The Unlikely Rise of Contemporary Art in Atlanta

Where Atlanta editor Michelle Khouri investigates the surprising surge of the art world's most progressive genre in the heart of the conservative South.

Standing in Atlanta’s architectural High Museum of Art, I find myself enthralled by Judy Pfaff’s “Apples and Oranges” (1986). This monumental piece (nearly 10-feet high by 12-feet wide) leaps toward the viewer with forward-springing metal half-spheres in a variety of neon colors. I travel back in time to a day at the fair. Flashing lights urge me to visit mirrored mazes. Multicolored metal cars beckon me aboard stomach-churning rides. A present-day voice materializes behind me. “Not a fan,” my friend said as he walked away to view other works.

This interaction, and reaction, is at the core of contemporary art.

High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA

“What you bring to it is just as important as what you take away from it,” said Michael Rooks, the curatorial mastermind behind the High’s top-floor Modern and Contemporary Art collection.

“Contemporary art is art of the now,” explained Veronica Kessenich, executive director of the Atlanta Contemporary, founded originally as Nexus. “It’s responsive to political issues, to issues that are impacting communities.”

Atlanta Contemporary is a non-collecting nonprofit institution dedicated to the exhibition of contemporary art, a genre even many art lovers don’t fully understand.

“A lot of people think of art as something that hangs on a wall in a frame or sits on a pedestal and has a certain, very narrow function in the world,” said Rooks. “When artworks stray from that very limiting idea about purpose, it scares people.”

Jean-Michel Basquiat's "Fallen Angel"

Pfaff’s dramatic and playful piece, for instance, draws its inspiration from still life—an ironically austere muse given her work’s movement and whimsy. The work’s front-and-center presence in the High’s contemporary wing is a sign of a more artistically unrestricted—and unabashed—Atlanta.

Indeed, Atlanta’s contemporary art scene is enjoying a much-needed upward trajectory—growth that has been slow and hard-earned. But it’s important to understand the genre’s local history in order to appreciate its future.

Rooks believes the first inkling of contemporary art in Atlanta was seen in 1946, when the High launched its “Southeastern Annual Exhibition of Oils and Water Colors,” which he explained, “established a community of artists after the war here, and art making became a practice that was viable and had an audience in the city.” The exhibition ran annually until 1971.

High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA

During that time, pioneer Judith Alexander opened her New Arts Gallery (1957), which frequently displayed contemporary works. In 1963, Gudmund Vigtel joined the High as its new director. Vigtel’s interest in contemporary art gave the genre more opportunities to shine in museum exhibitions. Local legend David Heath opened his renowned, eponymous gallery in 1965. Singular and sporadic as they are, these events sent a ripple through Atlanta’s cultural community that would build to tidal wave proportions.

The first swell hit in 1973 when six artists founded a grassroots cooperative they called Nexus—a move catalyzed by limited space, opportunities and support for local artists.

“[The founding of Nexus] was like the birth of this new contemporary art scene,” said Rooks.

Nexus was a big step for the city, and still more was on its way.

Nexus, Atlanta Contemporary, Atlanta, GA

In 1980, New York-bred icon Fay Gold opened a gallery that would become the first in Atlanta to show works by world-renowned artists like Cindy Sherman, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Robert Rauschenberg. Fay Gold Gallery would remain a major staple in Atlanta’s art scene until its closing in 2009.

The next surge arrived in 2000, when Annette Cone-Skelton, a career artist and former director of the Heath Gallery, founded the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia (MOCA GA).

“I understood very quickly the lack of opportunities [in the city and state] for contemporary artists,” she recalled. “That’s the mission: we support Georgia artists.”

The start of the new millennium gave rise to a sudden boom of activity in the city’s contemporary community. Between 2005 and 2010, several important galleries opened, nonprofit arts organizations launched and annual events kicked off, which all centered around the arts and, specifically, the contemporary genre.

Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia, Atlanta, GA

“Since the days of starting MOCA, there are a number of other organizations that have been formed—BURNAWAY, ArtsATL—those are huge to get this information out,” said Cone-Skelton, who has seen the city’s art scene evolve dramatically since her days as a student at the Atlanta College of Art (now the Savannah College of Art and Design).

Furthermore, one addition to Atlanta’s art scene seems to have been particularly transformative: Rooks. Since joining the High in 2010, he has drastically reformed the museum’s relationships with local artists, turning what was once a sour division into a bonded effort to strengthen the city’s cultural offerings.

High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA

“[Rooks] made the community take itself more seriously by his wanting to go to studios, collecting work from artists who are living here and essentially validating the work,” said Robin Sandler, whose Sandler Hudson Gallery opened in 1989 and continues to be one of the city’s most esteemed galleries.

Rooks’ warmth and inclusiveness tend to be excluded from most art-world stereotypes. Far from snobby and elitist, his attitude toward both audiences and local artists is wholeheartedly welcoming.

“It’s always important to engage with artists who live in your city and who are an important part of your community,” Rooks said. “[Artists] are like the front line of our audience and ... help us to determine what’s relevant in our context, in this context, in the South.”

This open-to-all approach is especially essential within the context of contemporary art, which many view as intimidating or peculiar. This self-consciousness also keeps people from venturing into local galleries to examine and enjoy art.

Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia, Atlanta, GA

“I think the gallery [environment] is very intimidating to people. They don’t know if they’re supposed to pay if they come in,” said Sandler. “They don’t know what they’re supposed to say. … We have worked very hard at making people feel very comfortable. It’s an honor to us that people want to come in. I think it needs to be a situation where you’re welcoming.”

Rooks agreed: “It’s important to ... provide an experience that is generous [so that] people can feel at liberty to laugh and to relax and to let their shoulders down.”

On the other hand, Kessenich encourages audiences not to shy away from their gut reactions.

“Sometimes the best way is just to go and experience a show. If you’re having an immediate response that’s visceral … play with that,” she advises.

Atlanta Contemporary, Atlanta, GA

According to Kessenich, my friend’s knee-jerk ambivalence toward Judy Pfaff’s “Apples and Oranges” is as important as my reverence for the same piece.

“You feel more apt to engage when you see yourself reflected in the work,” Kessenich explained.

This human relatability is at the very foundation of contemporary art. And, yet, foot traffic is halted by aforementioned misperceptions alongside barriers of cost, education and awareness.

Kessenich sees this dynamic each day at Atlanta Contemporary, which switched to a free-admission model in 2015 thanks to a $200,000 grant from the Metropolitan Atlanta Arts Fund.

“If you want to grow your visitorship and diversify your audience and engage with new patrons, cost can’t be a barrier,” she said. As it turns out, cost was no small issue.

Since launching free admission in 2015, Atlanta Contemporary has seen a whopping 80-percent increase in attendance, 59 percent of which were first-time visitors. Beyond sheer attendance, Kessenich said “the demographic shift has been transformational.” Atlanta Contemporary’s patrons were once nearly 75 percent Caucasian. Now, nearly half of all visitors are African-American, Asian-American and/or Latino.

MOCA GA, Atlanta, GA

On the other hand, MOCA GA recently launched an ambassador program to engage Millennials in the contemporary community. The ambassador group plans interactive events, like coloring and wine nights or yoga in the galleries, that encourage younger audiences to see the museum through a less rigid lens.

According to Cone-Skelton, Millennials tend to naturally show a greater appreciation for contemporary art.

“They have grown up with it, and their parents have grown up with it and even many of their grandparents have. They’ve just been more exposed. And they are visually very knowledgeable. They read images very rapidly,” she explained.

The new millennium brought about more changes for the contemporary-art world than just its namesake generation. Speak with any longtime artist and the conversation will inevitably touch on the Internet’s immeasurable influence on the global advancement of the arts.

Rocio Rodriguez, Atlanta, GA

Artist Rocio Rodriguez has enjoyed a thriving 30-year career in Atlanta that gives her particular insight into the Internet’s influence on the local art scene.

“Now, you can reach other audiences and people can look you up immediately and you appear in certain things,” she said. “The world has become smaller and the art world here has become bigger because of that.”

Like a digital treasure chest, the Internet brought with it a wealth of opportunity for local artists, who are now more likely to find work not just across the U.S. but also throughout the globe.

Alex Brewer, an artist known as HENSE with a strong online presence, is based in Atlanta but frequently travels abroad for public-art projects, installations and exhibitions. He credits the Internet for allowing artists to instantly present their work to a world of potential clients, collectors and appreciators.

Alex Brewer, HENSE, Atlanta, GA

Kessenich believes an artist’s growing national and international acclaim inevitably trickles down to the city.

“It’s also really important for Atlanta artists to go to residencies in different states or to be exhibited in different galleries, not just in Atlanta but beyond,” she said. “Then, other people can see work being done by Atlanta artists and think, ‘I should go to Atlanta. I should go see the work being done there. I should travel.’”

For Rodriguez, stepping outside of Atlanta is a necessity.

“I’ve had a lot of visibility [in Atlanta] but you hit a ceiling,” she said. “You also need to branch out and find collectors elsewhere.”

Brewer, for one, chooses not to rely solely on collectors for his career. “[My work] is more project-based, it’s more exhibition-based,” he explained. “Yes, selling paintings is very important, but I’m not trapped in my studio making paintings just waiting for the next sale. I’m doing other things—because I have to.”

Whitespace, Atlanta, GA

It seems the innate boldness and, often, abstraction of contemporary art may be both its greatest strength and weakness, especially in a region of the U.S. known for its deep-rooted traditions.

“There is a lot of money here, especially old money,” said Brewer of local collectors. “A lot of those people do collect art, but they’re not collecting what I call contemporary art. A lot of that has to do with geography. We are still in the South.”

Kessenich believes the answer lies in educating collectors about the importance of contemporary art.

“Not everything is what you would qualify as categorically beautiful or decorative. There are things that are going to be challenging or risky or difficult or conceptual.”

Susan Bridges owns Whitespace, an edgy carriage house-turned-exhibition space located behind her home. Like many local gallerists, Bridges laments the lack of native Atlantan support, but sees an opportunity in the city’s influx of new residents.

“I think that, as more people matriculate here from different parts of the country, that they’re going to be looking for interesting things—that they’re going to be looking for contemporary art,” she said.

Gold, now an independent curator and art consultant, believes this wave of transplants has already played an important role.

“So many informed collectors have moved here from other cities and have brought their knowledge,” she explained. “They’re only collecting contemporary art … They want something that speaks to them, that’s challenging, that you have to think about.”

Sandler Hudson Gallery, Atlanta, GA

“I feel like the tipping point is near,” said Kessenich. “I think the longevity of institutions such as ours or even what the High Museum has been able to do are really demonstrating to the community that we are creating cultural capital for Atlanta. More and more people are moving here because it is a city that has food culture, cocktail culture, theatrical culture and the arts.”

And so, like the rising sun after a midnight storm, the future of contemporary art in Atlanta seems brighter than ever.

Michelle Khouri
About the author

Michelle serves as the Atlanta editor and Read Michelle's full bio