Art House: Group efforts

Local gallery gives the power to the people

Shane Zucker stands in sharp contrast to his own gallery. He's a bearded 22-year-old graphic designer with a palpable DIY vibe, while the Art House's big, clean-white-box space bespeaks art-world polish and high modernism. Zucker's half of the two-man team that runs Art House, a co-op and art gallery headquartered in the space that, until recently, housed Sam Romo Gallery, one of Castleberry Hill's signature art spaces. Meanwhile, the team's other half, 22-year-old Steven Peterman, is just a disembodied voice. He's in London on vacation, and we speak over a temperamental Skype connection as trains barrel through in the background.

Art House opened for business as a pay-for-play gallery in Decatur in 2005, but became a curated space within a few months, after launching the first of several art projects with a nationwide scope. The gallery moved downtown to Mitchell Street in 2007, where it added a small print shop and six artist studios. The current Peters Street location followed last July. Today its projects have included more than 3,000 artists worldwide, making Art House part of a nucleus of art organizations more concerned with community than commerce.

During the pseudo-cyber interview, it becomes clear that Peterman and Zucker are accustomed to working in the virtual realm. They're adept at maintaining a conversation despite Skype's constant attempts to derail it, and that's no surprise. They've been using the Internet and social networking as organizational tools for their projects since the early days when they founded Art House while undergraduates at SCAD. One such project, A Million Little Pictures, was powered largely by Internet word of mouth and Craigslist postings, and drew 200 or more participants from around the country for each of its three incarnations. And that was with a $16 participation fee, Art House's heftiest entry fee by a long shot.

"Yeah, we feel guilty every time we have an entry fee," Zucker says, biting his nails. Their fees typically run around $6. But all the money goes back into running the gallery, which only recently become self-sustaining.

"We never pay ourselves for any of this," Peterman says. "We do the shows because we want to go to them." When asked about their business plan, Peterman responds, "We hope to ... keep ... getting money." Zucker laughs out loud.

Art House's central mission is as much about community building as it is about art. In many ways, Peterman and Zucker see art as the vehicle for building community rather than the final result.

For the most recent A Million Little Pictures, prospective participants who signed on at the Art House website received disposable cameras, took photos on the theme of "adventures," and then sent the cameras back. Peterman and Zucker promised to hold the show in the city that submitted the most entries. San Francisco came away the winner with 5,400 of the total 16,300 entries, and the exhibit, which included 2,500 photos, was held at they city's 111 Minna Gallery. Pictures follows the Art House formula of using the connective tissue of cyberspace to transform mass participation into a form of artistic expression visible in the real world of walls and galleries.

"We wanted to open up to everybody," Peterman says. "It doesn't matter if you've been doing art for years, or if you've never picked up a paint brush. We just want to give people a chance to participate."

It was just a matter of time before the logic of Facebook infiltrated the art world. Communities have always been based on who knows who knows who – mail art goes back to at least the '60s. But with the rise of Web-based social networking, it now seems normal for massive groups of strangers to get together, co-create a single event and then disperse to recombine in ever-changing affinity groups. Art House makes it evident that the so-called digital natives – those like Peterman and Zucker of a generation that barely remembers a time before ubiquitous digital media – are bringing new models of organization with them as they take on more important roles in the art world.

Art House's curated gallery exhibitions, which run in addition to the nationwide projects, likewise demonstrate a community-based philosophy. As Zucker shows off Mikaela Sheldt's massive, emotional oil portraits and Lucha's surrealism-inflected "creature" prints, it's clear that showcasing young unknowns is a primary goal. Though surprisingly accomplished, both artists are still in school, and Sheldt is one of Art House's six Mitchell Street studio artists.

The gallery's next show takes the idea of community to an international level with The Sketchbook Project, in which participating artists have filled up sketchbooks on the theme "How to Save the World." Remarkably, 90 of the project's 500 participants hail from outside the United States.

Art House is part of a growing core of community network-oriented art organizations and spaces experiencing a resurgence in Atlanta after years of dormancy. Art activist organizations such as Wonderroot and Red Cielo; populist art events such as Art Beats + Lyrics and the Indie Craft Experience; and galleries with explicitly community-based missions such as Beep! Beep! and MINT appear to be on the ascent.

It's too early to say whether this constitutes a sea change, but Peterman and Zucker may be harbingers of a younger generation's way of doing things. They see their role less as gatekeepers and more as shepherds to a growing flock. "We love the art community of Atlanta," Peterman says. "We love how it's growing and what it's becoming."

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