Breaking into NYC art scene no easy task for ex-Atlantans
Habitues of the Atlanta art scene are all too familiar with the yearly migration of artists from the city, an exodus that can often make Atlanta feel like a Greyhound bus terminal en route to the beckoning art capital of New York. And lately the numbers of those heading for that beacon of urine-scented avenues and sandpaper personalities have been legion. That, coupled with the closing of contemporary art gallery Vaknin Schwartz in January and the migration of curators specializing in bringing contemporary work to Atlanta (Chris Scoates, Debra Wilbur, Cay Sophie Rabinowitz, Peter Pachano, Jason Forrest), implies that flight is a necessary response to a town that remains unreceptive to conceptual, cutting-edge work.
"It's really strange to live in Atlanta, because there's such amazing wealth in this city and it seems to me that very little of that wealth is being funneled back into the cultural life of the city," says Jeremy Helton, who will be joining fellow members of the multimedia collaborative fascia, Honnie Goode and Todd Kitchens, in New York at the end of April.
"For artists that are working in mediums that are fairly new like video art and video installation, I think many of us do see there might be greater opportunities in New York."
As far as achieving a modicum of success as a visual artist in Atlanta, "it's kind of an uphill battle" concedes former Atlanta artist and current director of New York's Brent Sikkema Gallery, Michael Jenkins. "There's not a strong collector base."
There has long been a pessimistic buzz in Atlanta, that the city is not an art center and is a difficult place for a young, emerging artist to make a living. But does the move to New York necessarily bring with it greater artistic success?
"We felt that Atlanta's art scene had become limiting in terms of contemporary work," says Jeremy Spears of the art partnership Spears/Nayadley.
Graduates of the Atlanta College of Art, the art partnership of Spears/Nayadley had its photography featured in a Fay Gold exhibition of promising young Atlanta artists and received prominent placement in the City Hall East show When Tears Come Down. But, "we felt that Atlanta's art scene had become limiting in terms of contemporary work," says Spears.
Residents of New York since 1998, Spears now works as a headhunter for graphic designers and Elizabeth Nayadley is a print and digital photography technician. But the artists "don't have any set plans for shows at the moment," concedes Spears.
"It's a much larger community of artists" in New York says Spears, "so I would have to say that it's harder in New York."
A significant number of Atlanta artists are relocating to the city's flourishing art hub, the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. Jody Fausett, who moved to New York a year-and-a-half ago, recalls attending a party in Williamsburg recently where "75 percent of the people were from Atlanta."
Fausett has not had a New York gallery show of his photography since moving to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, though he has managed to break into the commercial fashion photography sphere, with recent layouts for Soma and Surface magazines.
"Let's face it, the positive side of that is a huge chunk of money that I can make in a short period of time," admits Fausett of his crossover to fashion work.
A catch-22 of life in New York is that artists who relocate to New York for the expanded cultural possibilities and higher-paying jobs can often become so distracted soaking in other artists' work and paying the bills that their own art-making assumes a lower priority.
"I couldn't have it both ways in this particular city. If I was going to work and work and work at my day job, I can't do [the art]. And in Atlanta you're able to balance it more," says Jennifer Ray, an artist whose work has appeared at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, Chastain and City Hall East galleries and who moved to Williamsburg a year ago. Ray currently works for a public relations firm. Ultimately, she says, "you're exhausted."
Ray is pragmatic about the sacrifices artists often make to live in the city. "It really tears away any veils that you've built up to protect yourself from not doing all that you can," she warns.
Coupled with the strain of day-to-day living in New York is the chance of ever truly "making it" it as an artist.
"Distractions can be a problem, and they can be expensive," concedes Atlanta gallery owner Nancy Solomon whose exhibitions often incorporate both local and New York-based artists. Most often such distractions result in neglecting the very mission that first led the innocent artist to the Apple: the art.
Like that other apple proffered by a serpent in the Garden of Eden, New York promises the possibility of an instantaneous art career. But many Atlanta artists now living in the city seem to agree that the Big Apple is not exactly the quick ticket to art world immortality. The city often seems more rewarding as a source of inspiration and stimulation, offering the kind of exposure to artwork that no other city in the world can deliver.
Robert Walden, whose pen-and-ink works on paper have been shown at Vaknin Schwartz and the ACA Gallery, moved to Manhattan's Lower East Side five years ago and now works as an art installer for galleries like Barbara Gladstone and the Guggenheim Museum. He's even started WALDEN, his own nonprofit gallery specializing in "contemporary conceptual work of various media from installation to painting."
But Walden admits that he has yet to show his own artwork in the city. "I haven't pursued it. I wasn't secure enough with the work that I was doing to be able to present it."
But Walden admits that what New York can offer an artist is a more prestigious address. "There is an aura of being a New York artist that people cling on to." And that jump in status can often be enough to convince a gallery outside New York to show work that looked somehow less funky and cutting edge when the artist bought her gesso at Wal-Mart.
While Atlanta artists migrating to New York may not find the move an immediate boost to their art careers, the move can offer a boost in status that makes the move feel psychologically advantageous.
"It's almost like there's a certain validation living in New York and then when you return to Atlanta — and I've seen this with bands, with artists — there's this greater validity because you have, in some way, made it in New York City," says Helton.
Like many of the other transplanted Atlanta artists, photographer Jason Forrest, who moved to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a year ago, seems to have also put his photography career — well established in Atlanta — on hold. Forrest has instead been delving into new projects such as a documentary about contemporary digital music and, ironically, concentrating on a curatorial project back in Atlanta: an exhibition at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center.
Though the prospect of making it as an artist in New York can be daunting, it has been done. And there are ways to make the transition from Atlanta's relative art hinterland to an art career in New York that don't involve an artist with a Gallery Guide hand-trucking her slides from gallery to gallery with no idea of the kind of work the gallery shows. "I would have absolutely no interest in anybody that didn't know already what I did here. I'm perplexed why they would even want to show," cautions Jenkins, "because art is about nothing but context."
"It's a very cagey thing. In New York City people see you coming a mile away. I know that very well by the job I do — I mean I'm hit on every day," says Jenkins. "What you really need to do is become involved with other artists who are like yourself and make connections where you see yourself as an artist; that way you feel your work is contextualized properly."
Jenkins, whose Brent Sikkema Gallery represents Kara Walker and Vik Muniz, moved to New York in 1998 and had his work shown at the prestigious Jay Gorney Modern Art within four years. He attributes that early success to laying a foundation while still in Atlanta, where he ran a film program at Georgia State, invited visiting speakers to the city and volunteered at Nexus, where he was privy to the variety of guest artists and speakers who visited the art space. "I think I sized up opportunities and sort of took advantage of them when I could without being offensive to the people involved. I tried not to let an opportunity get away."`
Like many of the newer arrivals to New York who have put their art careers on the back burner for commercial work, Jenkins gave up his own artwork five years ago when he began working at Brent Sikkema. "I don't have time," he says. "I get such a vicarious sort of rush about what I do, I don't feel any loss whatsoever. I really get involved with artists a lot, and it's so much nicer to go to an opening for someone else."
Jenkins' transition from gallery-represented artist to gallery director only illustrates a larger condition in many of the stories of people who move to New York with a desire to launch an art career. In a city where achieving even fleeting artistic success is so difficult, it is often far easier and more consistent to find some niche that fulfills your creative needs without requiring a lifetime of waiting, salesmanship and rejection and the schizophrenic faddishness of the art world.
But despite the nearly impossible odds and the increasing expense of eking out a living in New York, Jenkins remains like most who have lived in the city — intoxicated by the opportunity New York presents with each waking day, of seeing something, or doing something that can make all the difficulty worthwhile.
"I'm a real believer in pursuing what you really love. I think you have to follow it through even if you turn around and move somewhere else," Jenkins says. Going to school where he saw many of his teachers "never reconciled" about failing to even give New York a shot taught him the importance of at least trying.
Despite the difficulties, all of the artists and gallery directors interviewed were unanimously in favor of a move to the art capital as a positive one for artists, if only for the experience.
"My life has changed for the better," says Honnie Goode, an Atlanta painter represented by the Lowe Gallery and a member of fascia who's been in New York for a month. "It's hard here. I won't say it has been easy because getting an apartment here can be a nightmare. Plus, it takes about a month to get adjusted to the city. It's sink or swim."
Gallery owners like Atlanta's Nancy Solomon are encouraging about promising artists striking out in New York. Asked what advice she would give Atlanta artists thinking about making the jump to New York, she answers, "Do it! But do it because you want to have an experience, to learn and grow, to see things and stretch your awareness, to meet a lot of different types of people. And by all means, be realistic. Realistic about the compromises you will have to make and the focus it will take."??