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Art flight

Breaking into NYC art scene no easy task for ex-Atlantans

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Habitues of the Atlanta art scene are all too familiar with the yearly migration of artists from the city, an exodus that can often make Atlanta feel like a Greyhound bus terminal en route to the beckoning art capital of New York. And lately the numbers of those heading for that beacon of urine-scented avenues and sandpaper personalities have been legion. That, coupled with the closing of contemporary art gallery Vaknin Schwartz in January and the migration of curators specializing in bringing contemporary work to Atlanta (Chris Scoates, Debra Wilbur, Cay Sophie Rabinowitz, Peter Pachano, Jason Forrest), implies that flight is a necessary response to a town that remains unreceptive to conceptual, cutting-edge work.

"It's really strange to live in Atlanta, because there's such amazing wealth in this city and it seems to me that very little of that wealth is being funneled back into the cultural life of the city," says Jeremy Helton, who will be joining fellow members of the multimedia collaborative fascia, Honnie Goode and Todd Kitchens, in New York at the end of April.

"For artists that are working in mediums that are fairly new like video art and video installation, I think many of us do see there might be greater opportunities in New York."

As far as achieving a modicum of success as a visual artist in Atlanta, "it's kind of an uphill battle" concedes former Atlanta artist and current director of New York's Brent Sikkema Gallery, Michael Jenkins. "There's not a strong collector base."

There has long been a pessimistic buzz in Atlanta, that the city is not an art center and is a difficult place for a young, emerging artist to make a living. But does the move to New York necessarily bring with it greater artistic success?

"We felt that Atlanta's art scene had become limiting in terms of contemporary work," says Jeremy Spears of the art partnership Spears/Nayadley.

Graduates of the Atlanta College of Art, the art partnership of Spears/Nayadley had its photography featured in a Fay Gold exhibition of promising young Atlanta artists and received prominent placement in the City Hall East show When Tears Come Down. But, "we felt that Atlanta's art scene had become limiting in terms of contemporary work," says Spears.

Residents of New York since 1998, Spears now works as a headhunter for graphic designers and Elizabeth Nayadley is a print and digital photography technician. But the artists "don't have any set plans for shows at the moment," concedes Spears.

"It's a much larger community of artists" in New York says Spears, "so I would have to say that it's harder in New York."

A significant number of Atlanta artists are relocating to the city's flourishing art hub, the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. Jody Fausett, who moved to New York a year-and-a-half ago, recalls attending a party in Williamsburg recently where "75 percent of the people were from Atlanta."

Fausett has not had a New York gallery show of his photography since moving to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, though he has managed to break into the commercial fashion photography sphere, with recent layouts for Soma and Surface magazines.

"Let's face it, the positive side of that is a huge chunk of money that I can make in a short period of time," admits Fausett of his crossover to fashion work.

A catch-22 of life in New York is that artists who relocate to New York for the expanded cultural possibilities and higher-paying jobs can often become so distracted soaking in other artists' work and paying the bills that their own art-making assumes a lower priority.

"I couldn't have it both ways in this particular city. If I was going to work and work and work at my day job, I can't do [the art]. And in Atlanta you're able to balance it more," says Jennifer Ray, an artist whose work has appeared at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, Chastain and City Hall East galleries and who moved to Williamsburg a year ago. Ray currently works for a public relations firm. Ultimately, she says, "you're exhausted."

Ray is pragmatic about the sacrifices artists often make to live in the city. "It really tears away any veils that you've built up to protect yourself from not doing all that you can," she warns.

Coupled with the strain of day-to-day living in New York is the chance of ever truly "making it" it as an artist.

"Distractions can be a problem, and they can be expensive," concedes Atlanta gallery owner Nancy Solomon whose exhibitions often incorporate both local and New York-based artists. Most often such distractions result in neglecting the very mission that first led the innocent artist to the Apple: the art.

Like that other apple proffered by a serpent in the Garden of Eden, New York promises the possibility of an instantaneous art career. But many Atlanta artists now living in the city seem to agree that the Big Apple is not exactly the quick ticket to art world immortality. The city often seems more rewarding as a source of inspiration and stimulation, offering the kind of exposure to artwork that no other city in the world can deliver.

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