Is the Atlanta art scene shrinking? With Fay Gold’s closing in 2009, Solomon Projects and Kiang Gallery in 2011, and Emily Amy following in 2013, it’s easy to get that impression. These galleries were fixtures of the Atlanta scene for many years (Solomon Projects was in business for 18 years, Fay Gold for 29 years, and Kiang for 20 years). But many in Atlanta don’t believe these closures are a harbinger of things to come. They argue that the city’s professional art world is more complex than the survival of these galleries. After all, the city is dominated by non-profit organizations and commercial galleries have always taken up a small part of the Atlanta’s art landscape.
“[The rash of gallery closings] was never solely about economics, especially with the older galleries. It really felt like an older generation sort of retiring as one,” Atlanta-based artist Craig Drennen told me over coffee. Drennen is a professor at Georgia State and Dean at Skowhegan, and he arrived in Atlanta in 2009, when galleries began closing at what appeared to be an alarming rate. “Maybe the downturn in 2008 caused them to shut a year earlier than they would have anyway, but it seemed like it was coming.”
That’s a loss, whatever way you look at it. Scott Ingram, an Atlanta-based artist who worked with Nancy Solomon’s gallery for nine years, reflected on the space, and described the gap left in its stead. “Solomon Projects was an international gallery in Atlanta, that no one here ever fully took advantage of. [Their Director] Nancy was consistently showing artist like Jerald Ieans, Wendy White, David Humphrey, Janet Biggs, Ridley Howard, and Leslie Wayne.” It was one of the few contemporary art venues in the city.
“The economy was a small part of why we closed. The lack of being able to look out at the future and being able to see a growing base of contemporary art collectors was a major factor,” Nancy Solomon told me, after reflecting over her 18 years in the Atlanta art scene.
Perhaps indicative of the problems Solomon saw when closing her space, few new galleries have opened in Atlanta. That problem might be endemic to the city itself; it lacks a centralized gallery district and few collectors willing to invest in contemporary art and local, emerging artists. It makes it difficult for new galleries to establish any real footing.
Atlanta as a city is physically difficult to navigate. Without a grounded, established system of galleries, it makes it hard for anyone to find existing art venues. “I do think that Atlanta’s lack of center, lack of contiguous neighborhoods and its extreme sprawl make it more difficult to track and participate in any cultural activities,” Brian Dettmer explained. Dettmer is a Chicago transplant to Atlanta and currently has been based here for 7 years. He is one of millions who make Atlanta into the metropolis it is today, an international city with a constant flow of new arrivals. “Over half of the metropolitan population isn’t even from the South and it seems that people (artists and galleries) move in and move out just as quickly.”
The flux of the population is reflected in the gallery scene. Places pop up organically when rent is fair and disappear just as quickly. Since it’s a driving city, location is of little concern, but it’s still hard to bring in viewers without a gallery district; it gives people a central location to see art.
Attempting to find new ways to deal with this, outfits like Jennifer Schwartz Gallery and Saltworks have switched to smaller spaces or shifted their focus to working online. “I had 3,000 square feet, which was a lot more than I needed…but I was in highly visible area.” Gallerist Jennifer Schwartz told me who has also been trying to cultivate art patrons amongst those new to art collecting. Her company, Crusade for Art, organizes guided gallery tours and events in an effort to build relationships between the emerging artists she shows and those new to collecting.
Gallerists here have to work hard to educate their audience and nurture interest in contemporary art. Located in the Atlanta’s Westside district for 8 years, Get This!, does just that. Gallery sitters actively engage visitors in conversation about the work, and their regular exhibition videos and artist talks generate a lot of discussion as well. Community based programing and an interest and willingness to talk about art is common amongst most Atlanta professionals.
Still, there remains a disconnect between support through participation and support through money spent on actual art objects for Atlanta artists. The city’s event culture of non-profit fundraising often sees mid-career artists donating their work to organizations rather than receiving direct support.
Until recently, those problems had been compounded by a lack of institutional interest in contemporary art. Michael Rooks, curator of modern and contemporary art at the High Museum since 2010, has worked to change that though, bringing several Atlanta artists into the High’s collection. Rooks’ latest show, Drawing Inside the Perimeter, gives these local artists a vouch of support that can translate into real life support from collectors.
Solomon sees the museum as being a key component in improving the collector situation in Atlanta, saying “The importance of the museum is to educate the community, the collector base, and the collectors of the future about the art of our day. The lack of contemporary art programming at the museum has set back the development of a strong collector base.” With Rooks, thankfully, that may be changing.