The Mammal Gallery brings humans to Downtown

South Broad’s new music venue focuses on community

When the sun goes down, South Broad Street becomes a dark and derelict place. The few businesses there — Miller’s Rexall Drug, a hoodoo/homeopathic remedy shop, and Giving Back to Humanity, a nonprofit that feeds homeless people on Sundays — are quiet. It’s a street scene that doesn’t look much different in daylight, aside from occasional lone strollers loitering around empty storefronts. This is in the heart of Downtown Atlanta. “It’s kind of a ghost town at night,” says Chris Yonker, who recently moved into the building at 91 Broad St. with Brian Egan to open the Mammal Gallery, a new music venue and collaborative performance and art space.

On the nights when the Mammal Gallery hosts a show, the street springs to life, animated with music and modest crowds of people admiring the colorful murals from urban renewal program Elevate (the building directly opposite reads, in bright orange bold type, “I’m not a player, I just read a lot”).

Officially open since September, the Mammal Gallery focuses on performance and community, vital on a street that has lacked business, arts, and, above all, people for decades. “The Mammal Gallery is about people. It’s perfect to showcase mammals and their talents,” Yonker says.

Yonker, who sings and plays guitar in the band Hello Ocho, runs the music side of the Mammal Gallery’s programming, and Egan organizes the art showings. The two friends (both 24) wanted to create a venue that would rival rock clubs, but also showcase art that engages audiences from the moment they walk in, hence the gallery’s humanist name. “There’s the idea of art being more than just a painting on the wall,” Egan says. “You go to an art show, and you’re interested in the artwork, or the artist, or the people who you’re going to be mingling with. The gallery is full of people, and they go out to see other people — the ‘mammals.’”

Kaleidoscopic pink and yellow stripes zigzag the main floor of the three-story space. The visuals were installed by Ben Coleman (Judi Chicago) and Henry Detweiler (the Back Pockets) as part of Dashboard Co-op’s No Vacancy exhibition and performance piece.

Coleman and Detweiler transformed the building, previously an abandoned nightclub, into a psychedelic, performance-ready environment. “Even just with Henry and Ben’s installation, you’re already in this other realm,” Egan says. “You’ve crossed a threshold.”

Yonker and Egan moved to the Mammal Gallery after losing their previous Westside performance space, the Office, where Hello Ocho and other bands often performed. The two now live in the Mammal Gallery, giving the space a homey feel, and improving its potential by sinking much of their investment money into a sound system, built by the Earl’s house sound engineer Jonathan Rhum.

The Mammal Gallery builds on the Office’s previous network of performers, hosting shows like Nathan Brown’s Respite from the Cold and the gallery’s inaugural bash with Faun and a Pan Flute and the 4th Ward Afro-Klezmer Orchestra. Upcoming shows include a performance by Home Alone actor Macaulay Culkin’s band the Pizza Underground on Tues., March 18. There’s also an open mic night on the first Tuesdays of each month, film screenings, meditation sessions, and a video game tournament, dubbed Battle on Broad. “We want to be a Downtown rec center,” Egan says. “We’re more focused on the community.”

While the alternative music scene thrives in bustling neighborhoods like Little Five Points and East Atlanta Village, it has remained largely absent from South Downtown. South Broad’s lonely streets and shabby exteriors, often a hub for panhandlers and displaced people, have appeared lifeless for years until organizations such as the experimental art, music, and performance space Eyedrum came along.

“We want to get the world used to going Downtown,” Eyedrum Executive Director Priscilla Smith says. “There are thousands of people that live in the suburbs that work Downtown, and we’re trying to get them on the streets and walking around.”

Other organizations like Elevate, whose South Broad Mural Project included the Mammal Gallery’s facade, and the Atlanta Downtown Neighborhood Association’s annual Brighten Up Broad Street event attempt to showcase the area’s potential and spur the growth of the neighborhood’s arts scene.

“Artists see potential that other folks don’t see,” says ADNA President Kyle Kessler, who encouraged the Mammal Gallery’s creation. “There’s a pioneering, adventurous spirit. It’s those folks that are willing to take that leap of faith.”

The Mammal Gallery’s adventure is in an empty neighborhood in the center of the city, and its steadily increasing schedule of shows feeds the area’s growth, making Downtown more inviting. “I think people want to see something happening in the city we all say we live in,” Yonker says. “We’re just trying to get people to inhabit it.”