Artful venture

Saltworks Gallery an ambitious experiment in building an arts community

Two weeks ago, if you asked anyone on the Atlanta alternative arts scene if they had heard about Saltworks Gallery, chances are you’d be answered with a blank, uncomprehending stare.

But in a remarkably short span of time, Saltworks has generated significant buzz and caused a small army of curators, artists and gallery owners to take notice. For its first exhibition, which opened Jan. 26, this clean, modern space has attracted a cadre of respected Atlanta artists with local and national gallery representation, including Jim Waters (Kiang Gallery), Joe Peragine (Solomon Projects), Jay Ivcevich (New York’s Mitchell-Innes & Nash) and Scott Ingram (Sandler Hudson Gallery).

The quality of work in the exhibition, appropriately titled Saltworks Debut, is notable in itself. A flamboyantly colored but elegantly minimalist aesthetic reigns in this harmoniously arranged show. Devoted to post-Pop referenced work, Debut features Waters’ glittering mid-century modern “O” sculptures. Ingram offers drips of nail polish on paper that suggest a lapsed neat freak escapee from abstract expressionist day camp, while Ivcevich’s slick, toxic-colored figurines look like minimalist-kitsch curios. Painter Larry Miller exhibits equally accomplished work in stunning benday-dot Op Art-inspired paintings that comment on our society of the spectacle.

The sophistication of this show’s packaging and the high caliber of the work is just a sliver of what lies within the deceptively ugly exterior of the gallery’s 12,000-square-foot warehouse space. Called the Angier Arts Center, it is located in the kind of dismal, industrial neighborhood where you’d be more apt to find a Dumpster full of body parts than an of-the-moment contemporary art space.

Anchored by Saltworks Gallery, the Angier Arts Center complex features room for six artists’ studios. Renters receive access to communal areas like a “spray room” where they can work safely with toxic paints, a woodshop and an on-site business for art installation and art shipping run by Ed Hill. The complex also houses the tiny 140-square-foot Project Room, which will feature installation work by emerging artists like its current occupant, sculptor/video artist Danielle Roney. There are also plans to house educational and instructional facilities at the site, which would make the complex a kind of working art “laboratory” for students.

The brainchild of Brian Holcombe, a 28-year-old Atlanta native and alumnus of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Saltworks and the Angier Arts Center suggest a combination of Andy Warhol’s Factory, New York’s Chelsea art scene and a members’ only art club. Inspired by the communally minded artists’ studios he saw while working in Chicago as a preparator at The Children’s Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Holcombe offers the Angier Arts Center as a wildly ambitious, grand experiment in creating a better, richer local art scene.

As Holcombe prepared for the gallery’s opening last week, he was busy tending to all the little details that still needed ironing out. Asked if he was nervous, he laughs. “Of course, everything makes me nervous. Once this thing gets started, I don’t want anything to come up that’s going to kill it,” he says.

As vital as the practical, day-to-day issues are, there are also more elevated, artistic concerns that play on Holcombe’s conscience as an artist. While the enormous, expensive task of putting Saltworks together certainly drew on his nascent skills as a businessman, it did not entail losing touch with what he wants for the space as an artist.

“What I saw that Atlanta needed is community,” Holcombe says of the motivation behind Saltworks. “And what I was trying to set up here was a studio space with a sense of community ... where people work together.”

That philosophy appealed to Holcombe’s comrades-in-arms like Joey Orr, who was chosen to curate The Project Room because of his work curating the annual summertime ShedSpace exhibitions. “Listening to them talk about their values was like someone had opened all my mail and read it, or like someone telling me what I believed in,” Orr says about his first visit to the space.

And Ingram — who, along with Holcombe, once worked at the High Museum — has proven equally invaluable to Holcombe as a collaborator. Involved with the Saltworks project from the beginning, Ingram helped conceive the space and renovate it in a Herculean effort documented in a video project by Holcombe.

While undeniably a group birth, Saltworks is very much Holcombe’s baby. He managed to pull it together in a mere five months after convincing the owners of the building, a piano company, that he could turn it into an ambitious studio space/gallery/ happening spot. Bankrolled by these generous benefactors, who put down 95 percent of the necessary funds for renovations, Holcombe used his own credit cards to provide the remainder.

Saltworks and the Angier Arts Center serve a pragmatic need: for well-run, harmoniously shared studio space and exhibition venues. It also serves a spiritual need. As more and more artists jump ship for the mecca of New York or Los Angeles, others dig their heels just as ambitiously into the local terra. Determined to keep believing in the city’s potential for an art scene, artists like Ingram and Holcombe and curators like Orr make you realize that it is as much a leap of faith to stick it out in this town as it is to flee it for some half-baked notion of instant recognition in a beckoning metropolis. For Orr, Saltworks is “not so much a reaction to try and keep people here,” as an acknowledgement of “a lot of talented artists that are here.”

“Part of the problem is, Atlanta is so not focused on an art scene,” says Ingram, Saltworks’ first studio tenant. “There are all these little cliques all over town and somebody needs to step up to the plate and say, ‘Here’s a venue where we can all come together under one roof.”

If anyone can bring these disparate worlds together, the remarkably motivated visionary Holcombe makes you think he can. Like some consummate ’60s super-hostess laying out pigs-in-a-blanket and cocktail napkins, Holcombe has thought of everything for Saltworks. There’s the DJ booth above the Saltworks Gallery, where a local architect-cum-mixologist will spin ambient sounds for the opening. There’s the ample, well-lit parking for studio tenants and gallery-hopping guests. There’s even a “lounge area” where exhibiting artists can gnaw their fingernails in comfort while they wait for the telltale ker-ching of the cash register bell. As any party planner or successful entrepreneur will tell you, Holcombe knows that it’s all in the details.

As the night of his first opening — the event that will in part decide Saltworks’ fate — approached, Holcombe admitted, “I’m scared shitless.” But consummate host and planner that he is, one thing is for sure. After loading up on bottles of Mondavi Red in bulk, Holcombe is confident his guests’ liquor needs will be met. That in itself is testament to Holcombe’s desire to keep the buzz going.

Saltworks Debut runs through Feb. 23 at Saltworks Gallery, 635 Angier Ave. (off Glenn Iris). Tues.-Fri. 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Sat. 2-6 p.m. and by appointment. 404-876-8000.??