Atlanta turns a corner in establishing its national art reputation

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Openings of UTA Artist Space and the revamped Jackson Fine Art are putting the city on the art map.

For decades the defining art narrative of Atlanta has been the Orly crash. In 1962 an Air France flight taking off from the Orly Airport in Paris crashed and killed almost everyone on board. Among the dead, 103 Atlanta arts patrons and members of the Atlanta Art Association. That loss of the city’s art bedrock has formed a foundational story about how the nascent Atlanta art scene was hobbled from its inception.

But the week of March 21 may be the decisive beginning of a new narrative, one befitting our “resurgens” Atlanta city seal of a gray phoenix rising from the ashes.

That week saw the opening of the 20,000 square foot UTA (United Talent Agency) offices and gallery at 1401 Peachtree St. A next-level debut party featured an open bar, passed hors d’oeuvres and a see-and-be-seen crowd of entertainers, sports stars, Stacey Abrams, Mayor Andre Dickens, comedian Awkwafina and an assortment of exceedingly well-dressed bicoastal partygoers. There were even cringey moments of Atlanta art fixtures left waiting behind the velvet rope as they scrambled to talk their way in.

Downstairs, multi-hyphen artist, musician and Southern hero Lonnie Holley posed for photos and talked about his work in a whisper of a voice in the UTA Artist Space, the city’s newest gallery. Fahamu Pecou was originally scheduled for the space but was replaced by UTA “due to artistic differences” says gallery manager Bridgette Baldo.

Credit: Mike Jensen

Credit: Mike Jensen

In many ways, the Holley exhibition seemed to strike just the right note for the Atlanta UTA debut. The story of this gentle, brilliant man who survived a Dickensian childhood has been amplified recently with the release of the iHeartMedia “Unreformed” podcast which details the abuses suffered by children housed at the Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children (Holley among them). His paintings and works on paper in “The Eyes Were Always on Us” in golds, reds and ochres shine with a resolute sense of hope, and seem their own testaments to the artist’s creation of light from darkness.

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

And on March 24 a DJ mixed and a crowd including Cat Power’s Chan Marshall and Usher filled the stunning new 4,000 square foot space for the debut of Jackson Fine Art, the sequel, directly across from its former home on East Shadowlawn Avenue. The new multistory, beautifully detailed (think statement lighting, blonde wood floors and Diptyque soap in the bathroom) two-floor gallery space means a new era for the city’s premiere photography gallery. Atlanta-based photographer Sheila Pree Bright was given prominence in the space’s entrance gallery with Swedish-based photographers Cooper and Gorfer (American Sarah Cooper and Austrian Nina Gorfer) in town for their first U.S. exhibition and Pittsburgh-based George Lange offering a poignant tribute to his late friend and fellow photographer Francesca Woodman in a call and response between the two photographer friends.

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

To what do we owe this resurgence?

A serendipitous arrangement of factors including the decision of one of the largest talent agencies in the world, UTA — home to marquee names like Anderson Cooper, Will Ferrell, Ben Stiller, Tiffany Haddish and Beyonce and now extending its brand to represent sports figures and artists — to open an office in Atlanta.

Also significant is the move of Sutton Communications vice president Allison Thorpe to the city from Hong Kong with her SCAD professor husband Stephen Thorpe. With offices in New York, London and Hong Kong, Sutton specializes in art and culture clients and thanks to its deep contacts in the art press, it brought a group of New York arts writers from Frieze, Artnet, Artsy and the Art Newspaper to Atlanta that week for an extended press junket. The visiting journalists attended the UTA opening, the debut of Jackson Fine Art’s new space, toured Spelman College Museum of Fine Art’s “Black American Portraits” show, “The Alchemists” at Johnson Lowe Gallery and private art collections.

It doesn’t hurt that Atlanta is currently featuring an array of exceptionally well-curated group shows at Johnson Lowe Gallery and Spelman to show visiting journalists the depth and breadth of Atlanta exhibitions, or that the High’s annual Driskell Prize dinner, under the direction of manager of marketing and strategic partnerships, Alex Delotch Davis, has now gained the sponsorship of international fashion house Alexander McQueen and benefactors including Google and UTA.

Look for features in the national press in the weeks and months ahead on Atlanta to complement a recently released Artnet article on the burgeoning art scene titled “Is Atlanta’s Art Scene Finally Achieving Critical Mass? There Are Big Signs That Point to ‘Yes.’”

Arts and culture writer Julie Baumgardner was on the Atlanta junket, working on a September piece for the Art Newspaper. Baumgardner says she was especially impressed by the sense of community here. “Artists and gallerists seem to already be helping each other, working together, collaborating and pulling in the same direction.” She also noted the strong representation of Black artists and collectors as a unique feature of Atlanta’s scene. “There are excellent collections in Black hands. Atlanta’s racial demographics are majority Black, and so to see that the city’s artists, gallerists and collectors are too is something to celebrate and make note of,” says Baumgardner.

“Time will tell which city in the U.S. gets crowned the ‘next’ destination,” says Baumgardner. “With Miami, Chicago and San Francisco losing their grip, there’s definitely space being made for Atlanta. It’s got all the makings of an art city: commercial galleries, museums/institutions, artists and collectives, collectors and critics — and it’s not a secondary home market, nor a vacation spot, so it’s not transient and can invest in itself to expand, which Atlanta needs to do to reach [new] heights,” says Baumgardner.

The best hope is that the momentum established in this Resurgent Spring will continue, and that Atlanta-based artists and exhibitions will continue to gain attention with Atlanta becoming one more required stop on the art world’s circuit.


“Lonnie Holley: The Eyes Were Always on Us”

Through April 29. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturdays. Free. UTA Artist Space, 1401 Peachtree St NE, Atlanta. 336-317-4656,

“Sheila Pree Bright: The Rebirth of Us”; “Cooper & Gorfer: When We Are Giant”; “Francesca Woodman & George Lange”

Through May 26. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays. Free. Jackson Fine Art, 3122 East Shadowlawn Ave. NE, Atlanta. 404-233-3739,