It’s an Atlanta Day! Part 2: Priscilla Smith

June 10, 2014 · Print This Article

Over the coming months, the Bad at Sports blog is featuring quick glimpses of the art world as it exists in smaller cities across the country and around the world. Each glimpse is byway of some of the said city’s local characters, which include but are not limited to artists, curators, creative writers, and critics. In this Atlanta Day, Part 2 article, Bad at Sports correspondent Meredith Kooi has invited curator, performer, and arts administrator Priscilla Smith to examine some features of the city of Atlanta and its arts community: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Since I moved to Atlanta (this is Meredith talking) to start my PhD, I’ve been trying to make sense of this city. Usually, I use the space of my monthly writing for Bad at Sports as an opportunity to think with and through the art, performance, etc. that I witness and participate in here. Being from Chicago, ATL was foreign to me; I didn’t understand the ways in which it worked and all the complexities that determine it as the city it is. In this post, following Part I which examined “institutional legacy and memory,” Priscilla Smith takes on some of what might have lead Atlanta to where it is now and offers a few projects that maybe it, and we, should look to as examples of ways to keep working. Smith, a native to ATL, offers her perspective on this place, what it has to offer, and, maybe, what we could do without.

Now, Priscilla Smith:

Context: I got invited to give Bad at Sports my take on “the scene” in Atlanta. “What a Great Opportunity,” I thought. “It will be a Great Chance for Me to Reflect,” I thought. 1,000 words? No problem.

50% too long and six days after my self-imposed deadline, it’s still incomplete but I have to stop somewhere. Distilling my current experience as an art maker, producer, and participant in a city where I’ve spent my whole life is a bigger job than I’d imagined.

It’s only in the past three or four years that an Atlanta art patron has had to make a deliberate choice from a substantial selection of openings, lectures, plays, dance, music, immersive performance art (all of some respectable level of quality, ingenuity, or both) on a Thursday. It used to be that there would be a couple of visual art events a month, the Nutcracker, the Symphony, and two or three theaters with subscription seasons of “regional premieres.”

It had been a truism that, in order for an Atlanta artist or performer to “make it,” she’d have to leave Atlanta to fatten her resume, then come back to be be-laurel-ed: the Returning Art Hero. Nowadays, an artist can keep quite busy right here.

Not that all this activity is yielding a livable wage for artists. A recent and credible article pointed out that Atlanta has the greatest discrepancy between Haves and Have Nots in the country. I suspect that the money had by the Haves is being spent elsewhere. Our lovely High Museum, with its permanent collection, gallery of African Art, current visiting exhibitions, etc., could fit into Chicago’s Art Institute more than three times. Chicagoans spend money at home.

Instead, Atlantans spend money here on dining – fine, medium, and coarse. We spend money at our biggest-ass malls  — where the truest cross-section of our populace can be found. These places are huge, busy, and had very low vacancy rates during the worst of the current recession.

In contrast,  many private gallerists — largely a passionate, admirable group — allow that for days on end the only person walking through the door is working for FedEx. It isn’t the “death of the gallery” Jerry Saltz so eloquently eulogized, though. He visits 30 a week. We might have 30 altogether.

Non-profits like WonderRoot, with the mission of “Uniting Artists and Communities to Inspire Positive Social Change,”  connect patrons and artists. WonderRoot established Atlanta’s first c.s.a. (consumer supported art) project, a rare example of successfully implementing another community’s good idea (see Fear of Originality below).

The scene in Atlanta is a fluctuating series of artwalks and public art extravaganzas, explosions of creativity and bitter disappointments.

Pretty much like anywhere else.

And, like anywhere else, people have opinions. Here are some of mine about our “cultural assets.”

The Beautiful:

1. Atlanta is a hilly town in a deep forest. We don’t have to make anything to live in a place of extraordinary gorgeousness.

2. Approaching Downtown on the abominable and divisive divided highways (Interstates were deliberately placed so as to perpetuate racial segregation), the traveler has the feeling of approaching a “real city” where buildings scrape the sky in a great variety of configurations from Beaux-Artes marble and a Neo-Classical gold dome to Phillip Johnson’s Po-Mo IBM erection.

3. We’ve got a city center with a street scene with actual people in it. After years of ghost-townishness, there’s hope.

4. Exuberance – 1,000+ showed up at the grand opening of the city’s newest municipal gallery-cum-water-bill-payment-office.

5. Passion – About 2,000 signed a petition objecting to the censoring of artist Ruth Stanford’s installation at Kennesaw State University.

6. Access – Artists of all forms can get their work before an audience; for example, a few significant spaces:

 a. Whitespace Generous genius Susan Bridges’ restored-to-within-an-inch-of-its-life Victorian mansion in the haute ‘hood Inman Park is a beacon for the stable-turned-ideal-gallery in the backyard showing an impressive variety of art and artists. Mind-bending performances often grace the patio and lawns and the low-ceilinged cellar, dubbed “Whitespec.”

 b. Skwhirlhaus Another act of generosity, the not-as-grand-but-equally-moving backyard venue founded by Maryn Whitmore “dedicated to providing a place where artists can challenge themselves artistically while striving to create an original, complete work.”

 c. Art on the Atlanta BeltLine “The largest temporary public art exhibition in the South” commissions work for the “largest urban redevelopment” project in the U.S. of A.

7. Growth More galleries, more public art, more theaters, more artists, more dance, more environmental performances, more clubs, more original music, more, more, more

The Ugly/Noise at Eyedrum :

“Musicians” come from all over the world in search of a P.A., a Facebook post, and a dozen pairs of ears upon which to try their experiments and discoveries, from cranium-splitting amplification of metal-on-metal banging like Christian noise artist Scotty Irving (Clang Quartet) to the a-rhythmic acoustic plunkings of a guitar with each string tuned to G. Ugly like a Baroque pearl and twice as valuable.

The Truly Ugly/(Some) Public Art: 

 1. The “official” Olympic Torch sculpture–psuedo de-constructivist cheap-ass agglomeration of steel trusses and pre-fab stairs (it’s an embarrassment).

2. The un-“official” Olympic Torch (provenance indeterminate; lots of people mistake it for the real thing) – a 3-story bird cage with a turd on top.

“official” Olympic torch.

“un-official” Olympic torch.

3. Atlanta’s own Triumphal “Millenium Gate,” just like the arch in Paris, only it’s made of fake stucco and was erected as a vanity project (wait, I guess Napoleon wasn’t exactly humble) to adorn a private town built on the sludge of a defunct steel mill within the city limits.

So Ugly It’s Depressing:

1. Fear of Originality – The Chamber of Commerce, the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau, City Hall itself — all of these powerful entities look to what’s going on elsewhere and try to imitate others’ successful cultural forays without engaging the substantial resources of our own city. We pay consultants real money to tell us how better to run culture when spending money commissioning work here would go miles further.

2. Segregation – Aside from “the most segregated hour of the week” (church), the cultural life of Atlanta still struggles. However — While we’ve yet to develop audiences/patron groups that represent the full demographic profile of our cities or counties, things are changing. Every day. And addressing integration is a big reason why some of us stick around.

Ugly-in-Its-Absence:

Older Non-Monumental Architecture. Atlanta has historically and hysterically torn down anything it felt like in order to put up something new, even if the old thing was pretty and the new thing ugly. I remember as a young adolescent becoming aware of cool old buildings and spotting one out of the corner of my eye as we drove by. Three days later it was gone, making way for a pretty bland federal courthouse. The building I glimpsed was only about 50 years old, but it had towers.

Pretty-for-Its-Promise:

The good part is that someone pulled the string hanging above our heads, the light bulb lit up, and we’re tearing down less. Lo and behold, there’s an undiscovered cache of cool storefronts hiding under plastic signs and marquees in the underpopulated southern quarter of our re-bustling Downtown. Ebb and flow, pendulum swings . . .

The-Pain-in-the-Patooti:

Atlanta is a lot more like L.A. than New York. “Atlanta” often refers to a 13-county spread that can take four hours to traverse (or more) when traffic is bad–which is more and more of the time. As a result, there’s more interesting work being made and shown than anybody realizes. Just as the Major League Baseball team is headed to the suburbs, the ballet, the opera, theater companies, galleries, artists, and clubs speckle the map.

Salve for the Pain:

The city proper “Inside the Perimeter” (or ITP in local shorthand) has a growing population after horrible years of exurban migration.

And to end, the Noteworthy (An Idiosyncratic listing):

1. Dance: It’s everywhere  – In the forests, on trucks, in (defunct) factories, crosswalks, and it’s challenging, authentic, conceptually dense, and breathtaking (Beacon Dance, Dance Truck, Glo ATL, Lucky Penny, Blake Beckham, Helen Hale, Dance Chance, Meredith Kooi).

2.  Living Walls The City Speaks urban conference and mural-a-thon — now an annual event; some excellent and some awful big outdoor wall paintings done by artists from all over the globe, gallery shows of their work, a real change in public and institutional perceptions.

3. Beep Beep Gallery Owners’ success lead them to open a hugely popular bar “Mother.”

4. SUMPTUARY A month-long series of installations and performances where refreshment sales generated income for presenting artists. It was Where It’s At when it was on.

5. Atlanta Zine Fest

6. Free Poems on Demand

7. Film Love

8. Poem 88

9. Dr. Jerry Cullum

10. Flux Projects/Possible Futures Foundation

11. Doog Gallery

12. The Goat Farm Arts Center

13. Radio 1690

14. Journalism: BURNAWAY, Creative Loafing, Arts ATL, Art Papers

Priscilla Smith became the executive director of Eyedrum Art and Music Gallery as a volunteer in 2009, and in November 2013, became Eyedrum’s first paid employee when she started drawing a salary. She has created and presented performance art works, solo and in collaboration, in the streets and galleries of Atlanta since the early 1980s. Her first public art intervention took place in 1986 when she performed “I’m Sorry,” in which she fabricated a deconstructed hoop skirt and apologized to passersby during the Atlanta “Tight Squeeze Festival.” Most recently she distributed envelopes of money to passersby in the guise of “Lovey Joy” for her ongoing project “What I Did With The Money” as a commission for Flux Projects. In 2013 she played Clara 2 in Oh! Fearsome Head!, part III at The Big Haus. Other recent appearances include her original work “87 Gestures” for Dance Chance Atlanta and as a curtain-raiser for Oh! Fearsome! Head!, part II. She was a founding company member of ACME Theater that from 1980 to 1990 presented original performance works ranging from improvisational contemporary opera to full-length original dramas. She created a closing performance event for the centennial symposium in observance of the 1906 Atlanta Race Riot, has collaborated with Beacon Dance and John Q, and directed and produced over 35 evenings of student-created dramatic works at Horizons School and The Atlanta School in 21 years as an educator. She has served as performance coordinator for Art on the Atlanta BeltLine and was co-producer and co-founder of the 2010 Living Walls Conference. She holds a B.A. in speech and drama from Trinity University.

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