Stuart Horodner gave a talk at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center shortly after he became artistic director in 2007. The native New Yorker — who had directed the final year of the Atlanta College Art Gallery before joining ACAC — told the audience he was going to talk about a city’s art community.
Horodner recalls sharing a litany of shortcomings:
The main museum aims to be encyclopedic and will never offer enough for contemporary and modern art enthusiasts.
There aren’t enough collectors who buy local work.
Art criticism can’t even attempt to respond sufficiently to all the things that are going on.
Young artists go to their own events but don’t go to the other things that would be helpful to them — lectures and exhibitions up and down the food chain.
Local galleries can’t do enough to launch local artists.
Someone in the audience stood up and complimented his astute observations of Atlanta, especially for one who had been here for such a short time. Then he told them he was talking about Portland, the Oregon city he had come to know during four years at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA).
His point, of course, is that these problems are not unique to Atlanta. Except for a few major art centers, it’s just about the same story everywhere. Small consolation, perhaps, and the reality is that some things are not likely to change: Neither Portland nor Atlanta will be replacing New York City anytime soon. But the real message was, stop feeling sorry for yourself and do something to improve your community.
For his part, Horodner has tried to address what issues he could through programming at ACAC. It happened that his efforts coincided with a burst of other initiatives that have improved the health of Atlanta’s art scene. On the eve of his departure to become the museum director of the Art Museum of the University of Kentucky in Lexington, he looked back on his efforts at the Contemporary and the changes he’s seen over the past seven years.
ArtsATL: What were your impressions of the Atlanta art scene when you first arrived?
Stuart Horodner: I thought it was somewhat anemic. There were good artists here. I occasionally saw good exhibits at the High Museum, which offered a broad range of mostly established and safe art. Galleries showed mostly local and regional art. There were not that many lectures. Public art was minimal. Everything was undercapitalized, extremely regional and local in its engagement. The Contemporary and Art Papers were tired, in a rut. Everybody seemed like they were bored with each other. Then, as if normal wasn’t challenging enough, 2008 happened.
ArtsATL: What was your strategy at the Contemporary?
Horodner: You combat anemia by increasing exponentially the things you are doing. We tried to double programming [such as lectures, panel discussion, other events] and do multiple shows simultaneously to increase what people see. [In planning] I thought about what we could show that would otherwise not be seen in Atlanta. Our first exhibitions were London artist Matt Bryans in his first American show, video artist Camille Norman and musician Devendra Banhart.
ArtsATL: It seems a key element of your mission was to connect Atlanta and the larger art world through speakers as well as exhibitions. When video artist Laura Poitras was in the news in connection with Edward Snowden, we had her 2010 exhibition as a reference point. Bringing in Michelle Grabner on the eve of Whitney Biennial, for which she was cocurator, was a grand bit of timing.
Horodner: I wanted the program to be rigorous and ambitious enough that it would interest the outside world . . . Nobody in Atlanta has gotten as much press as we have. We gave Jennie C. Jones her biggest show to date. Now she’s having a solo exhibition at the Hirshhorn [Museum in Washington, D.C.] Are we directly responsible? No, but we did we give her room to experiment.
ArtsATL: Describe strategies that were more purely local in impact.
Horodner: Thinking about meaning of “nexus” as center, I tried to make the Contemporary a gathering place. We made a home for Fahamu Pecou’s talk show, Film Love, Charles Huntley Nelson’s memorial. Where were those things going to happen?
ArtsATL: I know you are proud of “15 Minutes,” which gives artists a chance to sit down with you and talk about whatever they want — feedback on their work, career advice and so on.
Horodner: I started it as a way to help artists who probably won’t show here. Our mission is to show everything from local through international. We have, at most, 12 shows a year. Do the math. If you are among those who probably won’t get shown, what is your relationship to the center? Are you just annoyed? In Portland, 20-year-old artists would bitch all day long about PICA. They turned to alternative shows, which were nonhierarchical and inclusive, but they would never come to the museum or PICA. I didn’t do this in Portland; I wish I had.
We also help in ways no one sees. We work though professional networks of validation — residencies, Rauschenberg grants. If I’m on a jury or panel for residency, I want be able to raise my hand and say, “This is a person who could benefit from this.”
ArtsATL: ACAC is in a very different position than when you arrived. It is newly renovated. It just received a $200,000 capitalization grant from the Metropolitan Atlanta Arts Fund. The Westside, which was the hinterlands when the Contemporary first moved in, is now a hip, vibrant district. Atlanta’s art community is different, too. Will you elaborate on that from your perspective?
Horodner: It’s not the same place. When I came, there was no BeltLine, no Flux Projects, no Goat Farm. No BurnAway. No ArtsATL. No Art Papers Live. It’s unusual to have three art publications in one place. The High Museum has made more effort at community outreach. Curator Michael Rooks is very responsive to the community. People have moved here with new and different energies. Younger galleries have emerged — Jennifer Schwartz, Robin Bernat, Kibbee, Mint, Dashboard Coop.
One of the best things about Atlanta is how accessible leaders are. You can meet almost everybody you want . . . If you stop by a gallery on a Saturday, the owner is likely to be there. Michael Rooks is out and about. On the flip side, collectors, artists and educators here don’t always take advantage of it. Maybe they don’t believe it to be true; maybe they aren’t as ambitious as they could be.
It still has challenges . . . We all have to be more successful at outreach. Encounters with ideas and objects are transformational; I want more people to experience them.
Atlanta is one step closer to better. I do take great pleasure in that.