There are galleries in Atlanta who compromise their vision by representing artists whose work is easier to digest so that they can stay afloat. (On one hand, who can blame them?)
Lisa Alembik is the mistress of Dalton Gallery, the acclaimed exhibition space of Agnes Scott College in Decatur. During its recent past, Dalton has showcased an impressive variety of artistic styles while still addressing contemporary themes of regional and national significance. For example, as the presidential race overtook the country last fall, Dalton’s “Hello Liberty” examined issues of human rights and national identity. In 2006, Alembik curated the multidisciplinary “Blackbird on Your Shoulder,” which brought together visual artists, writers, as well as musicians (including, believe it or not, Athens’ Hope for Agoldensummer) to breathe new life into the Southern tradition of storytelling.
Q. What do you think is the main difference between running a nonprofit space and a for-profit gallery? How are the stakes similar, with regards to our overall health as a community?
The main difference is the source of funding for survival. Opportunities are open to each. For nonprofits, it is in the form of grants, donations, and endowments. The Dalton Gallery cannot sell artwork, though many nonprofit galleries can sell. For-profits survive on sales. The roles of both sorts of institutions in promoting arts in the community overlap. Both need to have a vision—a reason for being, a mission. Both should educate the general public about the artists that they exhibit (in a way that is accessible, unpretentious, and fulfilling for the visitor). Just the presence of a gallery is important.
Q. How has the economy factored into your situation?
I don’t know how I’ll fund the 2009-2010 exhibitions that are in process … A grant proposal I put in for the upcoming fall exhibit was just rejected, and I am scrambling to apply for others. The price of everything has gone up, from lights for the gallery to booze for receptions. Receptions? Who knows.
Artists are having a more difficult time funding their work, from paying for basic materials to shipping. It is much more difficult to ask individuals to help fund a project or certain aspects of an exhibit knowing that their life savings have been cut in half. Though attending the gallery is free, many have decided during this time of fear and uncertainty to stay at home, cook dinner, and watch Netflix.
Q. What were your favorite shows at Dalton in 2008?
Ach…. You can’t ask me that question! My long answer is that the gallery puts on three exhibits a year. One is a student exhibit, and the other two bring in artists who are local, national, and international, whose art-making is borne from certain issues that are brought together under a certain heading or theme, with the intention of building a broad yet cohesive approach to an idea. So, that said, I spend so much time organizing these, and the subject is always one close to my heart, and generally I get close to the artists—so I can’t really say that one is more favorite than the next. I love each the same amount, differently. The main exhibits of 2008 were ‘The Possibility of Framing Infinity’ and ‘Hello Liberty.’
Q. What are the specific challenges you faced in 2008?
Budget and attendance, just as in years past, are my biggest challenges. The budget being small and with the time-consuming range of responsibilities of my job, I sadly have not dedicated enough time for fundraising. This academic year I directed the majority of the gallery budget to one exhibit, rather than splitting it between the two. The gallery [budget] was able to provide:
more significant honorariums than it had in the past,
or pay massive shipping fees to bring work from outside GA,
or buy equipment like a video projector.
This left me to make difficult decisions on how to fund exhibit #2. I ended up doing a ‘call for art’ and charging an entry fee to cover costs. ‘Hello Liberty’ opened October 2008 during election frenzy—when the tanking of the economy started to become dramatic and all consuming. Opening night was smack dab in the midst of the gas shortage, when many of us were conserving gas just to get to work. Though we had a good turn out, attendance should have been double. Over the course of the exhibit, which closed November 20th, the gallery had noticeably fewer visitors. [At the time] McCain/Palin vs. Obama/Biden was [the] magnet for people’s attention. School groups who would usually come by did not, due to funding cuts. October is so chock full of fabulous events, mainly due to the popularity of Atlanta Celebrates Photography, that all of the possibilities ended up competing for people’s time and energy. Attendance did pick up some in November, but nothing significant. I also consider that the title and publicity for the exhibit was not as appealing as it could have been.
There is [also] a perception by folks who live in areas of metropolitan Atlanta that Decatur is far, far away. In actuality, if one were to MapQuest directions, it is not much further than other art centers such as Eyedrum. And lastly, a challenge that has been coming for some time—my own burn-out [from] long hours and blah blah—kept me from being as attentive or social as I once was, which is an important aspect to bringing in visitors. This year I have missed many openings and opportunities to meet emerging artists. I have not been to functions at most of the newer galleries (Rabbit Hole, which already shut down, or Opal) so am ‘out of the loop.’ This has been detrimental to getting the word out about the gallery and alerting up-and-coming artists and even potential donors to our programming.
Q. Several galleries closed this year, such as Foundation One and Romo Gallery. Would you mind describing your reaction?
Frustrated and sad. Frustrated because of the lack of support for galleries who step beyond the norm and [because] the cost of running a gallery in Atlanta—especially with the price of real estate blown out of proportion—is out of range if profits are small.
I am heart-broken over Romo Gallery. Sam Romo is a friend whose gallery I had watched from inception. I can’t see why his gallery didn’t succeed. How could a location that was thought by many as one of the best contemporary galleries in town shut its doors? The way I see it, to make a massive generalization, and my apologies to those of you who are not of this ilk, many potential art patrons in our fair city are often fearful when it comes to approaching and trying to wrap their brains around artwork that is not easy. They are even less brave when it comes to opening their wallet for artwork for fear that their friends will think their taste is weird. Or that Atlanta is not New York. Right now it seems the trend in Atlanta is to give kudos to work that is illustrative and less complex. There are galleries in Atlanta who compromise their vision by representing artists whose work is easier to digest so they can stay afloat. (On one hand, who can blame them?) Romo Gallery was not one of those.
Q. People open new galleries all the time. Some people have experience, but a lot don’t. What is your advice to new galleries?
I would have a strong business plan and enough funds in a savings account so that you can survive at least six months without a sale. This might sound astronomical, but …. Get yourself into an economically viable situation you can handle, where overhead is minimal and you trust that the people you are working with have the best interest of the gallery at heart—such as your landlord and any employees. Partner up, don’t go it alone. Location, location, and charisma. Volunteer for events at nonprofits, be on boards, and encourage folks to know who you are and reciprocate your energy.
Although Dalton’s “All Small Redux” closed this weekend, look forward to events at Dalton Gallery throughout the year, including “Still Water,” the gallery’s fall exhibition for 2009.