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20 People to Watch - Courtney Hammond and Beth Malone: The arts entrepreneurs

As Dashboard Co-op, the duo is transforming Atlanta’s forgotten spaces through art

It’s hard to decide which thing sounds more impossible: successfully luring businesses into long-neglected retail spaces with high-concept contemporary art installations or being handed $30,000 out of the blue, no strings attached. And the likelihood of both happening? File that fat chance away with the rest of your crumpled Mega Millions tickets. Unless you’re Dashboard Co-op.

The indie arts nonprofit is run by young entrepreneurs Courtney Hammond and Beth Malone, who also hold down day jobs at two of the city’s largest arts institutions: Hammond is the project supervisor in the Public Art Division of Atlanta’s Office of Cultural Affairs, and Malone is the coordinator of Teen Programs at the High Museum of Art. In November, the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation awarded Dashboard $30,000 over three years to use however it wants.

Dashboard’s mission might best be summed up in a question it posed to attendees of its 2011 art show/dinner party Modes of Operation: “What’s the largest and most elaborate thing you envision for Atlanta in the next 5 years? Think BIG! What’s something you could never foresee happening in the Arts? Something UNDOABLE.”

“Things are presented to us in our brains and there’s never an inkling to me that we’re not gonna do it,” says Malone.

That partly helps explain how Hammond and Malone end up hosting exhibits and throwing parties in abandoned buildings, vacant rental homes, and crumbling warehouses. The pair tends to view amenities like lighting as overrated.

“We’re used to starting from nothing, so when we borrow a space that has lights, we’re like, ‘Something is off ... .’ We’ll go unscrew all the light bulbs and be like, ‘That’s it!’” says Malone.

“It’s the difference with going into a raw space — you don’t know all the quirks ... ,” explains Hammond as Malone jumps in to finish her best friend’s thought, “... the foundation’s off, and my foot just went through the floor, the landlord’s coming over ... cover that hole.”

“One minute you’re high-fiving, the next minute you’re fighting, and the next minute you’re hugging,” says Hammond.

Dashboard was originally conceived of as a professional development resource for artists: online portfolios, networking/marketing/promotions help, creative support, exhibition opportunities. But in the three years since its inception, the organization’s focus has moved away from the nuts-and-bolts business of being an artist and evolved into a curatorial project with a mission of neighborhood and economic development. The 2011 show Ground Floor, which filled neglected storefronts along Edgewood Avenue with art installations, was a turning point.

“Our mission changed with Ground Floor,” says Malone. “We were asked to have that show to bring business and development to Edgewood Avenue. We felt really good about breathing new life into that part of town and that’s when we realized our mission was changing.”

Every vacant space included in the art walk was leased following Ground Floor.

Hammond and Malone’s notion of what’s possible has a whole new dimension now thanks to the Rauschenberg Foundation’s Seed Grant — a prize they’d never heard of and were nominated for without their knowing. In its inaugural year, the Rauschenberg’s Seed Grant Program gifted 20 emerging arts organizations in Atlanta, Detroit, New Orleans, Portland, and Providence, R.I., $10,000 a year each for three years. It’s a surprise award, determined through nominations of emerging arts organizations by established institutions. The Atlanta Contemporary Arts Center recommended Dashboard for the grant.

The pair will use the money to help travel some shows outside of Atlanta. In addition, Dashboard is making plans to open a “nontraditional exhibition space” in 2013, although the ladies are hushed about the details.

Dashboard’s next event, Boom City, will take place Feb. 2 at the M. Rich Building downtown and showcase its latest crop of artists from Atlanta, New Orleans, and New York. After that, the duo will push forward on more of its ideas, ultimately made possible, the pair notes, by Atlantans’ general willingness to say yes.

“I think we’ve learned that if you just ask people in this city, they’ll help you out. I think we just need to be bold and ask,” says Malone. “Atlanta’s special. We’ve lived here forever and put so much energy into it that we’re like, damn it, we’re not leaving. We’re going to build a city that we love and that we’re proud of.”