Cutting-edge challenge 

In the wake of drying up money for the arts, the local scene seeks to revive its pioneer spirit

First the good news.

There are more galleries, more museums and more theaters in Atlanta than there were 35 years ago when Creative Loafing was born a willful and spunky young cuss.

In population, metro Atlanta has grown from a podunk million in 1970 to an astounding 5 million today. And Atlanta's evolving art scene has naturally reflected that massive growth.

But is bigger always better when it comes to the arts?

And so comes the bad news: With that growth, Atlanta may have lost a bit of its "pioneer spirit" and a commitment on the national and local front to fund that "can-do" attitude.

Louise Shaw is a key figure in the local art scene's institutional memory, having served as executive director of the Nexus Contemporary Art Center (now the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center) from 1983 to 1998. She remembers a '70s art scene with an anything-can-happen energy that galvanized Atlanta's earliest art settlers to establish the institutions that make today's Atlanta the vital place it is.

"These were very radical, heady times," says Shaw, who came to Atlanta in 1973 and was around when some of the city's cultural stalwarts were born: the important artist-run Nexus (1973), the Nexus Press (1977), the city's Bureau of Cultural Affairs (1974), the beginnings of local arts criticism, IMAGE Film & Video (1976), the Center for Puppetry Arts (1978) and 7 Stages Theatre (1979).

Laura Lieberman came to Atlanta in 1975 and quickly became involved in the scene as editor in 1977 of the Atlanta Art Workers Coalition Newsletter, which would later develop into the important Atlanta-based magazine Art Papers.

"The City's Bureau of Cultural Affairs was creating a strong arts community using federal dollars to employ artists to work on community projects like Nexus, the Atlanta Art Workers Coalition and the Atlanta Women's Art Collective," she says. "It was an exciting and progressive time, politically and culturally."

Julia A. Fenton remembers an "idyllic time" for the visual arts when she moved to Atlanta in 1968. She was director of activities at the Atlanta Art Workers Coalition in 1977, and remembers a time when Mayor Maynard Jackson knew all the players in the local arts scene. The city's too big now, she says, for that kind of intimacy.

"It was like a small town, really," says Robert Cheatham, Eyedrum Gallery's executive director, who became involved in the arts scene in the '70s.

If that decade was all about the city's artist mavericks and an important culture-affirming art mayor establishing the cultural firmament we now take for granted, the '80s and '90s saw a bolstering of the city's commitment to contemporary art both locally and nationally.

In the '80s under the helm of progressive Director Gudmund Vigtel, the High Museum committed itself to educating the public about contemporary art. Vigtel presided over a museum known for challenging shows that featured regional artists. And its groundbreaking exhibitions – such as 1972's The Modern Image – of artists such as Eva Hesse, Hans Haacke and Carl Andre have since become part of the art world's contemporary art firmament.

The construction in 1983 of Richard Meier's High Museum of Art building undoubtedly played a part in jumping membership up from 6,000 in 1972 to more than 45,000 today. And the construction in 1985 of the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory by another notable architect, Michael Graves, along with the debut in 1989 of the Atlanta International Museum of Art and Design (now the Museum of Design Atlanta), also solidified the prominence of museum culture in the city.

There have been some positive signs of improvement in the city's art scene more recently, including the unveiling in 2005 of the High's Renzo Piano expansion, the debut in 2002 of the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia devoted to Georgia artists, the rise of the Castleberry Hill arts district, and the birth of important alternative galleries such as Eyedrum and Young Blood.

But for all the progress the Atlanta arts scene has made, some failure to evolve and just plain backsliding has also occurred. That is perhaps best symbolized by the end of the Arts Festival of Atlanta in 1998, after the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta brought national and international attention to the city.

In some ways, Atlanta's art-scene problems reflect a national mood when it comes to providing money for the arts. "Federal money for the arts is pretty much nonexistent," Fenton says.

And the recent disclosure that the city's daily, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, will no longer have individual reporters devoted to the classical-music and visual-arts beats gives an indication that Atlanta institutions are not where they should be in terms of seeing the value of the city's cultural scene.

Maybe what made Atlanta best initially – the energy and enthusiasm of its artists to innovate and the willingness of the city to fund them – can get the city back into the pioneering mode of the '70s.

"I think Atlanta has always had a great grassroots art scene," Shaw says.

And to see that, "all you have to do is go to other cities that don't have what we have here."


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