It’s an Atlanta Day, Part 1: Rachel Reese and Beth Malone

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 It’s an Atlanta Day, Part 1 article, Bad at Sports correspondent Meredith Kooi has invited curators Rachel Reese and Beth Malone to share their thoughts on the present, past, and future of Atlanta and its artistic endeavors. In this two-part essay, they tackle the problems of legacy, responsibility, and inconsistency.  

As Rachel Reese (featured below) poignantly states: “I am currently looking ahead towards the past.” This seems to be a common sentiment shared amongst many ATLiens. Considering Atlanta’s particular history – it has burned to the ground twice – and its inconsistent flux of artist communities, it is apt that many artists, curators, writers, etc., etc. are engaged with Atlanta’s past. Recognizing what has come before is essential to mapping out a potential future, or even making sense of the present.

Reese and Malone asked themselves:

Is legacy a socially-shared responsibility of a community? Who carries the onus of education or transferring communal history? How does one (or do “we” in a communal sense) maintain institutional knowledge when these “caretakers” of histories are in continual flux or transition?

and what follows is their working towards a resolution.

Beth's '93 Nissan Hard Body. 170,000 miles, no AC, no radio, couture steering wheel. Future home of "Truck Talk," a podcast featuring interviews with Atlanta art community members active in Nexus.

Beth’s ’93 Nissan Hard Body. 170,000 miles, no AC, no radio, couture steering wheel. Future home of “Truck Talk,” a podcast featuring interviews with Atlanta art community members active in Nexus.

I.

Speakers of the Aymara language in Andean culture carry a view that is essentially opposite of how most cultures spatially conceptualize time: for the Aymaran, the past is in front of them and the future behind them. They call the future “qhipa pacha/timpu,” meaning back or behind time, and the past “nayra pacha/timpu, meaning front time. Aymaran speakers gesture ahead of them when remembering things past, and backward when talking about the future. So what is known (the past) is what you can see in front of you, with your own eyes.

Questions of institutional memory drive a lot of my thought process recently. Atlanta is a small, close-knit, and motivated arts city, but apparently lacks a lot of “download” in terms of sharing communal histories – communal being the operative word.  And this is not a conversation unique to Atlanta. So a question I keep returning to is, where is the gap or disconnect between individual and institutional “gatekeepers” held over from prior years and a new generation of young artists in our city? Are we unknowingly repeating the past? Or, are we even aware of whom these gatekeepers are to begin with? Are we setting ourselves up for repeat performances, cyclic behavior without any memory? (Note: in full self-consciousness, I’m aware my inquiries are not new, a theme that in itself is timeless and cyclical). So, then, who carries the onus of responsibility? Is this always individually-motivated, or when do we decide this becomes a socially-shared responsibility? Does it boil down to messaging and communicating with others – is this the result of a communication gap driven by rapid technology shifts?

I recently heard Matthew Higgs, director and chief curator at White Columns, speak about not only the breadth of experiences, projects, and arcs in his career, but of particular interest to both Higgs, and subsequently myself, was his personal passion to what he calls “time served” with regards to professional employment and dedication to an organization throughout one’s life. Sustaining long arcs in one’s career calls for time and patience, and this model is increasingly diminishing in contemporary society, not excluding contemporary visual arts. Institutional positions sometimes come with term and funding limits, curators work independently and career hop between institutions so as not to stagnate and capitalize on programmatic opportunities when they arise, and “time served” does not carry the same weight or relevance as it might have a few decades (or years) prior. In opposition to this thinking, Higgs commented that his initial proposal for directorship at White Columns called for a 10-year plan, now currently coming to fruition (and he hopes to implement the ensuing 10-year plan).

Important in Higgs’ argument is that making a commitment to an organization, a city even, and staying there, allows you to create a community around the ideas you want to explore and build it over time and space, growing and maintaining institutional memory often lost when leadership is in constant flux. It allows you to put forward new ideas and opinions while walking with certain histories. Atlanta is a fertile place with ripe histories and legacies to mine and maintain. But, it is important to contextualize these histories while not feeling burdened by them in the present. How can we, in a communal sense, build an academic Archive – both accessible to the public and organized upon best practices – while simultaneously re-contextualizing and re-performing those histories in a self-reflexive narrative running parallel to it? How can self-consciously marginal activities become self-historical?

The Means Street location for Nexus Contemporary Art Center before renovations in 1989. Photo: Lucinda Bunnen. Courtesy Atlanta Contemporary Art Center.

The Means Street location for Nexus Contemporary Art Center before renovations in 1989. Photo: Lucinda Bunnen. Courtesy Atlanta Contemporary Art Center.

The Atlanta Contemporary Art Center (ACAC) was founded in 1973 as Nexus, an artist cooperative formed by a group of Georgia State University photography students dissatisfied with exhibition opportunities available to them in Atlanta at the time. This fledgling co-op, individually motivated, grew exponentially comprising several spaces over four decades into an organization with various stakeholders, each with their own degree of “gatekeeping,” over the past 40-plus-year history. Does art “community” exist on a macro level, or do we create and maintain more intimate connections that are professionally- or personally-motivated? As a localized “art community” grows (in scope, range, approaches) does it inversely become more polarized or fragmented? In other words, do we lose our “communal” spirit when concerns for individual viability, logistical practicalities, and financial sustainability, create unconstructive competition thereby rupturing communication between organizations or individuals in a community (and “community” is not necessary a condition of the geographically-based local).

I began these inquiries this past spring at ACAC under the name Resource Room Roundtables – essentially a monthly Monday morning “power hour” with Atlanta arts leaders and professionals to discuss a range of topics from measuring impact and success, to the importance of role models and field research in one’s practice. Creating agile programming in an underutilized space carrying an outdated model (the Resource Room as “community billboard,” pre-handheld digital device ubiquity) serves to rethink the model altogether, to present a series of cumulative investigations that overtime will begin to reveal their logic and possible outcomes. It is my belief that platforms can be non-hierarchical and democratic in terms of emphasis (thinking, researching, producing, presenting, analyzing), thus a redistribution of resources whereby formats are intended to overlap and develop from that overlap, to complement and interact with each other.

In the spirit of self-reflexivity, searching and allowing inquiries to drive this thought process is proving most fruitful at this stage of my “time served” in Atlanta; the phrase “settling down” has never been more comforting, in that I am here for the long haul, but after two years my work has only just begun. I am currently looking ahead towards the past.

-Rachel Reese

II.

For four years, Dashboard Co-op has moved forward with slim knowledge of recent Atlanta art history. We move instinctively, with present-tense intention, making decisions very pointedly, yet with eyes to the future. From our beginnings we’ve sought regular guidance from community leaders with the understanding that they have vast experience due to the nature of their reputations and charisma and community gossip. But without a presence of mind to do the historical research (75% of the problem, honestly), or an obvious communal archive to access materials documenting these “experiences” – we just took everyone’s word for it.

My personal curatorial brain has been shifting lately sparked by a fleeting comment made by one of our most established and well-versed critics, Jerry Cullum:

COSMS is a transformation of a vacant office-tower space that, for us old-timers, brings back memories of such ambitious artist-organized events as the Thursday Night Artists’ exhibition on the 50th floor of Philip Johnson’s One Atlantic Center.

Upon reading this, I immediately felt a great sense of naiveté for having zero familiarity with his reference. Since 2010, I personally have had no problem forging ahead and, until now, had found my ignorance of the past to be blissfully refreshing and freeing. Jerry’s mention of recent ATL art history (as he often does in reviews, so wonderfully) jarred me out of that bliss. With that very brief, though potent, reference came a new sense of pressure to respond, a desire to learn, and a nagging (though loving) sense of responsibility to preserve.

Taking on the responsibility to archive and preserve is something a community can take or leave depending on present day circumstances. Seven years ago, when the economy was at its worst in decades, there may have been no presence of mind to allocate funds for archival projects. The city’s establishment was trying to keep its doors open with present-day programming, while the emerging scene was flourishing with energetic organizations and artists making quick, unregulated decisions on how best to respond to the freedom the economic downturn afforded us – vacant space, lax regulations, preoccupied purse-string holders.

Now, seven years later, with the recession passing out of view slowly, slowly, Dash has somehow maintained its footing without getting arrested, pissing people off, or bottoming out financially. To celebrate, we’re pausing to breathe, make space, and define our curatorial practice – a practice that will be informed by specificity of space, place, and history.

We’ll do the research; we’ll continue conversations with our community leaders, but dig deeper into the work they did in the 80s and 90s. We’re exploring dusty archives at Art Papers and ACAC and raising questions about where and how these archives are being presented and preserved at these and other established institutions. Namely, so we can access them with ease and use them as resource and support material in exhibitions.

Slides from the Nexus archives at ACAC detailing the exhibition Multiples ('90) and the 1999 Atlanta Biennial.

Slides from the Nexus archives at ACAC detailing the exhibition Multiples (’90) and the 1999 Atlanta Biennial.

I do personally believe we, as a presenting organization, have a responsibility to, on occasion, contextualize exhibitions with our historical past. These references directly respond to our own growth and sustainability; it improves the quality of our work and builds strength and appreciation within the walls of this expansive, multi-generational community. It may even act as a way to prevent mistakes of the past – though I don’t subscribe to the belief that there were – but it will absolutely make “the Past” a breathing being that informs present and future work, rather than an unknown grumble with its arms crossed in the back of a gallery.

This interest/commitment to archiving will also inform Dash’s current archival practices, meaning we will strive to maintain our own historical record. We need to create a space that is mindful of future artists,  curators, and critics who find themselves in a similar position as ourselves. But more selfishly (paranoid?), this is a way to control how we are perceived in the future, just as we attempt to control present-day perceptions. I hope to look to larger institutions to define “best practices” in record-keeping, while, in return as a young organization, make comment on functionality and access.

- Beth Malone

Rachel Reese.

Rachel Reese.

Rachel Reese is an independent curator and arts writer living in Atlanta. She is currently the Communications Manager at Atlanta Contemporary Art Center. She has worked for many years in commercial galleries in the Northeast? Assistant Director of Fleisher/Ollman Gallery in Philadelphia;  Financial Director of Deitch Projects, among other positions held at Andrea Rosen, Petzel Gallery, and Andrew Kreps in New York. In 2010, Reese founded Possible Press, a free periodical of curated artists’ writings, and in 2009, began Possible Projects, an exhibition/curatorial space, with her husband Trevor Reese.

Reese regularly contributes to Bomb Magazine, and her writing also appears in Temporary Art Review, TWELV Magazine, and ART PAPERS. Reese was the former editor of BURNAWAY Magazine, where she edited the magazine’s inaugural print publication, INTERIOR (2013). She is an adjunct at Georgia State University, and was previously at PAFA in Philadelphia. She holds an MFA from City College New York, CUNY.

Beth Malone.

Beth Malone.

Beth Malone is an independent curator and the founding executive director of Dashboard Co-op, an award-winning curatorial venture that activates raw space with immersive art. Dash has been nationally praised for its neighborhood revitalization efforts and curatorial vision by WABE, Business Insider, HGTV, Hyperallergic, and the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, among others. In addition to her work with Dash, in 2011, Beth started the Teen Program at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta where she connected tens of thousands of teenagers with the Museum’s collections and exhibitions. Under her direction, the program tripled in size, and now spreads across the Woodruff Arts Center to the Atlanta Symphony and Alliance Theatre. Beth holds a Masters of Letters from the University of Glasgow and participates on numerous review committees in Atlanta. Her animated films have screened in New York and Atlanta, her writing has appeared in numerous publications, and her neon sculpture is, meh.

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