Seven former Atlantans share their reasons for trading cities: Emma Adair, Baxter Crane, Ben Grad, Danielle Harris, Meriam Salem, Ben Venom, and Larissa Erin Greer, the author of this article who compiled their stories below.
After packing up all my belongings and relocating my life across the country to San Francisco, California, just eight months ago, I was confronted with mixed feelings about moving away. I was leaving behind a family of truly amazing artists who I deeply love and cherish in the name of seeking creative opportunities elsewhere. But I’m not alone in this situation. A curious thing happens in Atlanta — sometimes at art openings, sometimes in corners of classrooms, and, more often than not, after a few drinks at Manuel’s Tavern — young artists cluster together and chatter in hushed tones about their plans to leave the city.
More often than not, those plotting their departure are highly active leaders of Atlanta’s emerging art scene. Some just toy with the idea, their eyes shining as they imagine living in Brooklyn … or Portland … or Paris. But others talk about it so much, the possibility of staying moves further and further out of sight, until one day you’re standing in front of a stack of cardboard boxes thinking, “Damn, this is actually happening.”
The transition has been tough for me, but it has already proved worthwhile. In this short span of time, I find myself living in a studio in Oakland, attending an amazing MFA program at California College of the Arts, and working as a PR director for a three-gallery compound in the heart of San Francisco’s Tenderloin district.
What I left behind was a city wrecked with unemployment where I worked as a bartender (with a college degree), lived with my parents (because I couldn’t afford rent on my own), and felt frustrated at both my lack of growth and lack of validation as a serious artist. Watching the protests surrounding the proposed elimination of the Georgia Council for the Arts was the last straw: I knew then that I had to get out.
But my decision has had its set-backs, because I already feel disconnected from the group of people I worked alongside, despite my best efforts to stay in touch. I wondered what happened to them — the many friends and colleagues who, like me, had taken the last bus out of Coca-Cola City.
So I asked them, and, as a way of understanding why we left, I present you with their thoughts, in their own words. I know that some of you are also considering leaving, and others are frustrated because they don’t understand why this continues to happen. Please read further and comment freely on this article; I want to hear your stories, too.
Emma Adair, Penn State
Along with Meriam Salem (interview below), sculptor Emma Adair and I were fellow members of the short-lived Cheap Paper collective that several of us cofounded together during our last year in Atlanta. Adair moved with her husband to the (somewhat) frozen tundra that is State College, Pennsylvania, to pursue her MFA at Penn State.
One of the most overachieving artists I knew in Atlanta, Adair was raking in academic accolades, successful grants, and public art commissions left and right. She contributed work to Le Flash in both 2008 and 2009, completed a project for Art on the BeltLine last summer, participated in a flurry of group exhibitions, and is currently working with the Reynoldstown community on a public art space located on Wylie Street.
The dismantling of Cheap Paper was abrupt, but the partnerships stuck. Adair continues to reach out and collaborate with members of the group from afar.
“Cheap Paper unofficially disbanded last August, but I still collaborate with my ‘sculpture girlfriend’ from the group, Jane Garver,” said Adair. “Our artistic union began before the group took form, so it was natural to continue working afterwards. But Jane and another member, Katie Coleman, have a show opening up called So This One Time … at MINT Gallery on April 9. I’m going to fly in and check out the show. I have also had Larissa contribute to a postcard project I’m doing here. So I feel the group is still very much alive.”
“I would say that, of my peers, more have stayed in Atlanta than left, probably 75-25 percent,” she continued. “But I would say the 25 percent that left have been able to get more shows and coverage than the 75 percent that remain.”
Outside of her acceptance to Penn State, Adair says there wasn’t much in the way of new challenges in Atlanta: “Once you’ve shown at MINT, Beep Beep, Eyedrum (which is unfortunately closed now), and maybe Young Blood, there really are not many other places to go. Someone might put an impromptu show together in an unofficial spot. But once you’ve done the circuit, you do find yourself looking around, wondering what’s next.”
“I’m in grad school right now, so from my location, going to New York, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh is only a day trip away,” she explained. “All those places have great communities and opportunities for emerging artists. I’m not saying that Atlanta is a wasteland by any means, but our galleries don’t recognize the unknown artist. I think arts crawls in other cities include more alternative show spaces. There is a real mixed crowd.”
Adair expressed a desire to be closer to some of the aforementioned cities that have a more supportive artistic community. Like me, she left Atlanta over the summer and is still experiencing a pull towards the people she left behind.
“Seriously, the South has something that the rest of the country doesn’t,” she added. “We have a charm, this amazing attitude that is frustrating and endearing. I miss the beautiful diversity.”
Ben Grad, Brooklyn
Photographer Ben Grad is currently living in Brooklyn, New York, dividing his time between assisting commercial photographers and starting up an electronic repair business with his friend David London.
Before he left Atlanta, Grad was “all over the place in the Atlanta art scene,” most notably as a contributor to BURNAWAY. “I also did a lot of work with groups like Food Not Bombs and Mad Housers,” he said. “Aside from ‘scenes’ and such, you could probably have found me taking photos somewhere in Atlanta on any given night.”
Before packing it up three months ago, Grad’s list of involvements on creative projects in the city included starting BURNAWAY with Jeremy Abernathy and Susannah Darrow. He ran an event space located in the West End called The Fishmarket in the summer of 2009, hosting local bands such as The Back Pockets, American Cheeseburger, The Selmanaires, Adron, Book of Colors, and so on. He exhibited photography at Archive Gallery within the first months it was open, booked concerts at MINT Gallery, and made the rounds volunteering at all the usual suspects: WonderRoot, MINT, and Eyedrum. He wrote for Deconform magazine (later renamed False) on their final four issues.
So why would someone like Grad leave all of this behind?
“About a year ago, I realized that Atlanta was getting too comfortable,” he said. “So when David [London] called to ask me to work with him in NYC starting in January, I accepted without too much internal debate. I also left with the idea that New York might offer more opportunities for me to find commercial photography work.”
Still, his heart most definitely remains in the South. “My friends are pretty good about letting me know when they’re coming into NYC, and occasionally photography/film friends get in touch about collaborating,” he explained. “I don’t recall any particular challenges which caused me to leave. I’ve never had trouble finding a place to show my work, and I don’t think there is anything particular to Atlanta [that] stifles artistic or professional development.”
At the end of our email correspondence, Grad left me with this final thought, dedicated to fellow artist Karen Tauches: “This might be simplistic, but I’ve always thought of cities as more of a collection of overlapping communities than geographic spaces. To that extent, there really isn’t that much of a difference between Atlanta and my new home. When I meet a musician here, there’s a good chance they know members of a half-dozen of my favorite Atlanta bands. When I talk to an artist about their work, we quickly realize we’ve been influenced by the same group of people. We’re somewhat familiar with the bigger artists from our region, and we read the same magazines, blogs, zines, etc. Because of that, I feel like NYC is just an extension of Atlanta. And I usually don’t feel like I’ve left Atlanta at all.”
Danielle Harris, Los Angeles
Next I contacted graphic designer and all-around interesting lady, Danielle Harris, who recently relocated to Los Angeles, California, for a graphic design position at the West Coast office of the Atlanta-based Alternative Apparel in October of 2010.
While she was in Atlanta, Harris was a longtime contributor to Album 88, Georgia State University’s student-run radio station, working as the host of the Georgia Music Show. She remembers the experience fondly: “I hadn’t signed on as host of the show knowing the opportunity I’d inherit. Essentially, the show threw me knee deep into the local music scene, and it was through this that I was able to help local artists and labels gain recognition and overall support from their community. I’m convinced that Album 88 is an organization that’s played and continues to play a large role in the health of the Atlanta music scene.”
After graduating, Harris plunged into a career as a graphic designer. Feeling that Atlanta had a lack of appreciation for interesting design, Harris teamed up with Zopi Kristjanson to produce an exhibition of work by Atlanta-based designers called Chromatic. The plan for the show was finalized, and Harris and Kristjanson gave their artists a month and half to complete their color-intensive work.
“To our great surprise, around 400 people came to see Chromatic,” she said. “Many people stated they had no idea how much they loved graphic design.”
Even though leaving was a difficult decision, Harris saw the move as an opportunity to grow as a designer. A slightly different conversation surrounds the design community in Atlanta, and it’s something that impacts the fine arts community as well — the need for creative employment.
“I’ve known a lot of people to acquire a great deal of success once hired at Adult Swim or Cartoon Network,” she continued. “[They are] pretty well known for giving creative professionals a substantial job and creative freedom. Otherwise, I’ve known a few to work closely with Armchair Media, a great design firm in Atlanta, or places like Primal Screen and Mail Chimp. There are definitely some thriving, innovative design firms in Atlanta that could challenge the work of any other major city.”
“On the flip side, I’ve also known a lot of talented people unable to get jobs mostly because of lack of connection to these places,” she continued. “A connection, whether through friends or acquaintances, is the best way to get a job. The smallness plays into the positions available at some of these places, too. With the economic situation, a lot of prospective design firms also had to shut down.”
When I asked her about the limitations of being an artist in Atlanta, Harris responded: “For fine artists, I sometimes wonder. I don’t think that’s it’s a ceiling as much as it’s just lower bar of expectations. The artists I’ve met here who are even hesitant to say they’ve made it are definitely under a lot more scrutiny and are traveling the country showing their work. They’re keeping day jobs to make the fine art thing work.”
“I think artists in Atlanta and even gallery owners should be challenging their own tastes while challenging their artists to get some sort of international recognition,” she added. “Gallery owners seem to get just as comfortable as their resident artists, and sometimes a show can feel a lot like the last show I saw the year before.”
During the few times we’ve seen each other since moving to California, I could sense that Harris shared my feelings of being torn between two place. Harris grew up in the heart of Atlanta, which explains her understandable lament at leaving behind friends and family, parking-lot burritos, and the hot-ass Atlanta sunshine.
“Atlanta is rad right now,” she said. “It’s healthy, and it’s growing in wild spurts. People are passionate and open to new ideas. To have curated an event like Chromatic and to see the power and natural curiosity of the residents in Atlanta, it pretty much broke my heart to walk away. Atlanta’s got what it takes. It just needs the people to push the comfort zone — to piss people off even. I encourage Atlanta lovers to get up and travel. Get inspired. Push, push, push.”
Baxter Crane, still in ATL, but leaving soon
While I was home in Atlanta over the winter holidays, I went out to several gallery happenings where I ran into illustrator Baxter Crane. Someone casually mentioned to me that she was planning to leave for San Francisco, so I began talking to her about the challenges of apartment hunting, offering tips and a couch to sleep on when she arrives.
Hearing Crane’s enthusiasm for the adventure ahead brought me back to my feelings of excitement before leaving town. Still living in Atlanta, she currently trying to find a place in SF for herself and two “fuzzy buddies,” which is proving to be difficult due to the long-distance nature of the hunt. But she remains positive in the hopes that something will come up.
“I create my best work when I am busy, so I tried my best to get into whatever I could find here in Atlanta,” she said. “I volunteered with Beep Beep Gallery, and [the owners] Mark, James, and Steve were all awesome guys to work with. The amount of love they put into their space, a space that barely makes them any real profit, was really inspiring for me. It gave me a lot of opportunities to show my work and meet other artists.”
A regular on the Ponce Crush circuit, Crane is one artist that I have always known tangentially, because she is always present, always showing, and super active in projects all over the city. She’s done everything from designing t-shirts for ThoughtMarker to handing over dozens of works for local charity auctions. Although she’s someone I consider a pillar of the emerging artist community, Crane has been weighing her options for several years and, now, is in the overwhelming process of wrapping things up.
“I got involved with Dashboard Co-Op, which is a group of emerging Atlanta artists represented by my friends Courtney Hammond and Beth Malone,” she said. “I used to work with Courtney, and she’s a great gal to have promoting you because she knows so many people around town and never takes an opportunity lightly. We are presently working on an outdoor mural that the Cabbagetown community commissioned from Dashboard.”
“I did some work for Creative Loafing painting one of their newspaper boxes that now lives in Criminal Records,” she said. “The last big thing I was involved in was Living Walls; that was an epic event. I hope the murals that it provided to the city raised a little more public art awareness, which this town is sorely lacking …. I don’t see how the streets in a city with so many talented artists can look so incredibly boring.”
Crane explained that she was drawn to San Francisco for that very reason: “The massive amount of quality art visible on the streets is one of the things that really impressed me about SF.”
The main reason for Crane’s departure is because she’s trying to branch out and support her work through pursuing a career in animation. After beating down doors in Atlanta, Crane faced the same, very real roadblock that Danielle Harris mentioned.
“I should have gotten into internships before my undergrad was over, because it is impossible for me as a post-grad to get in,” she explained. “Whatever I am trying isn’t working, and I feel like the disappointments are ruing my drive. So my move isn’t because Atlanta has a sad, tired scene — it’s because I want to go to a good school to master in animation and figure out what I am missing as an artist. My ‘making it’ would be to get into Pixar or Dreamworks or an animation company like that as a visual developer. So, no guts no glory right? Plus, who could pass up driving two cats across the country?”
Before leaving town, Crane will appear in one last show: the upcoming Exquisite Corpse exhibition at MINT Gallery. “I’m gonna work like hell to leave on a good note,” she said.
Ben Venom, San Francisco
The next person on my list was none other than Ben Venom, the heavy-metal quilter. Venom and I met for the first time at an opening reception here in San Francisco. Upon hearing that I was fresh out of Atlanta, his smile widened and his voice radiated Southern hospitality. It was in this moment that I realized how loving the Atlanta art community is, and how even when we scatter out into the world, we are never strangers to each other.
Venom currently teaches screen-printing at the San Francisco Art Institute, Kala Art Institute, and Workshop SF. He also works full-time as a custom framer, volunteers time at a church on Sundays, and exhibits his work all over, from San Francisco’s up-and-coming Guerrero Gallery to galleries as far as South Carolina and even Germany.
Having spent several years living outside Atlanta, Venom has an interesting perspective on what it means to move away. Before leaving the city, he was Young Blood Gallery‘s first intern, and he stayed active by both making art and organizing exhibitions with fellow Georgia State University students.
“I was not really involved in any startups in ATL,” said Venom. “However, back in 2001 or 2002, many of the upcoming gallery owners were meeting on a regular basis to discuss art shows, money, and scheduling of events. It was primarily the alternative art scene that was trying to reestablish itself as a stronger force.”
“I have a few friends that achieved a high level of success [but] most of them left for New York City,” he continued. “There is a ceiling for any art scene in any city. For the last couple of years, there has been a lot of discussion about how Bay Area artists achieve a little success, and then leave for LA or NYC. So … it’s not just ATL.
“It really depends on what you want as an artist and if the city you live in is able to offer that to you,” he explained. “San Francisco has been good to me, and a lot of my friends are doing really well here. But one really important aspect to consider is that we all have exhibitions in other cities and countries throughout the year. I try and not limit myself to showing in one place all the time.”
I asked Venom what he would consider a marker of success for an artist working in the Atlanta art scene. He responded: “To me it would be having a contemporary gallery representing and selling my work. Galleries like Saltworks, Solomon Projects, or Barbara Archer are some galleries I see pushing new and engaging work from ATL.”
He describes his desire to move away as being fueled by boredom; he had reached a plateau in his own personal practice, and he was tired of going to the same galleries every month for openings. Venom packed up and left to pursue a graduate degree from the San Francisco Art Institute, leaving behind his cherished Clermont Lounge and nights drinking at El Myr with friends.
“The art scene here in SF is a little more focused than in ATL,” he said. “We are close to LA and are able to be a part of that art scene as well.”
Of all of the places Venom frequented in Atlanta, only Young Blood Gallery has stayed in touch with him. “Those ladies are the best,” he said. “They have always supported me throughout the years and still include me in group exhibitions.”
But opportunity continues to embrace him in the Bay Area, where he is participating in Bay Area Now 6 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts this July, in addition to showing some of his metal quilts in England this June.
Meriam Salem, San Francisco
For my last interview, I sat down with my current collaborator and Oakland neighbor, Meriam Salem, who (along with her fiancé, musician Nathaniel Murphy) left behind an administrative position at the Creative Circus in Atlanta to pursue a wider range of opportunities in the Bay Area. They made a three-year stop in Atlanta after leaving Chicago, because they felt Atlanta held a lot of promise.
“Atlanta is actually an unexpected, charming, little-big city,” she said. “It is a forward-pulling momentum in the laid-back, conservative Bible belt. It is a hopeful blue dot in a bright red state. It is always in transition, and that is precisely why my fiancé and I were magnetized there during our time of transition. We were only there for three years, so I can’t say what it was like a decade ago or five years ago. But I saw that city go through numerous transitions in the short while I was there. Hip and trendy boutiques like Vacation opened (albeit for a brief time before they closed), Criminal Records got bigger, my favorite galleries Get This! and Saltworks were added to the Westside Arts District, and the Edgewood district was inching towards tragically hip with the addition of my favorite vegetarian restaurant Dynamic Dish and Noni’s bar …. Really, it’s endless. I had so much fun watching it all happen.”
Leaving behind a community that she and Murphy had worked to integrate themselves into was the hardest part of leaving. “I was even so fortunate as to meet some really great people,” she continued. “It was especially easy to connect with people who have lived somewhere else previous to Atlanta, because there was a special unspoken, mutually understood kinship of knowing what it’s like on the outside. But I will admit that, although it is a really cute city, it certainly falls short in filling the shoes of ‘big city’ cultural offerings.”
Some of these cultural offerings are what pulled Salem to the Bay Area, where she currently works as a project manager for an architecture firm, in addition to volunteering with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) and scouting out a studio space.
“The small-town qualities are what made it easier to seek out and find the niche community of people attempting to accomplish similar goals,” she said. “Unfortunately, they never lived up to grand expectations. That’s what made it easier to get away with, well, not-so-sophisticated-or-polished art and music. I think the art community there was a little thirsty for current happenings and cultural events beyond your typical bird-infested indie craft fair. Through my fortunate meetings with some great musicians and artists, I was able to be a part of a pop-up art show (AXIOM) which, to me now, seems almost revolutionary for Atlanta. I see it all over the San Francisco in vacant storefronts and office building lobbies, but, in Atlanta, I guess it was really special. I truly miss how the things that are taken for granted out here are so special there.”
For a couple of highly creative musician-artist-creator hybrids like Murphy and Salem, the employment issue wasn’t what ultimately drew them away from Atlanta, but the inspiration and opportunities to interact with higher levels of art on a regular basis.
“It feels like artists are perpetually ‘emerging’ in Atlanta,” she explained. “San Francisco is home to many more established groups of artists being seriously represented in galleries. We knew we had to move on because we were missing the kind of connection to culture you could only get in a big city, like Chicago, where we had moved to Atlanta from. You know, things like the MCA in Chicago or the SFMOMA here, the crazy amounts of interesting pop-up galleries, happenings, and (good) concerts. I mean, sure, it’s no New York, but even the exterior James Turrell installation at the stuffy de Young Museum kicks the entirety of the High Museum’s ass.”
Would you go back to ATL?
For my last question, I asked each artist if they would return to the city for an artistic project if the opportunity presented itself.
Emma Adair: “I love Atlanta and think that things are truly better now than a year ago. The outlook isn’t totally bleak, but the money situation in Atlanta is bleak. The community at large needs to step up a little more. Look at other cities in the country of the same size and see how the support their arts community receives really does lift up the entire city. Tourism, aesthetically, culturally, everything.”
Ben Grad: “I’d love to come back to Atlanta to work at some point, and I’ve always assumed I’d be pulled back to Atlanta permanently eventually. I’m planning to visit for a week or so sometime over the summer, spending my time documenting as much of the city as possible.”
Danielle Harris: “I was asked to work with some people in Chromatic on second round. In all honesty, I want that to happen, but I don’t think I’m ready just yet to focus so much energy on an out-of-town project. Los Angeles is my home now. It supports me, and I’m curious what I can do to give back here. I <3 ATL.”
Baxter Crane: “I have been active in the arts here for about seven years, and I would still be glad to take on new opportunities here.”
Ben Venom: “I would like to be in the ART PAPERS annual auction again …. HA! As mentioned before … I am a Southerner. So, I welcome projects in ATL. Hit me up! Kiss My Grits!”
Meriam Salem: “I wouldn’t say, ‘no’ to the opportunity if it arose, but I’m not quite sure if I’d expend energy to initiate something there right now. There are a lot more opportunities than I can even begin to explore out here.”
This is a love letter, not a goodbye
After speaking with so many amazing artists (several not included in this article), I can’t help but feel that I made the right decision in leaving Atlanta. The flip-side is that I left a long list of collaborators, friends, and family members behind — in a city that, for all its apparent disadvantages, still has me watching with intense curiosity to see what happens next.
Atlanta’s young artists have such a powerful energy; I truly believe that, if they were given the necessary tools and support from the city’s establishment, they would put together some incredible projects, open new creative businesses, and flourish as a community of creative thinkers and makers.
If I felt that the city’s mid-tier galleries would welcome my work after completing my graduate degree, I would consider giving things another shot. I just don’t know if those spaces are as open to the idea as they could be. Making the jump from “emerging artist” to “mid-career” is one of the most difficult things to do. As Lisa Tuttle famously remarked, Atlanta is the city “where artists emerge until they die.”
I don’t have all the answers for the questions raised in this article, but I definitely think that a larger conversation between decision-makers needs to happen. If you’re one of these people, I urge you to connect with someone older, or younger, or on the opposite end of the spectrum — and just talk to them about what you might accomplish together.
The only way for Atlanta’s art world to stay fresh, exciting, current, and weird is to nourish the growth of the city’s young artists. Imagine a day when people might flock to Atlanta instead of leaving it. Wouldn’t it be nice, five or ten years down the road, to see them coming from New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, all in the name of art?
I would love to be there.