Arts Issue - Atlanta’s fertile arts underground comes of age

5 founders of emerging arts orgs look back and to the future

The wonder years are crucial. It’s as true for the flourishing of nascent arts organizations as it is for child development. Over the past half-decade or so, Atlanta’s cultural landscape has experienced a thorough overhaul as a handful of mostly newborn institutions moved from infancy to adolescence. Born amid a depressed economy, they’ve turned DIY spirit and mass collaboration into the new currency driving Atlanta’s arts economy.

A hodgepodge of relative newcomers has emerged, including a nontraditional performance venue of dancers on wheels; a virtual gallery with a residual mission to restore cachet to Atlanta’s abandoned spaces; a 19th-century cotton-gin-factory-turned-haven for 21st-century artists; an internationally acclaimed group of volunteers using inner-city walls as raw canvases; and an interdisciplinary arts and service organization committed to community building.

We surveyed the respective founders of Dance Truck, Dashboard Co-op, Goat Farm Arts Center, Living Walls, and WonderRoot to find out how they’ve nurtured the growth of their organizations and what they envision for the next five years within Atlanta’s fertile underground.

Malina Rodriguez; co-founded Dance Truck in 2009

“Dance Truck took us by surprise. We thought it would only happen once. Atlanta gobbled it up, and so did Alabama, Portland Ore. and Yokohama. We started producing monthly shows and grew a loyal volunteer and fan base with our special brand of production. Not all of our ideas fit in a truck, so in 2011, we started the Lucky Penny and stabilized our growth, producing in a truck once a year.

Dance Truck will live on in other U.S. cities. Five years from now in Atlanta, we will have rallied Dance Truckers to build a proper and affordable dance studio for the Lucky Penny’s local and visiting artists.”

Beth Malone; co-founded Dashboard Co-op in 2010

“Dash has been pretty unpredictable, so I don’t think we could’ve known exactly where we’d be. I definitely wouldn’t have guessed that we’d be running a 24-hour Vegas wedding chapel in the A, but who can ever really foresee that?

Knowing the ambition (and stubbornness) of co-founder Courtney Hammond and I, I would have predicted the organization would be at this level of expansion — scaling nationally, paying ourselves and artists. Dash is proudly nimble — we’ll always respond to the needs of the community, artistic rigor, and our own whims. Pliability, commitment, and irreverence — therein lies our staying power.”

Anthony Harper; co-founded Goat Farm Arts Center in 2008

“We love our city and want to help Atlanta compete for people and resources. In today’s complex world, valuable resources are critical thinkers and abstract problem solvers. A thriving contemporary art scene (with strong support) indicates overall city progress. It’s akin to ‘waving a flag’ and notifying the world that Atlanta seeks to attract unique contemporary thought systems in civic, social, and business layers.

Atlanta has progressive minds in the arts, but the support structure is lackluster. Is Atlanta the modern day Alexandria? No, but we like to think it could be. We plan to wave that flag as hard as we can. Hope somebody notices.”

Monica Campana; co-founded Living Walls in 2009

When we started, I knew Living Walls was making an impact in the city of Atlanta and inspiring people from outside to start their own Living Walls-like programs in their own cities, but I did not think it was ever going to be what it is now. We have been able to produce over 100 murals in five years with an all-volunteer staff and a group of incredibly talented artists. We started out putting the artists up in a huge studio — no beds, only air mattresses, one bathroom in the whole building, no AC, etc. Now we have an amazing sponsorship with the W Hotels. That says a lot for how much we have grown.

I see Living Walls now as an unstoppable force that will continue to grow. It has become a staple for the city, driven by the support and love of the people of Atlanta. Five years from now, I see Living Walls as a sustainable organization — with a paid staff and artists — that is embraced by city officials. I see it as a reason for people to travel to Atlanta, a reason to show off our city and feel proud. Maybe I have a lot of hope in this city; maybe I am just a dreamer. But five years from now, I see LW playing even a bigger role in the production of public art in this city.”

Chris Appleton; co-founded WonderRoot in 2004

“I imagine most founders have big ideas of how they would like to see their organizations grow. Five years ago, we began to imagine the next phase of WonderRoot’s life. We certainly had ideas of a larger facility, reaching more people and making a transformative impact on Atlanta’s cultural ecology. Simultaneously, it would have been difficult to anticipate the degree to which the city has embraced WonderRoot’s work or to predict the effect some of our programs have had on artists and the community in Atlanta.

Five years from now, WonderRoot will be settled into its new home of the WonderRoot Center for Arts & Social Change. Our team will have grown from the current seven staff members to more than 20. We will be investing even more — dollars, time, partnerships — into our work of advancing artist careers and social change in Atlanta. We’ll be setting the vision for the next decade of pushing Atlanta forward as a place where art and community engagement thrive.”