The High Museum of Art is often faulted for not engaging enough with the local Atlanta art scene, but Michael Rooks, curator of contemporary art, is determined to change that. A regular presence at local gallery openings and events, he also, with assistant curator Lily Siegel, has been making six to eight studio visits a month in a concerted effort to better acquaint himself with the area’s artists, many of whom will appear in an upcoming exhibition he has organized.
Titled “Drawing Inside the Perimeter,” the show is set for June 29 through September 22, partly taking the place of the museum’s recently rescheduled Museum of Modern Art exhibition. It will showcase recent acquisitions of works on paper by a multigenerational array of Atlanta artists. Funds for the purchases came from Judith Alexander, an art dealer and patron who died in 2004 in New York. She bequeathed $50,000, earmarked for works by Georgia artists, to the High in the name of Marianne Lambert, the doyenne of Atlanta art consultants and the curator of the Swan Coach House Gallery since 2000.
Lambert, a lifelong friend of Alexander’s, didn’t know the fund had been left in her name, though they often discussed Alexander’s leaving money to the High. “She was a control freak,” Lambert says. “She didn’t want to leave it to the curators without my oversight.”
“Judith opened the first contemporary art gallery in Atlanta in 1968,” Lambert recalls. “She was friends with Hans Hofmann and Franz Kline and showed their work. She tried to educate the community. No one bought anything, not even the High.”
Rooks learned of the Lambert fund when he arrived at the High in 2010 and began thinking of how best to use it. He decided that the best way to spread the wealth was to make focused purchases of drawings, which are typically less expensive than other mediums. Lambert gave him “a crash course in Atlanta art since the 1970s,” he says, and the two have worked together to make selections. Some 41 works by 30 artists have been purchased through the fund so far.
Rooks continues to make purchases with what’s left of the Lambert fund, which he expects to be depleted by the June opening. He’s actively working to raise money to replenish it or to start another fund with a similar purpose, presenting an ideal opportunity for Atlanta’s serious collectors to step up in the fashion of those in Dallas, Denver and San Francisco.
“We’re trying to expand the definition of ‘drawing,’ ” explains Rooks. Tristan Al-Haddad “makes computer-generated drawings that are unique works, not multiples,” he says, and site-specific wall drawings by Rocio Rodriguez and Alex Brewer have been commissioned for the show.
Other artists in the exhibition are Sean Abrahams, Alejandro Aguilera, the late Joseph Almyda, Radcliffe Bailey, Philip Carpenter, Craig Drennen, Don Cooper, Brian Dettmer, Sarah Emerson, Kojo Griffin, Scott Ingram, Benjamin Jones, Jason Kofke, Ruth Laxson, Ann-Marie Manker, Katherine Mitchell, Jiha Moon, Andy Moon Wilson, Yanique Norman, Sam Parker, Joseph Peragine, Fahamu Pecou, Seana Reilly, Susan Robert, Ben Roosevelt, Brandon Sadler, Nathan Sharratt, Robert Sherer, Freddie Styles and Katherine Taylor. Others are expected to be announced next week.
The museum’s buying spree has also been a boon to local galleries, with purchases from Whitespace, Marcia Wood, Get This!, Beep Beep, Sandler Hudson, Saltworks, Kibbee, Kai Lin, Avisca Fine Art, Barbara Archer and ABV Gallery. (And also from Jack Shainman in New York.)
Before Rooks, says James McConnell of Beep Beep, “no one from the High had been to our gallery. He has an understanding and accessibility that we haven’t seen in our seven-year history.”
“Dealers have gotten excited and have enlisted their collectors to buy things for us,” says Rooks, who was himself recruiting donors at the well-attended Hambidge Auction fund-raiser at the Goat Farm Arts Center on Saturday.
That’s exactly the kind of collector support that Atlanta artists and galleries badly need. Among the 10 purchases made independently of the Lambert fund are a Fahamu Pecou work by High trustee (and ArtsATL board member) Baxter Jones, two Radcliffe Bailey pieces by trustee Bert Clark and two works by Alejandro Aguilera by Laurie Cronin and Larry and Karan Kennedy. Louis Corrigan (ArtsATL board member) donated funds for the acquisition of an Andy Moon Wilson work.
The High was not always perceived as aloof. Rodriguez recalls “Southern Expressions,” the series of exhibitions of local artists, funded by Kidder, Peabody & Co, mounted in the 1980s under museum Director Gudmund Vigtel but discontinued when funding dried up in the economic downturn of the late 1980s.
As Rodriguez notes, the museum was going through a major transition, as was the city of Atlanta. The Richard Meier building was in the works and the High was going from a being a local and regional museum to something bigger. With those changes, and with Vigtel’s retirement, its focus changed. “Some people felt like the High had turned its back on the local contemporary art community,” says Rodriguez.
“The museum serves an educational function, and showing that art is the best way to support it locally,” she says, lauding Rooks’ “genuine interest in the community.” “But the High has to balance how to keep the museum in the black with showing contemporary art in a fairly conservative city.”
Popular surveys such as PS1’s “Greater New York” and “Bay Area Now” at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco serve to energize their scenes and provide an identity and sense of cohesion. Might “Drawing Inside the Perimeter” be the predecessor of a more comprehensive overview of the Atlanta scene?
“I’d love that,” says Rooks. “So many artists are doing interesting work that can stand up alongside that of artists working elsewhere, whether in New York or on the West Coast. But they haven’t been given a vote of confidence or a platform to see themselves in that way.”
This show, he hopes, will provide that encouragement. “We need more instruments to reflect who we are and what we do,” he says, “whether that be institutions or critical instruments like ArtsATL, Burnaway and Art Papers. We need to see the things we’re not doing so well, as well as the good things, so that we can become more honest about where we are. That will help us evolve in terms of an artist community.
“Artists work in a vacuum here,” Rooks continues. “Collectors collect in their own world and don’t interact. There’s no larger sense of community that brings everyone together.” The energy is there, he says, “it just needs to gel.”
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