Drive through the clamoring West Midtown neighborhood, past the coffee shops and restaurants and high-rises and post-modern condos, turn into the gravel driveway of the Goat Farm, and, if the car windows are open, the first thing you might hear is birdsong.
“I know what you mean,” said Anthony Harper on Tuesday, as he walked among the vine-clad abandoned factories in this 12-acre enclave. “I was on a phone call the other day and the person I was talking to said ‘It sounds like you’re calling from Costa Rica.’”
The Goat Farm Arts Center, a creative hub and an island of tranquility in the middle of Atlanta's booming west side, has earned a reputation as an otherworldly place. It is known for its dance events featuring the Glo dance company; its experimental music and theater; its warren of artist's studios; and its crumbling 19th-century buildings that look like stage sets that, in fact, have been backdrops for scenes from "The Hunger Games" and "The Walking Dead."
But the old days are ending at the Goat Farm. The goats are gone. Soon the artists will also leave, at least temporarily. When the premises are vacated, Harper and his partners will commence a $250 million, two-year transformation that will bring a hotel, restaurants, apartments, performance venues, and a new multimillion-dollar headquarters for the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia to the compound.
How will the Goat Farm change? “It will change a lot,” said Harper, looking slightly worried.
A new museum
Someone who is not worried is Annette Cone-Skelton, co-founder and director of the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia.
MOCA has contracted to buy an acre of the Goat Farm property and plans to build a new permanent home there, to open by the end of 2021. Owning their own building (constructed to museum-quality standards) will save the nonprofit yearly rental fees paid on their Bennett Street location, and the Goat Farm locale will boost visitation, she said.
There will also be intangible benefits from being ensconced in a crowd of artists. “It is going to be incredible for creative types to come together in a very relaxed way, to begin to collaborate and create together and feed off of each other,” she said. “It is an ideal location for MOCA.”
Cone-Skelton said MOCA has been looking to find its own building for a while, and a million-dollar gift from MOCA board member Elkin Alston in September 2016 hastened the process. MOCA's haste, in turn, accelerated decisions by Harper and his partners to move forward with the redevelopment.
Inviting the public in
This new version of the Goat Farm will become a tourist destination, a densely developed mini-city, busy with residents, artists and visitors. Current tenants wonder what will happen to the bucolic vibe.
Colleen Trickett operates her business, Green Girl Basics, out of a Goat Farm studio, manufacturing herbal body-care products and offering classes in herbal skin preparations. She worries that things will never be the same. "It's hard to know what the future holds for the Goat Farm," she said. "Maybe they'll keep some of the charm, but unfortunately they're in a prime location and they stand to make a lot of money by bringing in apartments."
Others are happy to see the growth. “We are excited about the expanding arts scene,” said painter and sculptor In Kyoung Chun, who has rented studio space in the complex for five years. “I’m pretty positive about the changes, but giving up my space will make me sad.”
The complex was born in the late 1800s as an industrial center specializing in the manufacture of machinery for the cotton industry. It fell into disrepair in the late 20th century. Harper and his partner Chris Melhouse bought the complex in 2010 for $7 million, and began renting studios, hosting events and giving grants to artists and performers. (Harper bought out Melhouse earlier this year.)
Artists lined up to rent studio space. The 100-plus-year-old structures weren’t always easy to heat and cool, and electrical systems were creaky. “I’d blow a circuit because I would put on a space heater,” said commercial photographer Deborah Llewellyn, “but that was part of the Goat Farm, that’s the charm.”
Since then West Midtown, formerly a bleak locale, has exploded, and property taxes have almost doubled. Harper said those costs have made redevelopment a necessity.
Among the changes to come:
• Three corrugated sheet metal buildings will be demolished, while most of the the brick structures will remain.
• Tribridge Residential will partner with the arts center to construct three new buildings offering artist's studios at ground level and 175 apartments and live-work spaces, including at least 36 at below-market prices.
• There will be a four-story, 60,000-square-foot structure offering affordable, 400-square-foot “micro-living” spaces, with shared living rooms and other shared community spaces.
• Tungsten Partners, in a joint venture with the center, will build a 125-room boutique hotel.
• Digital branding company Edgar Allen will build a new stand-alone office building.
• Two “restaurants-in-residence,” a cafe, two artist-curated galleries and education facilities all will be part of the new complex.
What will be missing from the new Goat Farm? Goats. Originally there to chew up the undergrowth, they’ve reportedly been moved to a North Georgia farm, and won’t be returning.
“We have not been lucky with our animal and human interaction,” said Harper.
The Goat Farm Arts Center will maintain a controlling interest in all the projects and will oversee the design.
Tenants will all move out by the end of October, and Harper has lined up nine different locations around the city to offer as replacement sites for the artists, taking them on group tours to check them out. He said he will give current residents first refusal on new studio spaces when the redevelopment is complete.
Today the center holds 160 leases representing about 550 individuals -- artists, entrepreneurs and employees of small businesses; that will increase. The center will also increase the yearly grants that it provides to artists from $200,000 to $500,000, and will also offer career development and financial training.
Considering the new crowd that will call the Goat Farm home, the center will likely lose that “strange abandoned kind of feel” that artist and printmaker Eleanor Neal enjoys. But, she adds, “I think the new direction is going to be good. Atlanta is constantly changing and growing, and the art community will still be there and it will be very strong.”