Atlanta Contemporary Art Center: Past, present, and future

A tiny grassroots arts organization dubbed Nexus in 1973 has evolved into a nationally respected institution

In the early '70s, Atlanta's burgeoning art scene had a gaping hole in photography. Though there were several respected galleries in town, none specialized in the medium. Even the High Museum lacked a photography collection. A frustrated group of photographers dubbed the "Circle of Confusion" started a gallery for provocative contemporary photography in Virginia-Highland. The Circle of Confusion eventually evolved into Nexus, a community-driven contemporary art nonprofit that became one of the strongest alternative art spaces in the Southeast. In 2000, the group again retooled its mission and changed its name to the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, now a nationally respected institution which stands as the sole contemporary nonprofit exhibiting institution in the city. While the organization has made great strides in its 40 years toward establishing itself among national peers, it also has alienated some of its former champions and struggled to connect with a community that waxes nostalgic about the early days.

In 1982, reporter and curator Tom Patterson wrote in Contemporary Art Southeast that Nexus, 10 years old at that point, was rethinking itself as "something sort of halfway between a museum and an alternative space." Patterson could see the coming diffusion of the art scene from New York, proposing that Nexus could be a "satellite" institution.

ACAC has, according to others in the field, established itself as one of these satellites. "The Contemporary is a very highly regarded institution, especially among artists and leaders of other independently minded not-for-profits nationally," says Matthew Higgs, director and chief curator of New York's White Columns. "Artistic Director Stuart Horodner is a visionary director who doesn't follow trends; rather he has established an independently minded program that is often very prescient in its support of artists both emerging and more established."

As the organization approaches its 40th anniversary, ACAC is embarking on its first renovation project since moving to the Westside in 1989. The proposed plans include building a lecture hall, covering the outdoor pavilion, and an overhaul of the HVAC system. According to Horodner, "This isn't about building an entirely new building ... it's like turning 40 and saying, 'I need to get into the gym.'"

The renovation will cost $500,000, equal to ACAC's yearly budget, which is less an indication of high expense and more a statement as to the small scale in which the organization operates. ACAC has one of the smallest budgets of any art center, not just in Atlanta, but in the country, while remaining well-respected among contemporary art spaces across the nation.

Patterson's 1982 article paints a clear picture of the art climate in the early years. John McWilliams, then a photography professor at Georgia State University, organized exhibitions in the early '70s that featured nude photography, raising the ire of GSU administration and accusations of pornography. Five of McWilliams' former students — Jim Frazer, Jack Front, Deirdre Murphy, Bill Brown, and Michael Reagan — decided to form an exhibitions space in order to have the creative freedom denied by the established institutions. Deeming Circle of Confusion a poor name choice for a nonprofit organization, they named it Nexus.

Opening a gallery in Virginia-Highland, at the time a low-income neighborhood, was a first for Atlanta. "To have a photography gallery was unusual, and a cooperative gallery was very unusual," says Julia Fenton, an artist and retired curator who worked with Nexus in the '80s. "And there were certainly no galleries in the Highlands!"

In 1976, Nexus received City of Atlanta Bureau of Cultural Affairs Comprehensive Employment and Training Act funding and a National Endowment for the Arts grant that allowed the organization to bring on paid staffers and start the Nexus Press, dedicated to the publication of artists' books. The Press, run by Michael Goodman, another McWilliams pupil, allowed Nexus to create high-quality publications but also overcrowded the gallery.

The need for expansion led the group to a shoddy, abandoned elementary school in Old Fourth Ward at the corner of Glen Iris Drive and Ralph McGill Boulevard. In 1977, the City of Atlanta Board of Education was offering the three-story building for $53 a month to any organization willing to make the necessary repairs. Nexus signed the lease and expanded its operations to include the management of artist studios.

During the move, founder Michael Reagan took over the organization. Reagan was the driving force behind the expansion and the new relationships with the other organizations in the building — including a foundry, a dance company, and the magazine Contemporary Art Southeast, which later became Art Papers — but was a divisive figure within Nexus. Two of the other founders, Jack Frost and Deidre Murphy, resigned from the board in 1979 citing frustrations with Reagan, and by 1980 Reagan was on his way out as well.

After an uneven period of short-lived directors and wild budget fluctuations, curator Louise Shaw stepped into the director's shoes in 1983. Shaw, originally from Massachusetts, had been in Atlanta for several years as assistant curator at the Atlanta Historical Society (now the Atlanta History Center) and later as director of the Georgia State gallery. A redhead with a pixie cut and a ready smile, Shaw was director for 15 years, during which she shepherded Nexus into its current space on the Westside and brought an international edge to the exhibitions.

In 1987, Shaw found a former truck-repair garage at 535 Means Street, a tucked-away side street in the then desolate Westside neighborhood. "It looked like Dresden after the fire-bombings," Shaw says. The building was one of the first warehouse renovations in the Westside, one which Shaw points to as a turning point for the neighborhood. "We became a catalyst for commercial projects in the area," says Shaw, remarking that the National Endowment for the Arts cited the Contemporary as a case study for arts stimulating community development. "Look what's going on in the Westside now. And we were the first."

During Shaw's tenure, Nexus began exhibiting art with a strong political viewpoint. Nexus organized The Subject of AIDS, which Shaw believes was one of the first art exhibitions in the United States about the disease. The organization also showed an exhibition on Malcolm X curated by the Walker Art Center in Minnesota.

The programming also became more international, while still relating to the community. Shaw curated an exhibition of contemporary Mexican artists and initiated annual Three Kings Day parties to celebrate Hispanic heritage. "You had to have an empty gallery because of the kids breaking piñatas," Shaw recalls, "but it was the most multicultural audience Nexus had ever had. The curators hated it because taffy would get on the floor, but to me it was worth it, it really was."

Another of Shaw's achievements was the Art Party, a yearly event that became the driving force behind the organization's membership. The outdoor parties became enormous events with live music — Sun Ra played one year — and big attendance numbers. According to Lucinda Bunnen, a celebrated photographer and early Nexus supporter who received the Nexus Award this year, "more people came to those parties than anything else in Atlanta!"

After 15 years at Nexus, the fundraising eventually wore Shaw down and she left in 1998 to focus on curating. In 2000, the organization became the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, a move that alienated some members of the community. According to Helena Reckitt, who was at ACAC from 1999 until 2005 initially as Director of Education and then, after 2001, as Senior Director of Exhibitions and Education, "To some in the Atlanta community this signaled a lack of recognition for the organization's history and legacy."

After Shaw's departure, ACAC again entered a period of short-lived directors. Long-running bookkeeping problems and $250,000 of debt led to the closing of Nexus Press. After board members managed to get the institution back in the black, Horodner arrived in 2005, becoming director of the institution almost by accident. Horodner, a born and bred New Yorker, was driving from Portland, Ore., to run the Atlanta College of Art gallery when, en route, he was notified of the pending merger with SCAD. His job was up in the air. When he arrived in Atlanta, Horodner was told he'd have a year at ACA. Before the year was out, he had taken Reckitt's place.

In Horodner's seven years at the organization, ACAC has added several new programs to connect with the Atlanta audience, including panels focused on artists developing their careers, monthly portfolio reviews, and open studios. The Art Party, which was canceled years before Horodner came on board, was recently revived for October of this year.

A shift in curatorial styles has been apparent. During Shaw's tenure, the exhibitions were a mix of local and outside curators and featured a wide range of artists — local, national, and international — often taking risks with political themes.

When Horodner speaks about ACAC's recent exhibitions, he highlights shows like New York darling Dana Schultz's first exhibition of drawings in the U.S., and the first public appearance of critic Wayne Koestenbaum's paintings, which led to his first solo exhibition at White Columns, or bringing photographer Laurel Nakadate's video work to Atlanta. Horodner has also given Atlanta artists solo exhibitions, including Shara Hughes' exhibition of dizzying paintings and assemblage sculpture on view currently. Overall, Horodner's curating seems more driven by empowering individual artists or dealing with art-world polemics.

Shaw finds ACAC disappointing in comparison to her glory days at Nexus. "I say the old Nexus is dead," she says. "It's something else now, and the name change is emblematic. I have been a lightning rod for criticisms about the Contemporary; people have said to me, 'It's not the same! I don't go there anymore.'"

"I respect Stuart's commitment to the institution and to developing high-quality programming, but there really needs to be a greater diversification of exhibitions," she continues. "After all these decades, it should be better than it is."

When asked about Shaw's statements, Horodner responded, "The old Nexus is dead. It is not a grassroots organization anymore. MoMA isn't the same museum it was in the 1970s and Atlanta isn't the same city it was in the 1980s. Things change."

Despite significant changes, the organization has been less successful in galvanizing areas like budget and staff size. In 1980, the organization had a budget of $400,000 and staff of 28, according to Patterson's article. (Federal subsidies apparently funded a number of those staffers.) In 2012, the budget was approximately $500,000 and the organization employs five full-time staffers and three part-timers.

"If you compare us to MASS MoCA or the CAM in Houston or LAXART in Los Angeles, all those places are in a sense doing the same thing as us in that we're all showing people we think are significant local, national, and international artists," says Horodner. Horodner notes, though, that those same places dwarf Atlanta's Contemporary in terms of staff and budget, saying, "You can only do more ambitious things with more money."

Local arts philanthropist Louis Corrigan considers ACAC's resources in its local context: "The Contemporary operates with a budget below MOCA GA's and a fraction of the High Museum's $25-$32 million annual budget. And with the High historically devoting inadequate resources to contemporary art, ACAC has to do more heavy lifting than an institution its size should have to do. Frankly, it can only do so much of this."

Despite Shaw's criticisms, Horodner's commitment to putting ACAC into a national art-world conversation has been a notably positive shift for others. "The last few shows before Stuart came on board were consistently disappointing," says Craig Drennen, a professor in Georgia State's art department who has a studio at the Contemporary. "People speak so fondly of Nexus, but during my few visits it seemed charmingly out of touch. Things got way better when Stuart came on board."

Big visions, though, are not always compatible with operating budgets. "What do I really want?" Horodner says, "A café, a bigger bookstore. When you look at the core pieces — the exhibitions and programs, the studio program and events — all of these could be empowered with another half a million dollars a year."

"It's not like we hope we'll one day get there," he says. "We'll get there! But it takes more time than you'd imagine. Maybe it's a Southern thing."

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