Nestled behind the historic Boulevard Neighborhood in Athens, the revitalized Chase Park Warehouses have slowly grown into a major center for creative entrepreneurs and artists. But one longtime tenet will relocate this summer. The Athens Institute of Contemporary Art (ATHICA) has been an anchor at 160 Tracy Street since its founding in 2001, presenting innovative and challenging artworks in refreshing juxtaposition to the rustic train tracks and quiet field of kudzu sprawling a few steps away from the entrance. ATHICA’s legacy would not be possible without two concurring visions. While founding director Lizzie Zucker-Saltz dreamed of establishing a bold and censorship-free art space, a development group called FiveArts, spearheaded by the late Donald Keyes, was looking to build affordable art studios.
“It was love at first sight—despite the fact that we were standing atop a pile of dirt and rubble, fallen beams and old tin,” reminisces Zucker-Saltz. “The open feel of the space, its high ceilings and natural light were all wonderfully appealing. Its historic nature as a former cotton mill resonated in the South, and the fact that it was only a mile and a quarter from downtown was an obvious plus.” Comparing it to similar projects in other communities—such as the Santa Monica Pier or the Torpedo Factory Arts Center in Alexandria, Virginia—she says, “it was not hard to foresee that others would soon join us pioneers, and that given time, Chase Park would become the thriving small business center it is now.”
Thrilled with the idea of a gallery that would bring traffic to the development site, FiveArt offered ATHICA a gallery space, rent-free for the first three years. Rent was then established at $50 for the fourth year, with an increase of $50 every following year to reach market level compensation. Relying heavily upon the hard work and dedication of many volunteers, board members, gallery members and interns, the non-profit quickly established itself as a powerful force in the arts community, frequently amplifying the voices of marginalized artists and presenting artworks considered too risky or less profitable for the commercial world. By her retirement in 2012, Zucker-Saltz had overseen 45 exhibitions and 900 artists and performers from all across the world. With real estate prices on the upswing, FiveArt’s current owners—Keyes’s wife Valerie Aldridge, Linda Henneman and Mitch Rothstein—are now ready to sell their space in the complex.
Aware of the potential sale of the current location, the ATHICA board began a lengthy search process to identify a facility similar in spirit yet within budget—no easy task in a community facing increasingly higher rents and property values. Remarkably, the board secured a multiple-year lease with the option to purchase for a space in the Leathers Building at 675 Pulaski Street, just a mile from the warehouses. Currently home to other beloved locally owned establishments like Rubber Soul Yoga and Pulaski Heights BBQ, the Leathers Building is an adaptive mixed-use center located within a former factory warehouse that was built in the 1920s.
“I will miss the occasional train car covered with fabulous graffiti that would park in front for days. Sometimes that would coincide with an opening, which was always great,” says Zucker-Saltz. “I will miss the romantic covered patio area for schmoozing and occasional performance art events. Once, we had an enormous ice sculpture melt out there, another time Davey Wrathgabar organized a flag burning accompanied by the singing of the Star Spangled Banner! But the move is surely for the best.”
Currently under the leadership of board president Lauren Fancher, ATHICA will throw a “Farewell to Tracy Street” celebration to honor hosts and founders at its current location on Thursday, June 21, from 5:30 to 7:30pm. The gallery will then take two months to move into the new space, which will officially open with a reception for “The Golden Record” on Saturday, August 18 from 6 to 9pm. The juried exhibition is inspired by the “Sounds of Earth” recording of images and sounds that is traveling through space aboard the Voyager spacecraft—a bizarre yet earnest hope to communicate Earth’s diversity to extraterrestrial life forms. ATHICA is accepting submissions for that show through May 31.
Jessica Smith is the arts editor at Flagpole Magazine in Athens.