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Community arts on the rise in Atlanta

The opportunity to make an impact is there, the time to do it is now

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Editor's note: State of the Arts offers passionate, informed and timely discussions about the Atlanta arts community by the Atlanta arts community. If you'd like to contribute, please e-mail A&E Editor Debbie Michaud at debbie.michaud@creativeloafing.com.

Community arts are helping transform Atlanta more so now than any time in recent history. New galleries are opening, public art is growing, and artists are staying in Atlanta. In recent years, projects such as arts networking co-op Gather Atlanta have celebrated and raised awareness of the city's independent artist collectives and businesses. When Eyedrum was faced with closing its doors in 2009, hundreds rallied to help stabilize the alternative-arts pioneer. New arts districts and walks have emerged all over town. Even some of Atlanta's more polished spaces are reaching out to broader audiences, such as the Contemporary with its free Thursday night programming.

So why the rise of community arts in Atlanta? Three key reasons: identity, accessibility, inclusiveness.

Atlanta can and should be a destination for the arts, and it takes a strong community to create that environment. That community is beginning to come together. The growth of and support over the past two years for our nonprofit arts collective, WonderRoot, has far exceeded our expectations. There has been a tremendous amount of enthusiasm around the programs and services we provide, such as our community studios and free classes; around the value we place on partnerships and collaboration; and around the promise of a richer future for Atlanta's artists and art lovers. That promise includes more all-around support for public art, the new mayor's commitment to growing the city's funding for the arts, and the continued swell of start-up arts groups such as MINT Gallery. It's a true testament to the need and desire for access to the arts in Atlanta.

While difficult economic times have meant fewer public and private dollars for the arts, the recession has also helped create a demand for more accessible art. The new, community-focused energy around the arts in Atlanta pushes for inclusivity beyond financial accessibility. Art also allows us to reimagine the city's future. Axiom, a one-night art walk in the Old Fourth Ward last November, shows how art can bring new life to a neighborhood. The well-attended event brought energy and foot traffic to vacant spaces. For one evening, residents and guests caught a glimpse of what the future could hold for the Old Fourth Ward.

It's important for us to acknowledge not only the small start-up groups focused on building stronger support for the arts, but also larger organizations such as the Metro Atlanta Arts Fund. This past year, MAAF saw the need for more flexibility in spending for the small and mid-sized arts-based nonprofits it funds, and implemented a massive overhaul of its funding guidelines and processes.

Another big organization, BeltLine Inc., will open nearly eight miles of temporary hiking and bike paths this summer – with a strong public art component that shows its commitment to the city's creative culture. The project is a great example of the progress Atlanta's making in cultivating an all-inclusive art community. Smaller arts groups such as WonderRoot and Eyedrum are being included in the planning and implementation processes alongside larger institutions such as the Fulton County Arts Council and the Atlanta Office of Cultural Affairs. Between 30 and 40 sculptural, visual, and performance-based works will be installed and presented this June. Similar to the way Axiom drew attention to Old Fourth Ward, this project will bring new awareness to the BeltLine's potential.

We've come a long way in redefining Atlanta's art landscape, but there's still much work to be done. The average citizen could know more about contemporary art, but that's just one of the issues concerning the knowledge and education gap in Atlanta. Yes, gallery owners could use more foot traffic, but that's also indicative of a larger transportation problem all Atlantans face.

Despite the setbacks, Atlanta's art scene is alive and well. The strong community-based arts infrastructure has established a solid foundation for growth. We must learn to celebrate all that it has to offer. And where there are disparities, we must get our hands dirty.

Through WonderRoot, we've made countless new friends and partners in our efforts to celebrate Atlanta's art community. From all corners of the city, we see alternative approaches to art and established institutions digging in their heels. If you want to make an impact, the opportunity is there. We all know that for Atlanta to be the vibrant and thriving city we desire, we must have a burgeoning arts scene. The pieces are there. Our time has come.

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