For a survey of what lies ahead as the art world looks forward to the future, ARTnews devoted part of the June-July 2021 issue of the magazine to 10 cities to watch: Philadelphia, Atlanta, Vancouver, Guadalajara, Bogotá, Oslo, Tallinn, Casablanca, Abu Dhabi, and Taipei. Stay tuned as each city joins related features from Seoul and Paris online in the weeks to come.
As the sprawling hub of the evolving modern South, Atlanta has become an important nexus for all aspects of the culture industry, including, in its own homegrown way, art. A mix of established and evolving institutions is making moves, from museums to newly integrated educational networks. And—in a city whose history and current political complexities make it so that matters of race are never far from mind—certain figures are fighting for promising prospects for the future.
Picturing the South
Atlanta’s most illustrious art institution since its founding in 1905, the High Museum of Art is known for its holdings of a variety of folk and self-taught art and—especially—for its Photography Department, which oversees a collection of some 7,000 prints from the earliest years of picture-taking to the present. A milestone on the horizon for the department is the upcoming 25th anniversary of “Picturing the South,” a commissioning initiative started by the High in 1996 (when Atlanta hosted the Olympics) with a mind toward presenting the region as seen and experienced by artists from all over. The first year occasioned new work by Sally Mann, Dawoud Bey, and Alex Webb, and the series has since brought close to 300 photographs into a collection that continues to grow.
To be commemorated by an exhibition set to open in November titled “Picturing the South: 25 Years,” the undertaking has always been an “open assignment” and “self-directed project” for the photographers involved, according to High associate curator of photography, Gregory Harris, and it has produced significant work as a result. “It kick-started a lot,” Harris said. “People who hadn’t otherwise worked in the South became very interested in the history, the topography, the people, and the culture of the region. Institutional support has also been transformative for a number of artists’ careers, and marks major transitions in their work as well.”
This year’s commissioned artists—Sheila Pree Bright (based in Atlanta), Jim Goldberg (San Francisco), and An-My Lê (Brooklyn)—will take their place within a legacy that has proven important for Atlanta and the surrounding region as they show new work in the anniversary exhibition. “The commissions really provided an engine for what the photography collection was going to be and has been while thinking about the South more broadly,” High photo curator Sarah Kennel said. Themes considered in the series include environmental justice and the history of slavery and race, and those themes remain resonant today, Kennel said, when “we’re all at a moment when reflecting on the South’s role in American history is really critical.”
Equity in Funding
As one of Georgia’s biggest philanthropic entities in the area of arts, the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta plays an important role in the city’s art scene. “They dole out upwards of a million dollars a year,” said Heather Infantry, a close watcher of the foundation as an Atlanta-area advocate for equity in the arts. “In other cities, that’s pennies—but in Atlanta, it’s very substantial, given how deeply underfunded the arts are in general, from the state level to the municipal level.” (Infantry noted that for a long time Georgia has ranked either last or second-to-last in the nation in grants of public money to the arts.)
But for all its giving over the years, the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta had a problem with who was getting that funding—until Infantry took up the cause. After finding that 87 percent of foundation funds had historically gone to white-led organizations, Infantry went public with the news while pointing out that certain rules for eligibility (related to budget and staff size, for example) effectively shut out many small and struggling arts organizations that needed support the most. “When you get down to it, the Community Foundation is an incredibly racist institution when it creates guidelines and criteria that disqualify Black arts organizations that are so prolific and abundant,” said Infantry, whose advocacy efforts helped change things for the better.
Last year, when the Community Foundation gave out $1.15 million to 28 organizations, 85 percent of the money went to Black-led enterprises. In addition, the foundation made changes to its leadership and vowed to make equality a priority in the future—thanks to advocacy that Infantry, as an independent activist working in different realms, led on her own terms. “I did the work as a representative of myself, as a concerned resident and citizen of this place,” she said. “I wanted to demonstrate that this is an issue of concern for everybody, not only those who have official titles in organizations or institutions. I wanted to communicate that and also be a model for organizations that don’t feel like they have agency for whatever reason.”
In addition to her activism, Infantry works on arts and culture issues for the TransFormation Alliance, a coalition that advocates for community-building in the realm of transit policy, and she started a group she calls the Atlanta Taskforce for Philanthropic Reparations, to address inequities in funding. All the while, Infantry has kept the focus on collaboration. “We’re working together,” she said of her teamwork with colleagues in different projects. “We’re not in silos.”
Though still years from realization, plans are underway for a Spelman College Center for Innovation & the Arts conceived to “bring the arts, technology, and innovation into close collaboration with one another.” The project received a $30 million gift from Spelman trustee Ronda Stryker and her husband, William Johnston, as well as $2.5 million from former Barnes & Noble chairman Leonard Riggio and his wife, Louise. Construction could begin as early as this coming fall on an $86 million building that will house all the school’s arts programs, as well as the Spelman Museum of Fine Art and the Spelman Innovation Lab.
Involving three historically Black colleges and universities, the Atlanta University Center Art History + Curatorial Studies Collective launched in 2019 to help create a pipeline for future curators, art historians, and other museum professionals through interdepartmental exchange between Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College, and the program’s official home, Spelman College. Seeded by a $5.4 million grant from the Alice L. Walton Foundation, the collective offers training and financial support to those attending the three schools as well as younger students not yet at the university level with the intent of changing the makeup of the institutional art world.
Citing a 2015 Mellon Foundation study finding that African Americans occupied only 2 percent of leadership positions within museums, Cheryl Finley, director of the AUC Art Collective, said there was more work to be done in the next such study. “By 2018, that number had doubled—to a whopping 4 percent. That’s a really embarrassing number.” Finley described the collective’s mission as an effort to “solve the problems of the art ecosystem, to make it a more equitable place for all of us to live and work in, to thrive and be a part of.” Through scholarships and programs for high-school students, and partnerships with local institutions including the High Museum of Art, she said, “we are trying to create pathways for young and nimble minds to go out and really transform the art industry, to infiltrate museums and cultural institutions as curators, directors, conservators, art handlers—to fill jobs that in the past have not had equitable representation.”
The AUC Art Collective just graduated its first class in May, and a student who entered it in high school is currently an art history major at Morehouse. Progress like that, Finley said, can go a long way toward making the art world more amenable to the kinds of diversity it professes to want. “That’s really what the program was designed to do.”