MOCA GA preserves region's visual-arts legacy

Annette Cone-Skelton leads the way

The Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia's nerve center lies underground. Down in the subterranean education/resource center, museum president and co-founder Annette Cone-Skelton works her way easily through MOCA GA's archive and its growing permanent collection. She points out various prize possessions including an early Rocio Rodriguez painting and a Kevin Cole sculpture. Official-looking black binders fill several shelves along the far wall and artwork hangs back-to-back in high vertical storage units. The rest of the room is filled with a few computer monitors on tidy desks lit by the room's sole source of natural light: a horizontal band of windows near the ceiling that open onto the parking lot outside.

The room is neither glamorous, nor particularly elegant. It's the kind of space described politely as "functional." But as the place that houses the museum's collected knowledge, it acts as the institution's boiler room. And in time, MOCA GA's resource center may turn out to be Atlanta's most important art space.

To understand MOCA GA's importance in Atlanta's art landscape, one must rewind to the years before co-founders Cone-Skelton and David Golden opened the museum in 2001. Prior to MOCA GA, the city was bereft of any major institution devoted to collecting and showcasing the work made since World War II by regional artists.

"A lot of the history was being lost by the young folks coming in and not knowing what came before them in terms of organizations, in terms of collectives," Cone-Skelton says. MOCA GA was founded to fill in that historical gap. She names a number of collectives and artists with an urgency in her voice, as though she's aware that their history is always on the brink of disappearing: Genevieve Arnold, the Women's Art Collective, the Vigilante Girls, all active in Atlanta's recent past.

Cone-Skelton is a daughter of the South. Born and raised in LaGrange, Ga., she's made her home in Atlanta for the past four decades as an artist and art consultant. She's the kind of woman who makes the phrase grande dame jump to mind, and when answering questions, she smiles coyly and pronounces "important" like impahwtant, all loaded with drowsy Southern vowels.

But if Cone-Skelton's manner is old-style South, her tastes in art are clearly riskier and more cosmopolitan. In 2005, she approached Larry Jens Anderson, one of the founders of Atlanta's '80s and '90s muckraking art collective TABOO, to acquire the group's personal archives. Between 1988 and 1999, TABOO pulled off a series of shows and public "interferences" that included a Jesse Helms lawn jockey, contraband Olympic merchandise and a show referencing Judy Chicago's women-only "Dinner Party" called Johnny Detroit's Brunch, whose invitation read "Men Only."

MOCA GA obtained the collection and carefully cataloged, digitized and archivally stored the materials for the benefit of future researchers. On Aug. 9, TABOO Remembered opened in the Project Ramp area. As the collected record of everything TABOO did and everyone the group pissed off for more than a decade, the show is the first educational exhibition curated for the new space.

Anderson understands the fragility of the collective's small piece of cultural history: Following the death of three of TABOO's four core members – Michael Venezia, King Thackston and David Fraley – the group's collected mish-mash of stuff all went to its lone surviving member, Anderson, who describes himself as TABOO's "accountant." "Well, if I had died," he says, "my lover would have known what this stuff was, but he wouldn't have known what to do with it. It just looked like so many boxes of invitations and letters and records." When Cone-Skelton asked that it become a part of MOCA GA's permanent archive, Anderson was thrilled that the TABOO memorabilia would have a home.

In cities where the international hiperati have worn grooves in artist studio floors looking for the next great star – New York, London, and, increasingly, secondary markets such as Portland and Miami – critical attention from the art world at large is a more plentiful commodity for artists. For still-burgeoning markets such as Atlanta, systematic local attention is a vital piece of infrastructure in which artists can see themselves as part of an ongoing international conversation. Without it, the efforts of local artists might disappear under the eroding forces of time.

That's where MOCA GA's presence is critical to Atlanta's art ecology. What's in those hundreds of official-looking black binders on the resource room's far wall? They hold a record of the city's creative assets as played out through its most noteworthy artists. The names along the spines are a litany of local visual history: Gregor Turk, Freddie Styles, Deanna Sirlin, Kojo Griffin, Angela West, Golden Blizzard. Each binder minutely traces an artist's career and creative output.

MOCA GA is not only tracking individual artists, but creating a repository for the local art community's collective memory as well. The museum has recently acquired the complete art library of deceased abstract painter Genevieve Arnold, the personal effects of the Vigilante Girls and the Women's Art Collective, and keeps an archival record of Art Papers dating back to the publication's inception as the Art Worker's Coalition Newspaper, something that even Art Papers itself doesn't maintain for public use.

That anyone is keeping track is remarkable. That Cone-Skelton, collections manager Lisa Thrower, and a handful of staff and interns are doing so with such precision and dedication is a boon for the region's cultural legacy.

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