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High anxiety

The High Museum won the popularity contest with its brand-name blockbuster shows, but at what cost?



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Rooks feels he's off to a good start. He joined the staff with the understanding that part of his mission is to make inroads into local arts communities, a relationship that flagged under previous leadership.

"I've signaled my interest in getting to know artists, and art dealers and people in Atlanta," Rooks says. "I've also been fortunate that the museum has signaled its desire for me to do that."

Other High curators, including Harris and perhaps most visibly Carol Thompson, curator of African art, have been conscientiously turning up at community events, fundraisers and art openings for years. But Rooks seems to be the first in the museum's recent history who's doing it with the overt encouragement of the institution.

Rooks comes to the mission with a resume custom-designed to deal with thorny community relations with contemporary artists. He inherited a position at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago at a time when the institution was seen as disconnected from its community. In response, Rooks initiated the museum's 12x12 program, a project space in which Chicago-based emerging and midcareer artists could pursue ambitious contemporary projects in a world-class museum setting.

His ideas don't stop there. "I would like to do a show that reaches out to the gay and lesbian community in some way, because that's an important constituency here as well. It's important and relevant for me to think about people who live here in this city."

Rooks has also taken on the role of shepherding a four-year partnership with MoMA, which he describes as "our platform for making a very strong and serious commitment to contemporary art and culture." Rooks says the plans include several new commissions of contemporary art as part of the partnership's programs, including works by Atlanta-based artists.

Outside of formal exhibition programming, a steady stream of art parties, lectures and other events appear to be part of a concerted effort to pry open the doors of the museum to an edgier crowd. A number of Atlanta artists even made it onto the official Dalí party program. Video artist Bean Worley projected work at the Mustache Party, and at the Surreal Soiree, Alcove Gallery's H. C. Warner and YoungBlood Gallery's Kelly Teasley, among others, contributed wearable Dalí-inspired art.

But Atlanta's seen optimism like this before. When the museum's expansion opened five years ago, Jeffrey Grove had recently been hired as the curator of modern and contemporary art. In a flush of enthusiasm, he told Creative Loafing that the museum was "becoming another institution" and that he planned a "Projects" series of exhibitions featuring emerging and local artists aimed at "a community super-hungry" for contemporary art.

Most of those intentions went unfulfilled.

Shapiro says he and the museum are open to input from the local art community and that he's willing to host town hall meetings. "There are great opportunities if we found a way for those different constituencies to sit down together and discuss common barriers, common dreams," Shapiro says. "There could be the artists, there could be the gallerists, there could be those who work in not-for-profit or other arts organizations. I'd certainly play a leading role in facilitating."

Shapiro acknowledges that the institution has work to do, but adds: "We all want the same thing. We all would like art to play a more central role in the life of our community. And we're all, I assume, mercenaries in that regard. That's where I was driving in terms of getting people together to have some conversations, even if it's stuff we may not want to hear."

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