All eight perform at a high level given their relative youth. All deserved attention. But CL's super eight artists reflected an arts scene deeply at odds with the Atlanta in which most of us live and work: Our chosen artists all were white.
Not surprisingly, many readers were P.O.'ed. And rightly so. As commenter "L.Shaw" said, "We live in a multi-racial, multi-cultural city. Inclusion should be in our DNA."
But the Sept. 2 issue of Creative Loafing shows that it's not in our DNA, and that it's not safe yet to dismantle the watchtower of racial justice in the capital of the New South.
Unfortunately, some have already begun to view this matter in the hackneyed terms of the 1980s culture wars: Namely, that achieving diversity in the arts is a chore that the majority culture must guiltily undertake for the benefit of everyone else. That zero-sum view is false and distractingly out of date. It's a viewpoint that says the pie is only so big, and every advance by an artist of color displaces a deserving white artist who otherwise should have had the spotlight. How else to explain one commenter's distaste at the idea of "substituting" one artist for another in terms of race?
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.
At last month's Gather Atlanta, an annual conference for local emerging artists and organizations, someone in the crowd announced he intended to disturb the room.
It was Lionel Flax, general manager of Sam Flax art supplies, speaking up from the standing-room only audience of 250 during a Q&A session on "Art and the Public Sphere." Although those who spoke on the "Art and the Public Sphere" panel dissected issues of public art, marketing and connecting to audiences, Flax was unsatisfied. He rightly took the panel — and the room — to task over why no one had mentioned the public school system as part of the public sphere. "Why," he asked, "aren't artists beating down the door to work in the public schools?"
The responses to Flax's question from painter Fahamu Pecou and street artist HENSE ranged from defensive to exasperated. Why should they as artists work so hard to crack a system that in turn has so little interest in artists, they asserted. Follow-up comments from other audience members ratified the notion that artists don't work in the school system because it's an unholy stew of suspicion and bureaucracy.
The entire discussion, however, overlooked one pertinent point: There are artists working in Atlanta's public schools.
Artists rallied to GCA’s defense. Dance troupes did interpretive dances. Rousing speeches were made (including one from a puppet), and the media turned out to gawk at the ruckus.
In the end, GCA was spared. The bit of street theater at the Capitol together with a flurry of calls and e-mails from around the state were widely credited with turning the tide. At last Atlanta’s absentee art community arose with a united voice and declared, “Give me art or give me death.”
But what was touted as a triumph over the forces of philistinism, in fact masked a massive failure. We needed the protest at the Capitol because an entire system of arts advocacy failed to deliver when it should have: before there was a crisis in the first place.
But as the visual arts events associated with the 2010 festival begin to wind down — the performing arts events wrapped mid-month — it’s become clear that this portion of the festival rose to nowhere near the stature NBAF would claim for itself as “one of the premier national and international celebrations of the art, music and culture of people of African descent.”
The work, titled “Promontory,” was arguably the standout work on the Beltline’s public art roster, and highly anticipated by Atlantan Senior Editor and former CL art critic Felicia Feaster, who said the performance was “virtually guaranteed” to be “a memorable experience for the mix of solemn poetry and conceptual elegance Minina brings to his work.” So far, it’s the work most likely to linger as significant long after it’s gone.
But “Promontory” might easily have remained an idea, never coming to fruition.
Emory University's Center for Creativity and Arts even hosted a citywide arts criticism forum last March to give all of Atlanta's arts writers an opportunity to see who among us could wag our finger the hardest about what dunces we've all become.
"Dancing with the Stars" was repeatedly singled out as the final sign of the apocalypse. The reality show of has-beens, almost-weres, and not-quites was deemed by many to be a failure in audience education about what real dance is. Even though one student defended the series as art by Gen Y standards, those in the Gen X cohort and higher remained mostly skeptical. I'm not a dance critic. Anything I said at that forum about "DWTS" had to be taken as a best guess.
But now the Bravo cable network has landed squarely on my turf with its new reality series "Work of Art: The Next Great Artist."
In case you've never heard of "Work of Art," let me be the first to welcome you back from your coma. "WOA" features 14 artist hopefuls competing before a panel of art world heavy hitters and a television audience of millions for a solo show at the Brooklyn Museum.
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