The Atlanta Contemporary gallery is nestled between two visions of the South. To the west lie railroad tracks for which the city was founded, under the name Terminus, in 1837, before its current name, a portmanteau of Atlantica-Pacifica, rebranded it as the presumptive capital of the region a decade later. Two blocks east is the Georgia Institute of Technology, founded in 1888 partly in response to Atlanta Constitution editor Henry W. Grady’s call for a “New South” of industrial and economic progress. It is at this junction—between its antebellum past and a century-old conception of novelty, both regional hub and cosmopolitan waystation—that the Contemporary, as the gallery is called by locals, finds itself upon the return of the Atlanta Biennial.
That the biennial reappeared in 2016, after a nine-year hiatus following a two-decade run, nearly vowelless, as ATLBNL, came as no surprise to someone who has heard the art scene described as “young” both pejoratively and self-consciously by a number of local artists, curators, writers, and administrators. On the radio, the Contemporary’s curator, Daniel Fuller, called the founders of the original biennial “old hippies,” alluding to the variability of curation in the first few editions, but also the Contemporary’s hippie roots: as Nexus, a photography collective founded in 1973, which became the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center in 2000.
The first Atlanta Biennial descended upon the city in 1984. Alan Sondheim, its curator, spent the 1970s in the music and poetry scenes of the Lower East Side before moving to Atlanta in the early 1980s. He recalled the scene in Atlanta at that time as less hippie, more punk: “There was something dirty about it. Really basic from the ground up. It was almost a kind of commons, or multiple commons, that intersected in all sorts of interesting ways.” When he founded the event, it was half as a joke.
“We called it the biennale,” Sondheim told me, using the Italian pronunciation. “We kind of tried to pay as little attention to New York as possible.”
ATLBNL’s website provides readers with a more convenient origin story: the 1984 Whitney Biennial contained no work by Southern artists; Sondheim started the Atlanta Biennial in response as a celebration of Southern talent.
In fact, there was no 1984 Whitney Biennial—the event was held on odd years—and its 1983 manifestation included work from nine Southern artists. Louise Shaw, curator of Atlanta’s David J. Sencer CDC Museum (and, like Fuller and Sondheim, a transplant from the Northeast), was involved in the Atlanta Biennial’s early years, and recalls its ethos as “tongue-in-cheek.” “That first biennial,” Shaw told me, Sondheim “revolutionized the art scene. Then it settled down and became more serious.”
As Atlanta buttoned up in the 1980s and the 1990s, so did Nexus and the biennial. The 1992 show included Kara Walker and Radcliffe Bailey, both alums of the former Atlanta College of Art, which was absorbed by the Savannah College of Art and Design in 2006. Kojo Griffin, who exhibited in the 2000 Whitney Biennial, credits his past successes to his inclusion in the 1997 Atlanta Biennial, and now he keeps a studio off the Contemporary’s courtyard. Griffin, who grew up in Boston and New Jersey, told me that the relatively cheap rent and abundance of space have played a big role in keeping him here, but those things are changing. And it’s a lot more conservative than “the wild west,” as Louise Shaw characterized the city in the 1980s. “This is Georgia, and it is a red state,” Griffin told me. “While there may be a sort of philosophical freedom that a person may have, in reality once you decide that you want to be a part of the market here in the South then there may not be that same sort of freedom as there would be otherwise—because you now have to think about the particular tastes of collectors down here.”
Though Georgia may reportedly turn blue this November, it is unlikely to affect the art market. Atlanta artists complain of a lack of quality galleries, and fewer patrons. Many tell me that Atlanta’s art scene “ebbs and flows,” but always stands in tension with the city’s history. Atlanta’s largest art institution, the High Museum, hosts Rodin’s The Shade because the French government donated it following the 1962 crash of Air France Flight 007, which killed 106 members of the Atlanta Art Association on their way back from a month of collecting in Europe. The tragedy prompted Martin Luther King, Jr., in Atlanta, to cancel a sit-in, while Malcolm X, in Los Angeles, painted the death of “over 120 white people” as an act of God. The 1996 Summer Olympics elevated Atlanta’s dreams of internationalism, but some veterans of the scene decry the city’s revamp for weeding out some of the more experimental elements.
In 2016, the art scene in Atlanta isn’t anemic, and it’s not totally square either. Despite some cringeworthy attempts at projecting an image of youthfulness at the opening Saturday night—an artisanal hot dog stand, five DJs, and two working tattoo artists doling out art to-go—a lot of the work included in the biennial is exciting and innovative; not so much hippie as hip. And that goes for Atlanta as a whole, at least in its more DIY environments: the galleries on and around Broad Street in Atlanta’s largely ungentrified downtown, including Eyedrum, Murmur, and Mammal Gallery, whose proximity to the campus of Georgia State University and disinterest in commercial work keep the programming young, scrappy, and conceptual. Nadia Marie Belvanson, a student in Georgia State’s studio art program—where Griffin also studied—told me, “One thing that’s beautiful about Atlanta is that people aren’t making work to sell, because they know it’s not going to. So they’re just making honest work.”
But the climate is changing. A commercial gallery, Hathaway, opened just a few months ago mere blocks from the Contemporary. Logan Lockner, an editor at Burnaway, has watched young Georgia State artists migrating from downtown conceptualism into that commercial space. “That represents to me something really great,” Lockner said. “But it represents a minority among the commercial galleries.”
And Atlantans represent a minority in the ATLBNL show, making up only seven of the show’s 32 exhibitors. In an editorial for Burnaway in July, Shaw criticized the lack of transparency on the part of the show’s curators about the selection process and their regional, rather than local, focus. “As the High Museum of Art has demonstrated recently,” Shaw wrote, referring to locals-only shows such as last fall’s “Sprawl!: Drawing Outside the Lines,” “rooting for the home team is good business and the right thing to do.”
The curators disagree. They are all transplants in some way: Fuller came to Atlanta from Maine last year, and Victoria Camblin, editor and artistic director of Art Papers, came here from Berlin; Aaron Levi Garvey, an independent curator from Jacksonville, Florida, originally hails from New York; and Gia Hamilton, director of the Joan Mitchell Center, lived in New York for 15 years before returning to her native New Orleans in 2008. To them Atlanta is an international hub (the first half of ATLBNL is a nod to Delta’s home base, Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, it turns out) and the center of a region best navigated by car. Fuller told me stories of studio visits on back roads of Alabama; one artist in the show, Mary Proctor, was discovered in a strip mall in Tallahassee. Her religious figures and text painted on doors exemplifies the kind of folk art that many of the “Southern” artists in the show sprint away from. But according to the curators, that juxtaposition is intentional. “Even though the ATL airport is a layover spot, it’s a place of transfers,” Camblin told me. “What if we embraced that hub mentality?” Fuller likened the biennial to a “van share program,” envisioning the show as forging connections between artist across the Southeast—advocating for the regional networking that has kept touring bands couch-surfing for decades.
I realized that this goal had been achieved when, at 10:34 p.m., Tommy Coleman, an artist from Jupiter, Florida, and Abigail Lucien, in town from Knoxville, asked me to take their photo on an iPhone, having encountered each other’s work but not having met until the opening. In the show, varied works communicate with each other from different corners of the region. Kalup Linzy’s collage The Queen Rose Family pastes a semi-autobiographical family tree across a wide gallery wall, illustrating the connections between the characters in an accompanying video installation, Conversations Wit De Churen IX XI XII: Days of Our Ego. In this episodic soap opera, Linzy playfully portrays dozens of the characters himself. This multimedia take on a gritty history is echoed across the gallery, in an installation by Atlanta collective Dust-to-Digital: a wedge of Depression-era Atlanta living room, where a period radio sings out within newspapered walls.
But much, if not most, of the work included in ATLBNL is forgettable. Skylar Fein’s photographs strike me as derivative of Danny Lyon, and the generic quality of Harmony Korine’s painted work suggests that the curators were most interested in the filmmaker’s name on a checklist. I was not terribly impressed by Tennessean Guy Church’s crude penciled tableaux of childlike scenes on a nearby wall, despite their sincerity, and the fact that Church is “on again, off again homeless,” as Fuller seemed eager to tell me.
These flaws likely went unnoticed by most of the guests to the show’s opening night party. There were various attractions on display, each as rich as a performance piece: the Contemporary’s board chair, Randy Gue, got the gallery’s logo tattooed on his left arm; Kara Walker’s father, Larry Walker, received the 2016 Nexus Prize, given to those who support the local arts community; a man dressed as Donald J. Trump encouraged me, improbably, to like his Facebook page. Early in the opening, Proctor—whose work recently appeared in the Metropolitan Museum—told me through wraparound sunglasses that when one of her pieces sold for $5,000, she “was astonished that someone was willing to pay that money.” She was thinking about putting out a donation jar. “I’m a visionary,” she said with a slight drawl but no trace of irony in her voice.