Four years ago, my wife landed a position with Emory University, and we had a month to relocate to Atlanta. I’d never visited. We had no family or friends there, and all I had to orient myself were a few warnings from acquaintances about bad traffic. On short notice, I would have to face the most basic problems of any artist: Where is a good, cheap place for a studio? How do I make money? Where do I live? Where will I see art? Where do I show art?
As a co-organizer of SEEK ATL, a roving crit group for artists that visits a different studio every month, I’ve seen a lot of solutions for the most pressing of the above concerns: Where to find a good, cheap place to make work? In a series of articles, I will investigate the pros and cons of the many places and means by which artists make their work, which models are most beneficial to various working styles, and what unique benefits and amenities do different working environments offer?
This first installment visits two young people who have availed themselves of an opportunity unique to artists living outside of major art and real estate meccas such as New York, LA, or London. Joe and Rachel Bigley have signed a five-year lease on 1008 Milledge Street in East Point for what was once home to the corporate offices and warehouse of a dairy distribution plant. Although it has been vacant for five years, much of the old industry character remains, including huge 1980s murals of Atlanta, wood-paneled walls and even a fake fireplace in what was the manager’s office. The Bigleys plan to turn this raw space into an affordable community for artists.
Last year, the Bigleys moved to Atlanta from Boone, North Carolina, for Joe to take a teaching position at Spelman College and Rachel to begin an MFA at Georgia State University. Besides creating studio space for themselves and other artists, they have the ambitious plan of using the building to offer art classes, workshops, and a community garden to the residents of East Point. Joe and Rachel are artists who work in a multitude of media, including sculpture, ceramics, video, and painting. As such, they plan to outfit the old dairy distribution plant with the capabilities for metal casting and exhibition spaces conducive to installation art and video work.
When I asked Joe why they were doing all this, he said it was their inability to find an affordable, large space to work in when they moved to Atlanta, so they decided to build one. Since the couple has made a home in East Point, they wanted to contribute in a positive way to their community.
In its current state, the space is 8,500 square feet of wide open warehouse with cement floors, 15-foot ceilings, windows along one wall and steel I-beams throughout. The Bigleys have put in a large amount of work toward cleaning the space and preparing it for new occupants. The floor is freshly painted, new lighting installed, and several walls removed to create a vast open layout. The building does not have climate control, but the Bigleys are installing a ventilation system. The space may be hot in the summer and chilly in the winter, but the low overhead has resulted in studio space rentable for less than 50 cents per square foot, plus $25 a month for utilities. Point of note, new occupants will be responsible for building their own walls to create their studio space. Joe expects to have the space ready for move-in by July. The artists’ studios spaces are being allocated on a first-come, first-served basis, and there is no shortage of room for new tenants. Eight artists have already signed up for spaces. If the current section becomes full, Joe and Rachel will be able to expand into the facility’s remaining 35,000 square feet, which includes what was once the cafeteria and more corporate offices.
The speed of the building’s transformation will depend on the willingness of artists to trade cheap rent for out-of-the-way, raw studio space., Although the building is very secure, it is in a part of town that is decidedly industrial. It’s not close to cafes, eateries, or shopping, but it will offer artists the opportunity to participate in the creation of an organic artist community.
Painter Eric Hancock is one of the eight artists already signed on. He’s been helping the Bigleys with renovations and has created a small space to keep painting in while the building is under construction. He told me that he chose this space over other established artist buildings because he’s “tired of the general application culture that dispenses everything from show opportunities to studio space. It’s absurd to think that I would have to apply for a studio space. Given the enterprising, independent nature of artists, it only makes sense to initiate some of the conditions for your own existence.”
But joining an artist community on the outskirts might not work for everyone. As for me, when I moved to Atlanta, I had little time, and no money or connections. I would have liked the camaraderie of an artist building but few vacancies were available and my timeline didn’t permit applying to studio programs like those at the Goat Farm or the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center. I wound up sacrificing community for convenience and found a place to live that would have enough room for me to work.
In the next installment, look for reports of artists trying to make the most of a private live/work space while maintaining a connection to the larger community of Atlanta artists. Some preferring the comforts of working from suburban homes and others rejecting all things urban for more rural pastures. All fully dedicated to making a living as artists.
Brendan Carroll is a painter living in Atlanta.