Are enough younger collectors stepping up in Atlanta?

New blood is needed to push the city forward in the next decade

Editor's note: This is part two in a series on art collecting in Atlanta. Part one, "The promises and pitfalls of Atlanta's art-collecting ethos" was published on Dec. 21.

Martha Wilber and Jay Wiggins never realized they were art collectors until someone else told them they were. Speaking by phone from their Buckhead home, Wilber describes the piles of art against walls, on the floor, and stuffed into every available free space. When friends and neighbors began to react to the sheer volume of it all, they looked at themselves in a new way. "That made me realize that not everyone has all this art," says Wilber.

Even now, the word "collector" doesn't sit easily with the couple, who describes their approach as more luck than logic. "Maybe we aren't really collectors," says Wilber after a pause. "We just get what we like."

What they like is distinctly "lowbrow." That's the term willingly embraced by Beep Beep Gallery in Midtown, one of Wilber and Wiggins' preferred haunts. So-called lowbrow art sprang from West Coast underground culture and has since gained international recognition through outlets such as Juxtapoz magazine and the film Beautiful Losers. The names in Wilber and Wiggins' collection – Bethany Marchman, Sam Parker, Dosa Kim – have all passed through Beep Beep and represent the cream of Atlanta's lowbrow crop.

As Atlanta's visual art scene pushes its way through an extended awkward adolescence, art supporters such as Wilber and Wiggins form a vital part of the economy that supports locally based artists throughout their careers. Mark Basehore, who co-owns Beep Beep with James McConnell, says many of his customers are similarly passionate. "They love the idea of supporting the local art scene. They love the idea of supporting some specific artist."

But is it enough? A crisis may be looming in the near future as older, established collectors become less active in the art market and fewer younger collectors take their places.

Stuart Horodner, artistic director at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, sees a growing gap. Standing amid the Contemporary's current show, More Mergers and Acquisitions, he asserts that collectors in the 30- to 50-year-old range seem to be hanging out on the periphery of the art collecting world. Like Wilber and Wiggins, they decline to think of themselves as – or behave as – hardcore collectors. "There's probably a whole other cast of characters who have just not bit hard yet on their own relationship to collecting," says Horodner. "Or are doing it in a very non-showy, non-public way, which may also be a Southern thing."

Horodner, by contrast, hails from New York City, where art collecting is a contact sport and where collectors are constantly searching for the "big find." "If you're smart," says Horodner, "you should be speaking to Spelman College Museum of Fine Art director Andrea Barnwell Brownlee, Solomon Projects gallery owner Nancy Solomon, High Museum photography curator Julian Cox. ... These are all people who, in every major art city, the collector culture squeezes for information. ... The knowledge acquisition is critical to this stuff."

Here lie the makings of a culture clash. Wilber prefers to collect art free of such constraints, and values down-market galleries such as Beep Beep, Young Blood and Signature Shop for that very reason. "What they do," she says, "is not about status, money, power, or sex. It is about the art and whether it moves you."

Art consultant and artist representative Mary Stanley became aware of these kinds of art world tensions after starting her business in 2004. Stanley founded Young Collectors Club in 2006 after two years of attempting to sell art to a resistant public. "I just became acutely aware of the lack of education in the Atlanta community," Stanley says.

Now her group of some 136 thirtysomethings meets every two weeks for special lectures and gallery visits, which run the gamut from Beep Beep to higher-end outlets such as Whitespace Gallery and Radcliffe Bailey's personal studio. But Stanley realizes hers is an uphill battle. "It's a very small number of people who will commit even an afternoon to educating themselves."

Art consultant Karen Comer Lowe, whose main clientele is African-American collectors, also identifies education as the No. 1 issue in bringing new art collectors into the fold. Art appreciation is meager at best in U.S. public schools, and according to Comer Lowe, its absence translates directly into Atlantans' apathy in seeing and understanding art.

"It amazes me how many people have never been to the High Museum of Art," says Comer Lowe. "I mean, even out of curiosity, don't you want to know what that building is? There are people in their 30s and 40s who have never been to the museum."

This lack of exposure makes Comer Lowe's job harder, particularly among her new African-American collectors who, she says, have sometimes grown up in homes devoid of fine art. It can make the hurdle to collecting almost impossibly high, leaving new collectors at a loss. "Starting out, you go to the places that are familiar to you," she says. "So if there's a quote-unquote 'gallery' in the mall, that's where you're going to go. ... You start to buy these things in the first places you can find them."

Avid art collector Greg Head recalls his own changing relationship with art: "The only piece of art I remember in my house was a piece ... that sat over the sofa in the living room that my mother got at the JCPenney outlet store because it matched the couch. It was blue. That was the art."

Today, Greg and his wife, Yolanda, have collected deep holdings in significant African-American artists, local and international. Greg cites their friendship with artists William Tolliver and Kevin Cole as watershed moments when he began to think of art as something other than a framed poster.

Community is critical in educating new art collectors, says Stanley. "People spend so much money on flat screen televisions and SUVs. ... It's such a social pressure to have all that crap, and there's no social pressure to have a great art collection," she says. That's why her collectors club meetings begin and end with socializing and meals. She wants new collectors to become "pals," to help create a collecting culture beyond individuals acting in isolation.

Atlanta's art world is still young and its history of collecting is even younger. Many artists, however, sense a change coming. Artists of a certain renown, who used to assume that success equaled a one-way flight to New York City, are now staying here in greater numbers.

For artist Jiha Moon, whose work is quickly gaining national recognition, the word "local" is a loaded term. Moon, who was born in Korea and has lived in Iowa and Washington, D.C., says, "It's kind of a narrow understanding of artists, because for me, I'm from everywhere. ... I love to be called a local artist, because I'm very attached to where I live. But at the same time it's an international art scene. You have to understand things going on everywhere."

With this expanding group of Atlanta artists, a network of galleries, writers and curators is rapidly growing around them, many bringing national and international perspectives. Whether young collectors tap in or back out may decide whether Atlanta's visual art scene blooms or withers away.

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