It quickly became a tale of two artists: Both received significant critical attention from the local arts press. Both maintained a full calendar of exhibitions in the city, including representation in the following year's biennial at the Nexus Contemporary Art Center (now the Contemporary). But ultimately their paths diverged: Walker left. Bailey stayed.
For those unfamiliar with the tonier provinces of Artworld-istan, both artists are international successes. Walker is a staple on the global biennial circuit, and Bailey will soon be the subject of a major midcareer retrospective at the High Museum. Both can and do write their own tickets in a world where artists are usually forced to choose between being exploited and being ignored.
Despite the worldwide kudos, those of us who spend our time blowing on the embers of Atlanta's cultural scene are tempted to see in these two artists both a success and a failure: Bailey represents the city's success in holding on to a major cultural figure, and Walker represents our failure to catch that lightning in the same bottle.
Atlanta loses a steady stream of creatives every year. Seeking better public funding, smarter collectors, more adventurous galleries, and more powerful critics, artists go where those resources seem abundant. And you know where that usually turns out to be.
But that doesn't mean that in the great marketplace of culture Atlanta doesn't have its role.
The conditions that make Atlanta less attractive from the outside are the very conditions that allow Atlanta artists to experiment, flop, learn something and try again. With its relatively cheap rents and open gallery system, anyone with a capful of initiative and an outline of an idea can get a project off the ground. A place like Eyedrum can go from being a periodic basement party to a central cultural institution in just a few years. Students at SCAD, Georgia State, and the Atlanta University Center can get their work into the public eye with even the clumsiest of efforts.
Once the available local venues have been exhausted, some artists make the decision to move on. Sometimes it's envelope pushers and gauntlet throwers such as Anya Liftig. The Georgia State MFA made headlines last spring by sitting across the table from renowned performance artist Marina Abramovi at MoMA in her own act of performance art that was at once an homage and an assault on her artistic elder. New York is great for that kind of global attention.
But many end up just another artist in the herd of strivers. Painter Kojo Griffin — who graduated from Morehouse a year after Bailey and Walker and today lives in East Point — has said many times in conversation that moving to New York to be an artist is like moving to Hollywood to be an actor; most will go and never move from the back of the line. In Atlanta, the front of the line is never far away.
The higher you go in the art world, the more it resembles a deeply anti-democratic system rigged to make sure the winners remain winners and the losers disappear. In this world the rich inevitably get richer. Once an artist manages to generate the gravitational pull to attract major art critics and collectors, that attention itself becomes worthy of attention and the upward spiral begins. It's what I call a "reputation cascade" and its effects are irresistible.
Cities are similar: We're closing in on a hundred years of artists decamping from Des Moines, Iowa, and Decatur for the activity of New York City. New York has benefited from a century's worth of reputation cascade in which artists go mainly because other artists already went.
What's left behind are the outskirts of the creative world. Atlanta. When Spanish artist Daniel Canogar came to Atlanta for a lecture in 2008, local artist Karen Tauches described Atlanta to him as an "art world suburb." She's right. It's a sparsely populated landscape in which artists have room to be both adventuresome and lonely, expansive and isolated.
I'm not making an argument that one city is better or worse for artists than any other city. But I am arguing that Atlanta's anonymity, its very formlessness, may be what makes it possible, even beneficial, to be an artist here. And an increasing number of artists with rising world-class reputations — Brian Dettmer, Whitney Wood Bailey, Sarah Emerson — seem to agree for the moment.
I fully expect our culture to change: Artists like Bailey who manage to be both local and global will become less exceptional. But for now, let's embrace what we've got: an open field where almost anything can happen.
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WHAT ABOUT LUCY
@InAtl "But in the end, asking for a tax break to build more parking turns…
i think this is a good idea, as long as it's not just christmas. america…