Painting the Moment
The Time has Come for Atlanta’s African American Visual Art Scene
by D. Amari Jackson
The thriving art scene in the Metro Atlanta area is no secret. From its world class museums to its popular galleries, the city is well known as both a trendy and established location for the visual arts. Contributing to this prominent reputation are the likes of such renowned institutions as the High Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia (MOCA GA), Spelman
College Museum of Fine Art, Hammonds House Museum, Clark Atlanta University Art Museum, and Atlanta Contemporary.
Consistently, the African American visual arts scene in Atlanta is as exciting. In recent years, the Greater Atlanta area has undergone a Black art renaissance and now boasts some of the top venues for art in the Southeast. Together, these established and emerging institutions, along with area public art and murals, present a stunning scene for African American visual art, one wholly appropriate for a city commonly regarded the mecca of Black life in America.
Within city limits, along with the aforementioned institutions, the venues run the gamut from the Black-owned fine art galleries of ZuCot and September Gray respectively in downtown and Buckhead; to the photographic treasures of the Arnika Dawkins Gallery off Cascade; to the Hip Hop-inspired visuals of the pioneering Trap Music Museum in Bankhead; to the identity-inspired
contemporary art of Future Gallery at Historic Underground Atlanta; to the diverse Forward Warrior Mural Project offerings on Wylie Street in Cabbagetown; to the Westview Studios space in the city’s West End hosting many of Atlanta’s most celebrated artists including Charly Palmer, Tracy Murrell, Shanequa Gay, Marryam Moma, and Lillian Blades.
In nearby East Point, the June 2022 opening of our own Black Art in America Gallery and Gardens was an important cultural addition to an area brimming with artistic activity. Since the June 2019 adoption of the city’s first Public Arts Master Plan, murals and street art by and for African Americans have appeared throughout its revitalized downtown area including an upcoming seven-story mural by artist Erica Chisolm of former and pioneering Black female mayor, Patsy Joe Hilliard, adorning the nearly-complete, affordable housing complex, Aya Towers. Also in 2019, the ArtsXchange relocated to East Point, a longtime staple of the Atlanta art ecosystem that had graced the Grant Park neighborhood since 1984.
To the south, Arts Clayton in Jonesboro—similar to its peer institutions like the Southwest Arts Center in Atlanta—offers exhibitions and showcases for area Black artists and African American art along with arts programs and camps for kids. To the east, the Art Avenue Galleries at the New Black Wall Street Market near Stonecrest Mall are a recent addition to the area art scene housed in a massive complex with over 100 shops. The two-year old market is dedicated to continuing the legacy of Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma while increasing the size and number of minority and women-owned businesses in the United States. To the west, the Landen Prather Fine Art Gallery made history this past year, opening as the first Black-owned fine arts gallery in Villa Rica.
So, needless to say, the Greater Atlanta art world is on fire, particularly when it comes to African American art. That acknowledged, there are significant challenges our local area is still working through to become the kind of full-fledged arts destination many believe it can be. For example, to truly exist as a healthy and productive art ecosystem, the Atlanta area must have a plentiful
and thriving base of collectors and patronage to support artists and enable our institutions to not only maintain but thrive. Consistently, the city does not currently host any major art fairs or biennials, an important step in establishing a city as a prestigious locale for the international art community.
Perhaps Atlanta is headed that way. But how did the city get on its compelling artistic path in the first place?
To effectively answer that question, one has to go back to a time when the city had much less to offer, a mid-20 th century era devoid of the art-friendly ecosystem that represents it today. From the 1940s through the ‘60s—barely removed from the 1939 premiere of Gone with the Wind at the Loew’s Grand Theatre, a debut not attended by the film’s Oscar winner, Hattie McDaniel, due to the city’s racial segregation laws—Atlanta was a growing postwar destination with an influx of companies, technology, and aspiring middle-class residents. Beginning in 1942, African American painter and printmaker, Hale Woodruff, created the Atlanta University Art Annuals to exhibit, promote, and facilitate the collection of the works of Black artists. This annual juried competition, which ran for almost three decades, was inspired by earlier exhibitions organized by the Harmon Foundation that showcased and toured Negro art at venues around the country.
In the 1960s, the rapid commercial and demographic changes of an expanding city—coupled with voter suppression, housing and legal discrimination, and demands for equity from Black veterans who’d risked their lives for their country—helped establish Atlanta as the major organizing center of the civil rights movement. Such activity increased white flight and, by 1970,
ushered in an African American majority population. In 1973, consistent with the Black Power and Black Arts movements of the day, this new political force elected Atlanta first Black mayor, Maynard Jackson. Along with his many groundbreaking innovations in construction and transportation, Jackson used federal Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) funds to establish the Bureau of Cultural Affairs (now the Office of Cultural Affairs), ultimately
enabling the introduction of the Atlanta Jazz Festival, the Fulton County Arts Council, the National Black Arts Festival, and the Neighborhood Arts Center.
The importance of the latter in bringing about an environment conducive to and supportive of the arts in Atlanta should not be underestimated. The 1975 creation of the Neighborhood Arts Center at 252 Georgia Avenue (now Abernathy Boulevard) in the Mechanicsville community provided an effective blueprint for a community arts platform serving underrepresented segments of the city hungry for accessible and relevant cultural activities. The multidisciplinary arts facility employed numerous artists-in-residence, providing them studio space in exchange for conducting free classes and community outreach programs.
In 1976, visual artist John Riddle became the director of the Neighborhood Arts Center and spread its influence by further promoting its artists and programs. Among his significant activities, Riddle employed a team of artists from the center to establish an African village on the pier at Piedmont Park in 1978. The move was groundbreaking given the installation attracted a new and more diverse crowd to the city and to the park to celebrate Black art, a park previously not known for such diversity. That same year, future mayor Shirley Franklin—who headed the Bureau of Cultural Affairs after its initial director Michael Lomax resigned and became a Fulton County commissioner—was pushed by the center’s artists to launch what would become the Atlanta Jazz Festival. Then, in 1979, Lomax used his new position to create the Fulton County Arts Council as a means of channeling federal support to such subsequent arts initiatives as the 1988 creation of the National Black Arts Festival.
As the news of this extraordinary, publicly-funded platform for art spread across the country, a number of prominent national artists, celebrities, and musicians visited the center and engaged its offerings, including the likes of Maya Angelou, Peabo Bryson, and Romare Bearden. Locally, the facility attracted such artists and personalities as photographer Jim Alexander; writer Toni Cade Bambara; poets Alice Lovelace and Ebon Dooley; stage and screen professionals Spike Lee, Samuel L. Jackson, Georgia Allen, Tyler Perry, Tom Jones, and Bill Nunn; and visual art professionals Lynn Marshall-Linnemeier, Alphonso Sanders, Tina Dunkley, and Michael D. Harris. In addition, the center, in the late ‘70s, played host to the National Conference of Artists, an organization of Black professionals, along with the National Dance Company of Senegal and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Although the center, in the 1980s, would survive both a fire, a relocation, and budget cuts coinciding with competition from the federally-funded programs it helped inspire, it finally closed its doors in 1990. Still, the center’s legacy looms large, indelibly transforming the city’s art scene and reputation; inspiring the opening of the original ArtsXchange in 1984 in a 33,000- square-foot building with a theater and 18 resident studio artists, a recording studio, two galleries, and two dance studios; supporting public art and murals by local Black artists; showcasing the works of local and national African American artists; compensating Black artists for their work; and substantially grooming Atlanta into the artistic mecca it has now become. Consistently, it set the scene for the 1990s explosion of music and sport that would further establish the city as an international attraction for art, culture, commerce, and everything in between.
By the mid-1990s, the increasing popularity of Hip Hop in Atlanta was represented by the rise of super producer Jermaine Dupri, Organized Noize, LaFace Records, and the prominence of such musical groups as Outkast and Goodie Mob, all contributing to the city’s ultimate recognition as the “Motown of the South.” Amidst this international attention on the city’s musical prowess, Atlanta hosted the 1996 Summer Olympic Games and, in the months preceding, artists were commissioned to produce works in the form of exhibitions displayed throughout the city. Though many felt, at the time, that Black art and artists we’re not adequately represented in the major venues involved in the international event, the exhibition, Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art of the South—originally set for the High Museum of Art but controversially moved to the far less popular and accessible City Hall East—received acclaim from major papers across the country including The Los Angeles Times and The Boston Globe. An inspired collection of work by African American artists from the South, Souls Grown Deep presented the unique artistic tradition of Black southern culture from a Black perspective forged by, through, and in spite of the inhumane practices of enslavement, Jim Crow segregation, and institutionalized racism. The show was billed as the “first time the work of vernacular artists of color were displayed in an organized exhibition.” Participating artists included Thornton Dial, Lonnie Holley, Ronald Lockett, Hawkins Bolden, Bessie Harvey, Charles Williams, Mary T. Smith, Purvis Young, Mose Tolliver, Nellie Mae Rowe, Mary Lee Bendolph, Marlene Bennett Jones, Martha Jane Pettway, Loretta Pettway, Henry and Georgia Speller, and more.
Today, over a quarter century later and with a new artistic renaissance underway, the city’s artists and institutions for African American art still benefit from the souls that preceded them as well as from the substantial history of 20th century artists, art advocates, and art champions who helped pave the way to our current moment.
And what a moment it is. Below is an alphabetical and noncomprehensive list of prominent and functional institutions, platforms, and venues offering Black art to a predominantly Black population in the Atlanta Metro area in 2023. If your organization is not on this list and you feel it should be, reach out and let us know at email@example.com.
METRO ATLANTA GALLERIES, MUSEUMS, PUBLIC, PRIVATE & NONPROFIT ART SPACES
METRO ATLANTA PUBLIC ART & MURALS
Black Art In America Murals by Fabian Williams, Charmaine Minniefield, and more
Local Street Art & Murals by Charmaine Minniefield, Fabian Williams, Corey Barksdale, Yuzly Mathurin, Shanequa Gay, Muhammad Yungai, Cameron Moore, C. Flux Sing (Craig Singleton), and more
Local Murals by Loss Prevention Arts, Brandan "B-Mike" Odums, Muhammad Yungai, Sheila Pree Bright, Ernest Shaw, Reginald O’Neal, Gilbert Young, and more