20 People to Watch - Priscilla Smith: The arts organizer

Eyedrum Art & Music Gallery’s executive director takes a risk moving Downtown

At the intersection of Forsyth and Mitchell streets, just a few blocks south of Five Points, Eyedrum Executive Director Priscilla Smith gestures toward the baroque flourishes carved over the doorway of a brownstone currently housing Friedman’s Shoes, a store that specializes in shoes for large feet.

“This used to be ‘Hotel Row,’” she says.

At the opposite end of the neglected block is U Mixx Café, a place to “Sit, sip, and surf.” It’s 2 p.m. on a Tuesday, but inside the lights are off and the tables and counter look unused. This is South Downtown, a derelict stretch of Atlanta that’s entering the primer phase of urban renaissance. It’s also home to the new Eyedrum Art & Music Gallery, and ground zero for Smith’s efforts to keep the vaunted venue and gallery space’s legacy alive.

An advocate of the arts in Atlanta since 1980, Smith has sat on Eyedrum’s board of directors since 2008. With this latest move, she hopes the city’s long-standing grassroots arts organization can be rejuvenated along with the section of the city it now calls home. “I believe in taking risks,” Smith says, “and inviting audiences to take risks with us.”

In August, Smith oversaw Eyedrum’s move into a row of storefronts, most of them long abandoned, surrounding 88 Forsyth St., including one where Ideal Music Co. bought and sold musical instruments a decade ago. “The structure is here,” Smith says. “The neighborhood is walkable, there’s plenty of space to live and work down here — we can make this a cool little town in and of itself!”

Since it was founded in 1998 on Trinity Avenue, Eyedrum has developed a reputation by championing the notion that revolutionary art doesn’t have to do anything other than be itself.

In 2006, the gallery received a Warhol Grant to help cover its day-to-day operations. But in 2010, less than a year after Smith accepted the executive director role, Eyedrum lost the lease on its 290 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive home. For nearly two years it existed in limbo before taking up temporary residence at the C4-Fuse Arts Center, around the corner from its new location.

In the downtime, Eyedrum lost much if its presence while like-minded institutions such as the Goat Farm and WonderRoot pushed the city’s arts scene to greater heights.

Smith’s first order of business: brokering a relationship with Sabir Khan, an associate professor at Georgia Tech’s School of Architecture. This spring, Eyedrum will be the studio for Khan’s senior design class. Students will analyze the building, assess its needs, and develop suggested design plans, which will also be their senior projects. At the end of the semester, their design plans will be used for an exhibit.

“By the end of 2015, I want Eyedrum to, once again, be a place where people say, ‘Hey, let’s go see what’s going on at Eyedrum,’” Smith says.

Fixing up the rooftop performance space to lure in new audiences has become chief among Smith’s priorities. “Some people are afraid of South Downtown,” she says. “They’re unfamiliar with it, and they think it’s dangerous. But we have this great space where we can host these outdoor events overlooking Downtown — no one else can do that like we can.”