Notes Toward Any Future History of Art and Gallery Practice in Atlanta
I have come to realize that people’s selective recollections of the Atlanta art scene resemble the old saw about the Sixties: it is indeed as though if you remember it, you weren’t there.
We probably need to cut through the generational legends that have already formed for the current generation of the DIY scene almost as much as for those who speak of the Foundational Years (whatever those may have been). There ought to be meaningful lessons to be extracted from all the anecdotes, if we could ever get past the premature nostalgia, the pseudo-heroism, and the general reconfirmation of Henry Kissinger’s famous observation that the passions run so high because the stakes are so low.
I would like for a rough structural chronology to be established, less for scholarly reasons than for practical ones. What the practical ones are—that will emerge only at the end of this verbal peregrination.
I would like for, say, Dick Robinson and Annette Cone-Skelton to contribute recollections of what it really was like in the Sixties, a time when I was still off in the even more artistically marginal state of Florida and then in the midst of moments in California that were closer to the action than I ever wanted to be.
Atlanta at the time had something of an alt-culture scene surrounding, I believe, the Tenth Gate, a space that was in the last phases of disappearing when I first arrived in Atlanta for graduate school. But more to the point, the city had developed a significant regional school of Minimalist painting, already nurtured and brought into focus by a tiny handful of gallery owners. Electronic music was flourishing (in its own way), and in those years pre-Callanwolde, poets hung out with James Dickey in Buckhead. My impression is that these various subgroups were of slightly different generations and mostly did not know one another any more than they knew the would-be underground scene around Tenth Street.
Whatever was going on in those years on the grassroots level—and it was already inordinately proud of itself—the serious DIY scene seems to have been kick-started in the latter half of the financially troubled 1970s by a flood of economic stimulus money that funded community arts programs. The election of Maynard Jackson as mayor of Atlanta and Jimmy Carter as President of the United States was one of those happy overlaps of progressive sensibilities that led to the creation of a city administrative entity (the Bureau of Cultural and International Affairs) just at the moment when there was federal money available to allow it to do something. Arts centers were founded in disused school buildings, from the Little Five Points Community Center to the Forrest Avenue Consortium that housed such collaborative institutions as Pynyon Press and Nexus Gallery. The Urban Walls program funded murals that inspired local businesses to follow the city’s example, and wondrously visionary wall paintings appeared under the sponsorship of building owners.
The funding patterns shifted as the Reagan Revolution came on apace, but corporate sponsorships kept High Museum shows of regional artists in operation, and imaginative academic conferences stirred things up intellectually even as the DIY spaces stirred things up artistically: Emory University’s “Intellect and Imagination” conference proved that it was possible to bring together nationally renowned biologists, art historians, and conceptually minded performers for a few days of lectures and conversations that were as consequential as the Critics’ Forum in which Art Papers paired national and local critics to report on the condition of visual art throughout the South.
All things pass, and such conferences were not repeated. However, DIY scholarly conferences were staged from time to time in which imaginative groups of local artists raised the money to bring a few of their favorite national figures to town to sit on panels with local artists and academicians. Art shows were staged in conjunction with these.
Galleries such as Fay Gold’s arose—actually, very nearly exclusively Fay Gold’s—that imported the New York flavors of the month, such as graffitists Jean-Michel Basquiat and Kenny Scharf and Keith Haring in 1983, with Basquiat returning for a solo gig in 1986. The general scorn with which this trendiness was met by the anti-establishment wing of local artists was reflected in the rise of the enormous artist-staged exhibitions in disused factories and warehouses (the Mattress Factory shows, so called from the space in which the first one was staged): 300 artists paying $25 apiece (refundable at show’s end) and collaboratively rehabilitating a derelict space long enough to stage a three-week exhibition created an annual event at which 3000 people paid an entry fee to see the most spectacular array of local work available all year. (Installation artists were delighted to have whole rooms to transform as they saw fit…in spaces slated for demolition, the work was sometimes simply left in place when the show was over.)
Liability insurance and the acquisition of derelict spaces by pre-Olympics speculators put an end to that. Less transient alternative exhibition spaces took up some, but not all, of the slack. Occasionally it was possible to stage storefront exhibitions, and on one occasion in which I was involved, the raw space atop the city’s newest big-ticket building was secured for a short-term DIY art show.
And every so often the scene would go into a downspin as the prime movers burned out or moved on. Even as the city grew richer and richer, the alternative arts found less and less money with which to make things happen, and more and more regulatory obstacles put in their path.
So subversive ways of working were developed that had nothing to do with graffiti and more to do with slipping public events in between the expectations of public authority.
But all the while, art was kept before the eyes of the general public by the well-funded Piedmont Park Arts Festival, a decades-old institution that brought nationally famous site sculptors to the city to create temporary installations that were complemented by imaginatively curated exhibitions in the park’s permanent buildings. The cheesy artists’ market and food stands were the main draws for the crowds, but the crowds had to endure a great deal of serious art en route to the stuff they really came to see.
Then the site program went away when the federal funding was yanked, just as some years earlier the Southern artists series at the High Museum went away in the wake of the general reaction against arts funding in the wake of the Serrano and Mapplethorpe scandals. (We should recall that Fay Gold then hosted Serrano while he produced his Klan portraits…by this time local artists had forgiven Fay her fashionable location and were perfectly willing to show up at Fay Gold Gallery to see Piss Christ or, behind black curtains, the X Portfolio.)
All along, there were careerist moves, crossovers, fashionable and anti-fashionable hybridities: folk art came and cycled through and was incorporated into a piece of Olympic-era public art and largely went, with the passing of Howard Finster and his generation; African-American vernacular (please don’t call it “folk”) art remained a focus of contention up to and including its mainstreaming with the quilts of Gee’s Bend (preceded by the unnoticed placement of Thornton Dial’s much-contested piece of public sculpture); generations of art school graduates went into bands that paid off better (from Michael Stipe onward); subgroups came and subgroups went; great grassroots ventures to bridge ethnic divides were founded and went by the wayside. Things changed. Things remained the same.
The only reason to rehearse all this is to suggest that (1) some things that were once possible are no longer possible. It would be as anachronistic and pointless to revive most of the events in this history as it would be to reinstall telephone booths. And, (2) some things are now possible that were not possible in earlier moments of a perennially globalizing city (which Rem Koolhaas had named circa 1985 as being already the city of the future, the centerless, multinoded network of geographically dispersed, interlinked social and economic forces only dimly aware of one another yet creating intermittent synergies all the more vertiginously powerful for their degrees of invisibility and lack of physical infrastructure, the whole strung together like an interminable sentence composed of digitally composed and transmitted symbols).
We had joked in the early ’70s that Atlanta was determined to become “the world’s next great international city” without first becoming a great national one; but it was so, and it got the Centennial Olympics to prove it. And the place remains as bumptiously oblivious in that regard as ever, and that combination of obliviousness and accomplishment is something essential about us and about the world in which we find ourselves living. That is a situation that has existed for some thirty-five years, and it is a situation shaped by our history as well as by the economic forces of the global networks within which the city functions.
However, beginning to map the history of the Atlanta art scene and its (frequently failed) interactions with the city in which it exists is potentially helpful on a very elementary level, one that is unrelated to the vast claims of social theory.
It is useful to know that there are things that once were being done that are no longer being done, that there are ventures that crumble again and again for exactly the same recurrent reasons, and things that could be done now that we know are possible, because comparable things were being done in previous decades.
And that is the level on which we ought to be comparing notes on the past, and imagining possible futures.