larry Anderson and Athens-based artist Kathryn Refi among a collection that also includes photographer Sally Mann and numerous L.A. artists. But according to Gold, such collections are the exception rather than the rule at the top of the art world food chain.
MORE LOCAL SUPPORT
According to Horodner, a stronger connection between collectors and local artists is essential for validating the Atlanta art scene at a national level. "Can you imagine a British collector not owning work by the YBAs [a set of famous British artists that includes Damien Hirst]?" Yet, he maintains that is exactly the situation when it comes to artists such as Jiha Moon, who sells to major collections in D.C. and North Carolina; Scott Ingram, whose sales soar in Madrid; and Fahamu Pecou, whose Dallas gallery at one time couldn't keep up with demand. All three get more recognition outside of Atlanta than within.
The exceptions are rare and apply mainly to a few Atlanta art superstars, past and present. "You go to black and white homes," says Horodner, "and [you see] Kojo Griffins of a certain period, when everybody knew they had to buy a Kojo Griffin. And that was a perfect example of a moment around an artist locally who was getting traction. Everybody jumped on that bandwagon."
Contemporary photography collectors also constitute a subculture particularly devoted to local artists. According to Kirsten Tagami, whose popular, long-running AJC series My Favorite Piece profiled Atlanta's top collectors, almost all serious photography collectors own an Angela West, for example.
But a general culture of collecting has yet to be firmly established in the city. "I think Atlantans buy art," says Romo. "They buy art from galleries, they buy from auctions, they buy from the artists. ... But a culture means a common bond. Yes, people do buy art. It is collecting. But is it a culture? Hmm ... that's a bit of a stretch."
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