Arts Issue - The highs and lows of curating in Atlanta

The High Museum’s Michael Rooks and Deer Bear Wolf’s Davy Minor talk shop

On the surface, they seem completely different: Michael Rooks, the High Museum’s clean-shaven, thinning-on-top curator of modern and contemporary art versus Davy Minor, the long-haired, fully-bearded founder of Atlanta’s latest underground art, music, and lit journal of record, Deer Bear Wolf.

But behind those façades they share similar missions.

Rooks attempts to steer mainstream museumgoers along paths less traveled, whereas Minor works to expose Atlanta’s weirder side to a wider audience. It’s almost like traveling in similar directions from opposite ends of the spectrum.

Since joining the High in 2010, after serving in curator roles at MCA Chicago and the Honolulu Museum of Art, Rooks has notably increased the museum’s collection of works by local artists, resulting in 2013’s Drawing Inside the Perimeter exhibit. And Minor, who ended his former award-winning music blog Ohmpark the same year as Rooks’ Atlanta-centric group show, now focuses on showcasing the sights, sounds, and stories of local indie artists, experimentalists, and wordsmiths.

We eavesdropped while they shared notes on aesthetics, curatorial approach, and the Atlanta art scene’s “state of becoming.” The following is a condensed version of their discussion.

Davy Minor: When you make choices, are they more about your personal aesthetics or do you try to keep the audience in mind?

Michael Rooks: I keep the audience in mind first. For example, I collect art myself. I have art by artists in Chicago, artists of Hawaii, and now Atlanta artists. I buy and collect locally for myself. I also do that for the High Museum. But there are things that I’ve bought by other artists that I would not collect for the High, for example, just because the context is not right and it’s my own personal interest or taste. My job here is really modern and contemporary with a focus on contemporary, so I try to keep my focus here on what’s happening tomorrow.

DM: I definitely approach it in a different way. I try to find things aesthetically pleasing in a certain way and then take that to a wider audience. But the way I do things, it’s very grass-roots and D.I.Y., so there’s not necessarily a built-in audience to cater to.

MR: So Davy, when you were working primarily with music and musicians, did you approach that kind of curation in the same way? Or was there more of an historical logic or other kind of system?

DM: In the beginning, it was definitely much more about aesthetics — picking out things that I thought were really cool and interesting and experimental, and trying to find a way to make it more accessible to people. That’s the approach that I have with a lot of stuff.

MR: Interesting. A similar goal for me is to basically make converts — because we have a general audience here at the museum, meaning we’ve got historical art, design, photography, all these departments — it’s not like everyone coming here is interested in contemporary art. So I try to make converts of people by surprising them with something that might be off-putting or weird to them. Once they get into it then they become seduced and transfixed. Kind of like the [|Janet Cardiff piece] that’s on view right now.

DM: Yeah, I like that. That’s definitely, philosophically, the sort of thing I do. One of the things I’m doing right now is a monthly variety show. We take different local musicians, local writers who do readings, theater people, performance art, and sort of create a context where somebody might be coming to the show to see one or two people that they’re familiar with and then get exposed to these other things.

MR: Cool. So, I’m curious, Davy, among sort of generational lines, do you think that’s how people get turned on to culture? It’s kind of parallel, in a way, to how we sort information. Rather than more of a traditional, historical approach, it’s kind of sampling. I guess I’m trying to find the secret of how to get to young people.


MR: Tell me! What is it?

DM: I don’t know, exactly, how to get to young people. But one of the things I think as far as curation is, in the past things were obscured because there was no way for them to get out. Nowadays things are obscured because there’s so much information. So what I try to do is create a platform that sifts through everything for you.

Creative Loafing: That sounds similar to the approach you took with last year’s Drawing Inside the Perimeter exhibit, Michael. Can you talk about that?

MR: The approach was getting to know the artists, doing studio visits, getting to know what the city is about, and getting to know the periods in the history of art in Atlanta. Cities like Atlanta and Chicago always go through periods when there’s a vibrancy, and then that dissipates, so there’s hills and valleys. But getting to know what they are was really important so that I could begin to sift and filter — to use Davy’s expression — the artists here who have a serious studio practice and are making work that is relevant and has quality.

DM: ... Since you’ve worked in other cities’ art scenes I was wondering how you feel about Atlanta versus other places?

MR: In Atlanta I feel like people are deeply sincere and have this desire and hunger for an integration of visual arts, performance, artists working in other disciplines —this kind of interdisciplinary renaissance. And we’ve got all the parts here to make it happen. Some parts are stronger than others. For example, we’ve got just a handful of contemporary galleries. And they come and go as well. And the infrastructure here, we’ve got a big museum, the High Museum, we’ve got other great museums around town, so the platforms for presenting work, in my opinion, are a great asset of the city and reflect that kind of enthusiasm.

I feel like this city is in a state of becoming. What’s it called when a flower starts to unfold?

DM: Blooming laughs

MR: Yeah, there’s a scientific word I wanted to try and say. But you know what I mean, there’s a moment of becoming in this city that’s happening in slow motion and it’s exciting to be a part of it.

DM: I definitely agree. It’s a city that’s been burned down to the ground, and I feel like there’s not an overarching identity that drives things so it allows it to sort of go in weird directions that give everyone freedom to do whatever they want here.

Editor’s note: Q&A has been corrected to reflect Michael Rooks’ personal collection contains art by artists of Hawaii, not by indigenous Hawaiian artists.