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New places, new spaces

Local art galleries experience a growth spurt

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The Atlanta landscape, its skyline littered with construction cranes, is a daily affirmation of Greek philosopher Heraclitus' contention that "there is nothing permanent except change." And the same vigor that characterizes local industry has infected the cultural sphere as well, with Atlanta's art scene recently resembling a lively game of musical chairs.

The flux of Atlanta's own growth is mirrored in its changing gallery landscape and the number of spaces either currently undergoing or anticipating revamped or relocated spaces. Eyedrum's recent relocation, the anticipated opening of the Museum of Contemporary Art - Georgia in 2002, the redesign of Solomon Projects, a Kubatana Moderne move and a possible collaboration between The Atlanta Contemporary Art Center and IMAGE Film and Video Center in shared digs all demonstrate welcome changes to Atlanta's arts community.

Meanwhile, a more high-profile expansion has also been dominating the local art scene for years now -- the High Museum and Atlanta College of Art's proposed expansion designed by renowned Italian architect and Pritzker Architecture Prize-winner Renzo Piano, whose former commissions include the Kansai Air Terminal in Osaka Bay, the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Cy Twombly Gallery in Houston.

Less drastic than an actual relocation, Nancy Solomon, owner of the Monroe Drive contemporary art space Solomon Projects, began an extensive renovation of the storefront gallery she's occupied since 1994 last June. The project was inspired, she says, by the relocation of Solomon's former tenant, design store Retromodern. That move freed up some space, and a more serendipitous meeting also prodded Solomon toward a change. She met two young architects, David Yocum and Brian Bell of Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects, and a contractor willing to do the work, and decided that confluence of events was motivation enough to redo the space. Implicit in Solomon's renovation seems a desire to sublimate the commercial elements of the gallery, and exalt the conceptual ones.

"The new gallery is what I always wanted Solomon Projects to be," says Solomon, "a pure, white cube that quietly gives a sense of architectural space, grandeur, simplicity and importance to the art inside it."

And with that architectural shift seems to come a shift in thinking, suggests Solomon. "My plan is to allow even more experimentation in the gallery." Solomon's first show, opening Nov. 10, will be new sculpture by artist Lynda Grimm.

Solomon had initially hoped to relocate her gallery to the Howell Mill district or the West Side and discussed teaming up with Buckhead's Jackson Fine Art and five other galleries to create an art hub. But the rising costs in the Howell Mill area and an inability to find an acceptable space eventually squelched what might have been a promising collaboration in Atlanta's geographically far-flung gallery scene.

"It is always better and easier for people if there is more than one gallery in the neighborhood. It is asking a lot for people to make the trek in terrible traffic to see one show at one gallery," Solomon says.

The alternative art and music space Eyedrum has also recognized the potential benefits in sharing an art landscape since its move from Trinity Street. Co-founder Woody Cornwell has noted that Eyedrum's new Cabbagetown location "will possibly attract future tenants."

"There is the potential of expanding on the history of the Mattress Factory as a community art complex," says Cornwell.

Over the course of the past year, the eternally grass-roots, cooperative gallery/experiment in artistic self-sufficiency has busted out of a funky Trinity Street semi-dive to a 3,000-square-foot warehouse space at 290 MLK Drive in Cabbagetown across from Daddy D'z. More than any other recent renovation or relocation, the Eyedrum move, along with its securing non-profit status, demonstrates the potential of the alternative art scene -- so often dwarfed by the big money and higher profile galleries and institutions -- to blossom. The relocation has some immediate, practical benefits as well, says Cornwell, who ticks off a list: "central heat and air, security and alarm system, wheelchair accessibility, sprinkler system, free gated parking, cleaning service for restrooms, potential to increase square footage and landlords [Braden Fellman] who respect and support what we do."

While the crowd on the usual Friday night gallery opening circuit has become a familiar cadre of curators and artists, alternative galleries like Eyedrum seem to profit from roping in new audiences, tapping into a younger, more adventurous crowd by offering not only visual arts programs, but broader-based video and music events.

Another gallery that has benefited significantly from a move to bigger digs (from 1400 to 2600 square feet) is Kubatana Moderne, a gallery specializing in African and African-American artists, which jumped from 1841 to 1831 Peachtree Road last April, to a space designed by architect and artist Amy Landesberg. The enlarged space has also meant a shift in focus, with furniture and artifacts added to the fine art mix.

Gallery director Jason Wertz was attracted to the Peachtree location because of the proximity of other Sobo galleries and the collaborative spirit that might foster.

"I also wanted to be in an area that would be known for art and that the galleries would work together on projects (fund-raisers, etc.), which, in my opinion, is greatly needed in Atlanta, as the malls are such a focal point here and it is so much nicer to be able to walk outside and be in a more natural and creative setting," Wertz says.

That relocation, to the former Vaknin Schwartz gallery, has been bittersweet for the local art scene because of the much-lamented closing of the previous tenant's cutting-edge contemporary art gallery. But where one gallery departs, another quickly takes its place, proving the adaptability and vitality of the local scene.

Recasting his relationship to the local art scene, Uri Vaknin has relocated to a Midtown loft as "Uri Vaknin: home, art, lifestyle," where clients can view works by young, emerging artists by appointment. The demise of Vaknin Schwartz seems to have made Vaknin more pragmatic about what helps art sell: catering to a buying public. "Honestly, the reason for being only open by appointment is that way I get more work done -- meaning I have more time to promote my artists -- and I no longer have to be free entertainment," he says. "The clients who make an appointment are serious."

Like Eyedrum, the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center seems to have recognized the advantages of looking beyond an often familiar, stagnant scene. The Contemporary and IMAGE Film and Video Center have publicly discussed a union of space and identities "to take advantage of our overlapping audiences," says the Contemporary's Executive Director Sam Gappmayer, though he notes that the fruits of that collaboration will not be realized for another two to three years.

Probably the most exciting of local artworld expansions in the works, this collaborative construction of a 300-seat auditorium and of new IMAGE offices at the Contemporary's 535 Means Street address could unite the many potential cross-overs between film, video and the art world.

Another ambitious project in the works, the Museum of Contemporary Art - Georgia is currently gearing up for a 2002 opening. Founded and backed by David Golden, president of the real estate advisory company CGR Advisors, the new museum is founded on a collection of more than 250 works by Georgia artists in various media. The collection was assembled over the past 11 years by Golden's arts advisor (and local artist) Annette Cone-Skelton, who will act as the museum's director, though in keeping with the recent trend, most of the initial shows will be assembled by guest curators.

A ground floor exhibition space has been secured and construction has begun at 1447 Peachtree St., a location that takes advantage of proximity to the High Museum and the Arts Station MARTA stop to provide two things local art spaces desperately need: convenient access for audiences and a location close to other art institutions, which Cone-Skelton says will "help create a critical mass of art venues."

Though the prognosis for the Atlanta art scene is often grim, with constant complaints from critics, curators, gallery owners and artists about the lack of venues, the lack of support and lack of attendance at art events, the landscape is, in small ways, improving. Institutions that continue to find innovative ways to court new audiences (like Eyedrum and Museum of Contemporary Art - Georgia), collaborate (like the Contemporary and IMAGE), or recognize (like Kubatana or Uri Vaknin), the advantages in courting the design market have demonstrated that change is as much about altering your mind set as altering your space.

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