Artist Angela Davis Johnson organizes her new studio at PushPush in College Park. Contributed by Steve Schaefer
Photo: Steve Schaefer
Photo: Steve Schaefer

Art scene south of the city is booming

Atlanta artists and patrons alike have yearned for an arts nexus — a neighborhood or part of town where galleries, artist studios and performance venues aggregate.

At various points in Atlanta’s history, the Westside and the Castleberry Hill neighborhoods have promised an epicenter of art activity. But no one neighborhood in a fractured, sprawling Atlanta has ever lived up to the dream of a thriving creative locus.

That could all change as arts groups, galleries and artists increasingly flock to Atlanta’s southside.

What the Gowanus, Bushwick and Greenpoint neighborhoods in Brooklyn represent for New York City — relatively affordable-living magnets for artists and creatives — Atlanta’s exploding southside has become for this city’s creative class. The southside has long been celebrated as a creative incubator for hip hop artists like Ludacris, 2 Chainz, Outkast, Lil Thony and Janelle Monae. But it is increasingly also a nexus for visual artists, performers, musicians and dancers who have created an arts community where racial, economic and gender diversity are as much a part of the zeitgeist as creativity and innovation.

Thanks to organizations like Windmill Arts Center, ArtsXchange, TILA Studios, the B Complex, the Bakery and more, the southside communities of East Point, College Park, Hapeville and the West End are becoming a center for arts spaces and artists. Many of these neighborhoods are home to hybrid, multi-purpose complexes where exhibition space, studios and performance venues share close quarters.

Hapeville

Driving on I-85 it’s hard to miss the “home for the arts” billboard proclaiming Hapeville’s commitment to supporting the arts. In 2018 College Park artists Whitney and Micah Stansell received $45,000 to transform a pedestrian bridge on Hapeville’s main thoroughfare into a piece of illuminated, kinetic public art, and a mural program has resulted in public works by Jay “Evereman” Wiggins, the Lotus Eaters Club and Lauren Pallotta Stumberg. As part of the city’s efforts to encourage revitalization of its downtown corridor, local government has allocated funds toward the arts includingthe city’s hotel-motel tax, which has funded initiatives that “focus on developing projects that increase tourism,” says city council member Chloe Alexander, “and often these projects are arts-related.”

A printmaker herself, Alexander says of the city’s newly renovated Academy Theatre, gallery craw and public art projects, “it attracts visitors who want to stay, frequent our businesses, purchase a home, open a business.”

Painter John Folsom likes living in Hapeville because the administration perceives “art and artists as an enhancement to the city.” He points to the annual LocalMotion Arts Festival held in October as an example.

Multidisciplinary artist and Georgia State University professor Ryan Rasmussen recently moved with his wife Jeanine Hill from Memphis to East Point. Affordable real estate was a draw, says Rasmussen, “but also access to large buildings with spaces for studio rentals and a diverse cultural makeup, which is a strength of the southside.”

Proximity to other creative communities was also a plus, he says.

“While we were moving in, ArtsXchange was opening their doors in their new location in East Point, followed by more arts (organizations), including Windmill, which is near our house.”

The new Mint Gallery space in Adair Park’s sprawling Met development. Contributed by Luke Beard
Photo: For the AJC

West End

Last year, Atlanta developer Carter Properties purchased and rebranded a 1.1 million-square-foot warehouse complex built by Coca-Cola founder Asa Candler in 1914. Situated in Adair Park close to the West End MARTA station and the Beltline’s Westside Trail, the MET is now a mixed-use space for more than 140 tenants and includes in its mission fostering creative, artistic, entrepreneurial and digital communities.

In August, Mint Gallery, which focuses on emerging artists and features regular exhibitions, moved from downtown Atlanta to its new space at the MET. The organization’s brand-new 7,300-square-foot space has enough real estate for artist studios, multiple galleries and ample room for the artists working in the gallery’s fellowship program. Its neighbors at the MET include screen printing company Danger Press, Atlanta Printmakers Studio, former Atlanta gallery owner Lloyd Benjamin’s art framing business, and is the future home of Mammal Gallery. Food trucks, pop-up restaurants, the Lee + White complex of breweries, distilleries and restaurants and nearby home prices even a starving artist can afford provide a foundation for the development of a rich, livable creative scene.

“Space is less expensive, larger, and the neighborhoods are historic and tight-knit, each with their own flair and vibe,” says Mint Gallery executive director Cory Klose, “all of which are reasons we decided to make our permanent home here.”

The MET joins an already vibrant West End arts community that includes Westview Studios, Hammonds House Museum and the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art.

Artist Joseph Guay in his exhibition space at Murphy Rail Studios on the southside of Atlanta. Contributed by Mr. Wattson
Photo: For the AJC

East Point

Recently joining the southside’s ranks and creating an art hub of his own is artist Joseph Guay whose exhibition and studio complex Murphy Rail Studios is a stone’s throw from another ambitious creative’s digs: Tyler Perry Studios in East Point.

Guay came to the southside after struggling to find decent studio space in Atlanta. He found his salvation in a 60,000-square-foot warehouse on Murphy Avenue. Initially he was looking for a place just to store work. But then he saw the space.

“I immediately thought to myself, this building should be an art compound … the new Mattress Factory or Goat Farm,” Guay says, referring to former intown art hubs that have been re-gentrified. Murphy Rail Studios boasts 12 studios and is home to well-regarded artists including Craig Drennen, John Folsom and Esteban Patino.

“Any part of town where an artist can find affordable space is automatically an advantageous location,” says Drennen, a Guggenheim Fellowship award winner who curates a small exhibition space at Murphy Rail Studios. “Atlanta is a surprisingly tough city for artist studios.”

East Point is also home to the Windmill Arts Center, which features theater and dance studio space and a rotating roster of exhibitions and performances, and the ArtsXchange, a multidisciplinary, nonprofit that relocated from Grant Park earlier this year to a former elementary school in East Point. It features a theater, artist studio space and the Jack Sinclair Gallery. 

After 15 years, PushPush film and theater company, cofounded by Tim Habeger, has moved to College Park. Contributed by Steve Schaefer
Photo: For the AJC

College Park

Based in Decatur for the past 15 years, PushPush film and theater company moved to the sprawling College Park First United Methodist Church campus in October. Across the railroad tracks from their space, on College Park’s Main Street, a vibrant Yoyo Ferro mural heralds the community’s commitment to the arts.

This unexpected marriage of an avant-grade arts organization and a Methodist church isn’t as odd as it might at first seem, but illustrates an exploratory spirit and openness to new ideas rampant in the area. Both entities had experienced challenges in terms of decreasing engagement. As Decatur home prices and rents shot upwards, the artists who once lived in walking or biking distance to PushPush dwindled. The church also faced a shrinking congregation, as well as a desire to foster the arts, says church council chairwoman Meredith Hodges. She helped spearhead a move to bring PushPush to an unused 10,000-square-foot section of the church property. When the Goat Farm Arts Center announced its $250 million renovation in the spring, Hodges spotted an opportunity. “We saw that the Goat Farm renovation would likely displace artists and hopefully the development of the southern Beltline would pull some arts our way.”

PushPush co-directors Tim Habeger and Shelby Hofer were partnered with the church through Good Places, an organization that develops affordable real estate for organizations that foster positive social impact.

“From the beginning it seemed like the perfect fit,” says Hodges. “We had space and wanted to open ourselves up to the arts and provide a space for community events. PushPush wanted affordable space and accessibility to MARTA. A win win.”

“We’re not a theater. We’re not a gallery. We’re an incubator. So the idea of being on MARTA just seemed like a better identifier,” says Habeger.

A stipulation for PushPush’s residency is to support the church and Good Places’ shared mission of giving back to the community, which PushPush has fulfilled with SeedWorks, what Habeger calls “an agile lab for artists” that is home to 13 artist studios, performance spaces, a Sunday artists’ market, film screenings, art-making classes and recording studios. Some day they hope to add artist residencies and green space to the property, maybe an artist-run summer camp featuring a veggie-centric menu. Habeger and his resident studio artist collaborators including Angela Davis Johnson and Nathan Sharratt provide a resident brain trust. Their enthusiasm for new ideas is infectious.

New terrain

In many ways the southside, despite its proximity to the city center, can feel like uncharted territory. Historically, money for residential and commercial development has poured into Atlanta’s intown and northern suburbs but has not flowed with the same vigor into south Atlanta. That appears to be changing. A good indicator is College Park’s 420-acre mixed-use development, ATL Airport City, west of the airport. It features hotels, retail space, residential space and green space with an anticipated budget of more than $1 billion. The city also recently launched a Cultural Arts Council that will bring outdoor jazz concerts to the city.

“I would love to see greater support from the city for the arts not only because it gives space for creativity, but because it makes good economic sense as well,” says Bianca Motley Broom, College Park’s first black, female mayor, who nurtures a side avocation as a potter. “Money spent on the arts comes back to the cities that support them many times over. In working to make our city welcoming to everyone, we will be at a distinct disadvantage if we’re not including the arts as a part of our future development plans.”

A feeling of forging new territory is part of the southside’s appeal. And places like the MET or Murphy Rail Studios are looking like the germs of a community.

“I think that the arts scene in this part of town will be the art scene in Atlanta,” says Klose, of Mint Gallery. “It’s vibrant, diverse and thriving. The arts are exploding here — both in these neighborhoods and, more specifically, at the MET and it’s really exciting to be a part of that. We hope that many more arts organizations will call this part of town home.”

Southside arts venues

ArtsXchange. “Heavy Clouds” exhibition from C Flux Sing, Jack Sinclair Art Gallery. Through Jan. 18. 2148 Newnan St., East Point. 404-624-4211, www.artsxchange.org

The Windmill Arts Center. 2823 Church St, East Point, 470-588-6244, www.thewindmillatl.com

The Met. “Third Thursdays” open studios at Mutiny Artwrx, third Thursday each month, 6-11 p.m. 680 Murphy Ave. SW, Atlanta. 404-758-8800, metatl.com

Mint Gallery @The MET. 680 Murphy Ave., Unit 2095, Atlanta. 404-680-8728, www.mintatl.org

Murphy Rail Studios. 1870 Murphy Ave. SW, Atlanta, 404-558-0552

PushPush/SeedWorks. “Angela Davis Johnson: New Work” exhibition, Jan. 18-Feb. 1. “The Way to Heaven,” Holocaust Remembrance Day performances, 8 p.m., Jan. 21, 24, 25. 1805 Howard Ave., College Park. 404-277-9963, www.pushpushfilmandtheater.com

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