Cover Story - Kennesaw State University draws the arts outside the perimeter

Could the next big destination for Atlanta's arts scene be in the suburbs?

Look for an example of metro Atlanta's notorious sprawl and Kennesaw will be as good as any to point to along the city's northern arc. It embodies the kind of rapid-fire growth made possible by the wonders of mass production. Cookie-cutter housing developments. Big box retail. Strip malls for miles.

But before there was a Pier 1 and a Bahama Breeze and the Town Center Mall in Kennesaw, there was forest. Before I-75 ever reached the northwest Atlanta suburb and its roads became lined with subdivisions and congested with daily commuters, there was forest, and there was Kennesaw Junior College.

Kennesaw State University's precursor opened 50 years ago with roughly 1,000 students. It is now the third largest university in Georgia (behind the University of Georgia and Georgia State University), with a student body numbering close to 25,000.

In many ways KSU's campus — and those of most traditional colleges — is suburbia writ large: a self-sustaining community, a housing bubble. The majority of the university's architecture reflects the simple, inoffensive look of the city surrounding it. But on a hill on north campus, there is a new building being erected, one with a towering glass atrium and an exterior resembling the folds of a paper plane. It is the Zuckerman Museum of Art, a $3 million, 9,200-square-foot addition to the university's arts district — the "jewel" as some on campus have already nicknamed it.

"It's just a bold statement," says Museum Director Justin Rabideau of the design by local architecture firm Stanley Beaman & Sears. "The soaring nature of the facade glass and this really interesting kind of origami flipped face — I think it's going to be an iconic building for the architects and for the campus."

As precious as the ZMA already is to its immediate community of academics and administrators, the museum, and the booming arts program it's a part of, hardly exist in a bubble. Out in the suburbs, generally dismissed as a cultural no-man's land, KSU has become a magnet over the last few years for some of the more interesting dancers, musicians, performers, and artists living and working in Atlanta right now: Lauri Stallings, Ayokunle Odeleye, Katherine Taylor, Robert Sherer, Matt Haffner, Teresa Bramlette Reeves, Joe Tsambiras. The list goes on. The university has built partnerships with major Atlanta art institutions including the Atlanta Ballet and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra as well as smaller organizations such as WonderRoot. This burst of creative energy presents an interesting paradox — that Atlanta's next big destination for the arts could be outside the perimeter.

Fifteen years ago, Joe Meeks, KSU's recently retired dean of the College of the Arts, and Betty Siegel, former University president, met with Dalton carpet big-wig Bernie Zuckerman. Zuckerman promised to gift the 100 remaining works of his late first wife Ruth, a prolific sculptor who died in 1996, to the university if it would keep them on continuous display. They immediately began fundraising.

Donations were small, but steady. The effort got a boost in 2005 when Robert Woodruff, upon realizing that KSU was home to a large collection of works by Athos Menaboni — his favorite artist, according to Meeks — donated $1 million toward a gallery honoring Menaboni at the university's Bailey Performance Center.

Woodruff's contribution helped raise awareness about the university's collection and visual arts program. But 10 years and one economic downturn after their original conversation, they still weren't anywhere close to being able to build a museum.

"It's not an easy job to get people to build arts facilities," says Meeks.

So in 2010, Zuckerman presented the university with a challenge: If it could raise $1 million in one year, he would donate $2 million toward the construction of the museum. They had better luck with fundraising that go-round. The university broke ground on the museum last fall and is on track for a spring 2014 grand opening.

The debut exhibit will be called See Through Walls and will look at the "physical and psychological dimensions of division, articulation, support, and structure." In other words, it will be an examination of space and separation.

Atlantans Sam Parker (KSU alum), Annette Cone-Skelton (MOCA GA director) and Bethany Collins (who's currently an artist-in-residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem) will work directly on the museum's freshly primed walls. Ruth Stanford (GSU prof) and Ben Goldman (Kibbee Gallery), among others, will exhibit alongside work by Gordon Matta-Clark and David Haxton at the grand opening.

"We're really focusing on using the museum as a laboratory and as a place for experimentation, so we're focusing on every area of the museum as a possibility for exhibition," says Rabideau.

Assistant Curator Kirstie Tepper says there will be a continued effort to use the university's collection to provide context for current exhibitions of more modern work.

"At the ZMA, it won't be out of place to have a 19th-century work next to a more contemporary work that's also placed in the context of a soliloquy or some other text," she says.

KSU's permanent collection numbers about 6,000 works, including pieces by Marc Chagall, Norman Rockwell, Howard Finster, and Pierre-August Renoir. Of that total, approximately 5,000 are prints and works on paper thanks to the Southern Graphics Council International's decision this summer to house its permanent collection at the ZMA.

At the groundbreaking, Zuckerman, who passed away in February, gave an emotional speech about finally realizing a museum in his late wife's honor.

"Ruth never would have had the audacity to dream of a museum for her work," he said. "I have had the opportunity and you will, too, to see this all come about and wonder at the imagination that goes into making a piece of art."

There are art institutions just outside the perimeter worth visiting — the Marietta/Cobb Museum of Art and the Southwest Arts Center come to mind — but few, if any, are as intertwined with Atlanta's art community as KSU has become. Rabideau has an active art career, having recently completed a residency with the Creatives Project, presented with Dashboard Co-op, and exhibited at Barbara Archer and Fay Gold galleries, among others. Reeves, who is the museum's director of curatorial affairs, is represented by Sandler Hudson Gallery and spent the last decade teaching at Georgia State University before coming to Kennesaw. gloATL's Stallings, who's collaborated with everyone from Living Walls to WonderRoot to Big Boi, is currently an instructor of dance and an artist in residence.

"The majority of our staff lives in Atlanta and participates in the arts in Atlanta," says Rabideau. "The arts never exist in a bubble and the more that we interact with our peers and with the community of artists in Atlanta, the better we're going to be."

Stallings agrees: "It's meaningful that special sub-centers, with incredibly thoughtful and carefully constructed missions and modes of doing, are flanking a city that daily struggles with what its center looks like and where it is. As Atlantans need to uncover bridges and share conversations and experiences with world cultures and metropoles, we can learn just as much from the folks a few houses down the street."

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