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Local artist Nathan Sharratt and I are standing on the third floor of Kai Lin Art in Buckhead. We're about five minutes into a tour of the work he has on display in the group show Illuminate when he spots Marianne Lambert on the floor below. "Hi, Marianne!" he calls out to the Swan Coach House Gallery curator. "Want to join us?"
Lambert waves and makes her way up the stairs. Over the next half-hour or so, the three of us regard Sharratt's text-driven, pop-culture commentaries. Sharratt talks about the unsettling Internet phenomenon that inspired a series of prints of girls in various states of undress. Lambert and I practically press our noses against the glass as Sharratt explains the process behind the trio of pixelated black-and-white computer drawings, "Sonnet (I want lov)."
Afterward, the conversation drifts into talk of the local art scene and the alarming rate at which galleries seem to be closing. In the last 18 months alone, at least half a dozen galleries — some of them among Atlanta's most respected — have shuttered their brick-and-mortar spaces. The latest news has come from Emily Amy, who announced the closure of her eponymous, five-year-old Westside gallery Jan. 2. These places matter to us: an arts journalist, a curator, an artist.
"I'm worried," says Lambert, a longtime member of the local art community and founder of Atlanta's first art consulting firm in the '80s.
Sharratt smiles. "I'm not."
A week later, over lunch, Sharratt qualifies his statement. "I don't know if I want to say I'm not worried, because I do have lots of anxiety all the time about moving forward," he says. But, "I'm not worried because I recognize that it's a broken system. It's not self-sustaining. It doesn't really benefit the artists, and it doesn't really benefit the gallerists unless you're some blue chip or something."
Galleries serve a couple of purposes. They're free spaces where anyone can walk in and enjoy access to art. They help to educate the public and provide opportunities for artists to assess their work in front of an audience. They build artists' profiles and reputations through the authority of their own profiles and reputations. But galleries are also for-profit businesses — middlemen, if you will — that connect artists with buyers, or producers with consumers. It may sound crude to frame it like that, but it's the truth.
While enthusiasm around the local art scene feels stronger than ever, Atlantans have long lamented the lack of a solid collector base willing to spend its money in the city's galleries. As a result, unless you are some blue chip or something, additional income from a side business or day job typically is necessary to keep the gallery doors open. Lloyd Benjamin operates a frame shop out of the back of his Westside gallery Get This!. Beep Beep Gallery's James McConnell and Mark Basehore both hold down jobs independent of their art space.
While the roots of the gallery system as we know it date back at least to the 19th century, it is primarily a 20th-century phenomenon. And as with so many other 20th-century business models, the Internet is not being kind. In addition, the contemporary art world has been transformed by the rapid ascendance of art fairs, the number of them nearly tripling from 68 to 189 between 2005 and 2011. Gallery culture is shifting in Atlanta and beyond, its functions fragmenting as information about art and artists becomes increasingly accessible. The changes are raising lots of questions and producing few answers: How will people find art? Where will the public be able to see new art in person? Who will be the arbiters of taste? How will we know what's good and true and of value?
The good news is that Atlanta's art community is already experimenting with a variety of ways to redefine how people experience and consume art. Saying goodbye to a handful of local galleries does not mean saying goodbye the local art scene. Or at least it shouldn't.
Internet galleries. Artist websites. Facebook. Twitter. Instagram. Online auctions. Artsy.net. Technology is dramatically altering how people are learning about art, as well as how artists are communicating with their audiences. Artists can now easily build a brand and create buzz around their work without depending on the infrastructure of a traditional gallery.
"I think that a lot of successful artists nowadays, or younger artists, recognize the importance of that branding," says Sharratt. "Art is a market. It's entirely based on selling art. If you just wanted to make art for art's sake, you would never show it. You would just keep it in your house and be happy with it."
Because of the nature of the Internet and social networking, and the extent to which they've permeated our lives, even people who aren't trying to sell anything are creating brands, or at least online personas.
It's a phenomenon that, for the most part, older generations have had difficulty adapting to. "I feel like things are changing and I can't keep up with technology," says Lambert. "Everything goes so fast and all of sudden we're losing galleries right and left."
"Any business has got to change," says Nancy Solomon, a highly regarded local curator and art dealer who closed her 18-year-old Atlanta gallery Solomon Projects in 2011. "The business of galleries is very traditional and the people that have had them are very conservative and that's because you're walking a really fine line due to finances. You're wanting to show progressive art, but at the same time it's a real business. You've got to pay your bills, so you're kind of clinging to these really old-fashioned ways out of fear."
Without the financial burden of a permanent physical space, Solomon took the reputation she spent decades building and began "engaging the audience in new and different ways — almost bringing the art to my audience as opposed to bringing the audience to my gallery," she says.
And she's not alone. Many of the galleries that have closed their doors — Saltworks, Young Blood, Jennifer Schwartz — are curating and dealing on the go, setting up exhibits in physical spaces only when it makes sense for them and their artists.
Schwartz, a portrait photographer who originally started her photography gallery on a whim to fill the front of her old studio space in Buckhead's TULA Art Center, is focused on developing a more youthful collector base made up of those more likely to drop $600 than $6,000 on a piece of artwork.
"The type of collector that I am cultivating and interested in is someone who is just starting to think about buying art, or more likely hasn't thought about it, but would if given that introduction in a way that felt comfortable," she says.
In 2011, Schwartz moved out of Buckhead and into a big, beautiful space across from Emily Amy Gallery on the Westside. There she supplemented exhibits with the usual artist talks, but she also began experimenting with other programming to drive traffic to the gallery such as Walk Away With Art, a cocktail party where, for $100, attendees got to meet artists and leave with signed, original pieces of artwork. Her ArtFeast dinners were collaborations with local hotshot chefs such as Watershed's Joe Truex that cost $65 a head and put potential collectors at the table with her exhibiting artists. Guests also left this event with a piece of art. Then there's The Ten, exclusive online monthly photography exhibits of 10 works priced at $250 each. And her Crusade for Collecting Tour, in which she drives a 1977 VW bus around the country to hold pop-up shows and give away art for free. She's about to launch Art Circle, basically a book club for the visual arts. Schwartz says she's trying to help people learn how to self-educate and connect with art, and, in the end, fundamentally change people's mindsets about buying art.
"For me it's not the economy, and it's never been the economy. It's the culture," she says. "I just waited 20 minutes in line and spent $5 on coffee, and I'll come back this afternoon and I'll do it again. This is a cultural thing that I buy into. If I'm spending $10 a day on coffee, I could spend $600 on a photograph that I'll have forever, but that's not where my mind is, you know? Some of the pieces that I have [for sale], it's a night out and a pair of jeans, which people do without thinking. ... I think the advantage is that, generationally, we're curious, and we're interested, and we care how our coffee's roasted, and where our food comes from, but art remains this intimidating thing."
Schwartz's diverse approach reflects a cultural zeitgeist hooked on event-centered art experiences, the popularity of art fairs being the most obvious example. Locally, it can be seen playing out in mini fairs such as the Indie Craft Experience, RAW Atlanta's monthly events, and Dashboard Co-op's annual multi-artist showcases, among others. At the Goat Farm, life and art are fully integrated. Community arts organization WonderRoot debuted a Community Supported Art subscription program this year. It's based on the same idea behind Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) networks, in which patrons pay a fee to have local produce delivered to their doors. WonderRoot offered 50 shares at $300 a pop for original works from nine artists and quickly sold out. Artists are paid $1,000 each and the rest of the profit goes to support WonderRoot.
"Getting pieces of art from nine artists who we think are doing some of the most exciting work in Atlanta for $300 is a steal," says WonderRoot Creative Director Maggie Ginestra. "I also think the mystery around it is exciting — the art buyers are buying an experience of mystery and surprise. People feel like they're supporting artists in a way that's accessible. They can support nine artists for $300. That feels like a lot of impact."
Atlanta as a physical space doesn't particularly lend itself to a strong gallery culture. Unlike a city such as New York, whose Chelsea neighborhood, for instance, boasts more than 100 galleries, Atlanta's not terribly walkable. There isn't a ton of natural street life here. Atlanta tends to develop small clusters of galleries in neighborhoods — along Peachtree Street in Midtown, Castleberry Hill, the Westside — and inevitably they fizzle out as gathering places after a few years. Even Solomon, whose gallery was located in one of the city's most pedestrian-friendly areas on Monroe Drive across from Piedmont Park, experienced minimal foot traffic.
"If I look in my crystal ball, what I see is more than ever the art centers of New York, London, Berlin, those are the places where galleries as a business can succeed. I don't know if it's really possible any longer outside of an art center where the audience comes and they can walk around and look at 100 galleries in one day if they wanted to," says Solomon. "Right now we are in probably the most difficult stage of [evolving] because people are just trying to figure it all out with technology."
"Art is work," says Sharratt.
The tricky part is getting paid.