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Atlanta Contemporary Art Center: Past, present, and future

A tiny grassroots arts organization dubbed Nexus in 1973 has evolved into a nationally respected institution



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THE PAST: Diane Kempler's 1979 installation in Nexus Gallery. The photo ran with Tom Patterson's 1982 article in Contemporary Art Southeast. - COURTESY ART PAPERS
  • Courtesy Art Papers
  • THE PAST: Diane Kempler's 1979 installation in Nexus Gallery. The photo ran with Tom Patterson's 1982 article in Contemporary Art Southeast.

After Shaw's departure, ACAC again entered a period of short-lived directors. Long-running bookkeeping problems and $250,000 of debt led to the closing of Nexus Press. After board members managed to get the institution back in the black, Horodner arrived in 2005, becoming director of the institution almost by accident. Horodner, a born and bred New Yorker, was driving from Portland, Ore., to run the Atlanta College of Art gallery when, en route, he was notified of the pending merger with SCAD. His job was up in the air. When he arrived in Atlanta, Horodner was told he'd have a year at ACA. Before the year was out, he had taken Reckitt's place.

In Horodner's seven years at the organization, ACAC has added several new programs to connect with the Atlanta audience, including panels focused on artists developing their careers, monthly portfolio reviews, and open studios. The Art Party, which was canceled years before Horodner came on board, was recently revived for October of this year.

A shift in curatorial styles has been apparent. During Shaw's tenure, the exhibitions were a mix of local and outside curators and featured a wide range of artists — local, national, and international — often taking risks with political themes.

When Horodner speaks about ACAC's recent exhibitions, he highlights shows like New York darling Dana Schultz's first exhibition of drawings in the U.S., and the first public appearance of critic Wayne Koestenbaum's paintings, which led to his first solo exhibition at White Columns, or bringing photographer Laurel Nakadate's video work to Atlanta. Horodner has also given Atlanta artists solo exhibitions, including Shara Hughes' exhibition of dizzying paintings and assemblage sculpture on view currently. Overall, Horodner's curating seems more driven by empowering individual artists or dealing with art-world polemics.

Shaw finds ACAC disappointing in comparison to her glory days at Nexus. "I say the old Nexus is dead," she says. "It's something else now, and the name change is emblematic. I have been a lightning rod for criticisms about the Contemporary; people have said to me, 'It's not the same! I don't go there anymore.'"

"I respect Stuart's commitment to the institution and to developing high-quality programming, but there really needs to be a greater diversification of exhibitions," she continues. "After all these decades, it should be better than it is."

When asked about Shaw's statements, Horodner responded, "The old Nexus is dead. It is not a grassroots organization anymore. MoMA isn't the same museum it was in the 1970s and Atlanta isn't the same city it was in the 1980s. Things change."

Despite significant changes, the organization has been less successful in galvanizing areas like budget and staff size. In 1980, the organization had a budget of $400,000 and staff of 28, according to Patterson's article. (Federal subsidies apparently funded a number of those staffers.) In 2012, the budget was approximately $500,000 and the organization employs five full-time staffers and three part-timers.

"If you compare us to MASS MoCA or the CAM in Houston or [LAXART] in Los Angeles, all those places are in a sense doing the same thing [as us] in that we're all showing people we think are significant local, national, and international artists," says Horodner. Horodner notes, though, that those same places dwarf Atlanta's Contemporary in terms of staff and budget, saying, "You can only do more ambitious things with more money."

Local arts philanthropist Louis Corrigan considers ACAC's resources in its local context: "The Contemporary operates with a budget below MOCA GA's and a fraction of the High Museum's $25-$32 million annual budget. And with the High historically devoting inadequate resources to contemporary art, ACAC has to do more heavy lifting than an institution its size should have to do. Frankly, it can only do so much of this."

Despite Shaw's criticisms, Horodner's commitment to putting ACAC into a national art-world conversation has been a notably positive shift for others. "The last few shows before Stuart came on board were consistently disappointing," says Craig Drennen, a professor in Georgia State's art department who has a studio at the Contemporary. "People speak so fondly of Nexus, but during my few visits it seemed charmingly out of touch. Things got way better when Stuart came on board."

Big visions, though, are not always compatible with operating budgets. "What do I really want?" Horodner says, "A café, a bigger bookstore. When you look at the core pieces — the exhibitions and programs, the studio program and events — all of these could be empowered with another half a million dollars a year."

"It's not like we hope we'll one day get there," he says. "We'll get there! But it takes more time than you'd imagine. Maybe it's a Southern thing."

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