Atlanta Contemporary Studio Program

Christina West’s studio at the Atlanta Contemporary.

Few accolades offer tangible evidence of an artist’s significance quite the way museums and institutions do. Acceptance into the Atlanta Contemporary Studio Artist Program is nothing short of one institution’s pointed declaration of quality. Without a doubt, prestige is one of the reasons for the program’s ability to continually attract high caliber participants. In turn, the quality of the program participants spurns a growing number of applicants. Point of fact, I have visited this studio center more than any other in Atlanta, and it has been a part of the resumes of many artists with whom I have become close. I have great affection for this institution, and shudder to imagine our city without it. And yet, I am among a large number of Atlanta-area artists who have never applied to its Studio Artist Program. The pros and cons of the program boil down to the same mitigating factors of all studio location decisions: cost, convenience, and access.

The Atlanta Contemporary Studio Artist Program consists of 14 studios of varying size and rent. The renovated industrial building maintains its raw character while offering many of the standard studio features, including cement floors, white walls, exposed beams and HVAC, mess sinks, and large steel-framed windows. The studios are available for a lease of three years, with starting dates staggered so that a handful become available for new occupants each year. Obtaining a studio there requires an application consisting of five images and a statement describing how the studio will benefit the artist’s work. Applicants are selected by the Contemporary’s executive director and chief curator (currently Veronica Kessenich and Daniel Fuller, respectively).

To be sure, cost is the most contentious point of discussion for the artists and administrators of the program. Each space is offered at about 70 cents per square foot, with rents ranging from around $350 to $550 per month, including utilities and WiFi. Artists are also required to carry liability insurance, which may cost an additional $500 per year. Most of the frustration aired by artists about the program surround the term “subsidized.” This term is an oft-promoted amenity for the program. Yet “subsidized” should not be confused with “low cost.” The studio center occupies an incredibly valuable property. The Atlanta Contemporary is a non profit that uses available grants and funds to subsidize the fair market price of what the spaces would cost in a commercial lease. The cost per square foot is certainly less than the market rate of commercial buildings in the surrounding area, which can go for $1.50 per square foot. While the subsidies cut the price nearly in half, the rent is a costly extra expenditure for many Atlanta artists who work in home studios. Moreover, the rent is no cheaper than many other Atlanta studio centers, including the Arts Exchange and the Goat Farm.

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Sarah Emerson’s studio at the Contemporary.

Former program participant Jiha Moon says, “The rent combined with the insurance ended up being too expensive for me, especially because I already had a home studio. I also felt treated poorly by the former administration and leadership.” Moon left the program two years into her three year lease. Christina West, a current resident, explains, “I know some artists that would like to be here and that the program would love to have here, but they can’t afford it.” And artist, Steven L Anderson says, “This is my last year in the program, and I am hoping to pay less after I leave.”

Some participants reported increased frustration in 2014, when their relationship with administration grew adversarial. In that year, the institution was without a permanent curator  (former artistic director Stuart Horodner had moved on to the University of Kentucky Art Museum) and a short stint by a new executive director brought strictly enforced lease terms including requiring documentation of liability insurance. Programming for the program fell off. Fortunately, staff changes were made and stability returned with the hire of Fuller and Kessenich, who empathize with artists’ financial struggles and look to meet their needs as well as those of the institution. Fuller says, “We do not want the program to be a burden for artists.” Kessenich agrees, and adds, “We are a nonprofit and are not looking to make money from our artists. But, it’s not free to operate the program and we need to pay the bills and maintain the facility.”

All of the people I interviewed for this piece, artists and administrator alike, strongly advocate for artists and want the program to grow in amenities and decrease in cost. Yet, nothing creates conflict between tenants and landlords quite like money. The uphill battle to keep the program affordable is largely due to its location.

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Steven L. Anderson in his studio at the Contemporary.

The Atlanta Contemporary sits on the edge of Midtown West and Downtown, with easy access to Interstates 75 and 85. Over 40 years ago, the Contemporary started as Nexus Press, a cooperative print shop run by young artists looking for inexpensive space to work and show. The neighborhood was industrial and affordable. Now the institution is incorporated into a retail and arts district dotted with galleries, loft apartments, trendy restaurants and high-end shopping. The central location and increased appeal caused a spike in rent as the neighborhood became a sought after part of town. For artists working in studios and homes spread across the city and subburbs, the Studio Program became more attractive and perhaps advantageous. Sarah Emerson, a current studio resident, explains, “I had trouble getting studio visits at my home studio in Roswell. Also, I think a home-studio context hurt my chances to get some grants, because jurors seemed put off by seeing my kids’ toys in the house. Here, they just see art. This studio is right downtown and I can come here four or five days a week after teaching.”

And while location is the most quantifiable contributor to the studio’s cost, the most commonly cited reason by artists who apply to the program is access. “Before moving to Atlanta from Los Angeles, I researched the Atlanta art scene and found the Contemporary,” explains Steven L Anderson. “I liked the work they showed and thought this would be the kind of place I’d want to be associated with. Prestige was a big factor, but I also wanted to meet other artists and become part of the community.” Before applying to the Program, the Contemporary exhibited Anderson’s solo show, and later he was a part of a group show that included current and former studio artists, curated by Joey Orr.

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Space to spread out in Sarah Emerson’s studio.

The program artists roundly respect new curator Daniel Fuller. He, along with Kessenich and the new administration, stand as the program’s best amenities. Fuller is available for studio visits and advising artists, and he hopes to offer growing opportunities for the program participants. The institution has dedicated a wall for showing the work of Program Participants and studio visits, while still minimal, have increased. “Since Veronica and Daniel took over the program, I have had 3 or 4 people to my studio,” says Emerson. One of those visits resulted in a solo show at MOCAGA this fall. “ Veronica and Daniel invited me to hang my work on the studio artist wall in the Contemporary.  This was really nice because it will be up during my MOCAGA show and they’ve been really supportive,” Emerson adds. Fuller is also curating a show of the program’s artists that will appear at the Hartsfield Jackson Airport in the Fall of 2016, and he brought John Riepenhoff to work and live in the studio center while preparing his own show at Contemporary. Riepenhoff visited with artists and decided to include one program artist, Kojo Griffin, into his exhibition. While these stories of opportunity point toward the enthusiasm Fuller and the artists have for the program, building camaraderie and an effective program structure is difficult due to the hectic schedules and day jobs of most of the artists. Anderson says, “Doing things together can be like herding cats.” For sure, the Studio Artist Program is not to be confused with a residency or an academic program. It does not require structured attendance, studio time, or interaction between artists. This very independent work environment offers great freedom but may reduce the opportunity to engage socially, critically, or professionally.

One event that all participants are required to attend is the Contemporary’s annual Art Party  a fundraiser for the institution that brings hundreds of people to the studio center for drinks, music, and a look inside the artists’ studios. The event did not lead to future show opportunities for the artists with which I spoke, but Steven L. Anderson did sell some paintings and most of other artists remain positive about the event. “I see Art Party as a great opportunity to get lots of eyes on my work. Tangible outcomes that may come from that can’t be controlled. We all know that’s how the art world works. It’s hard to know when a connection is going to lead to something,” says Christina West. For this group of artists that have experienced times of instability and uncertainty the program seems to be headed in the right directions. “On the whole, I think the Studio Artist Program is good for the Contemporary, and good for the artists. I think that more can be done to improve the program, but I’m proud to be part of this institution and of this community,” says Anderson.

Compared to other studio centers in Atlanta, the Studio Artist Program at the Contemporary is a good deal. The price is basically the same as many other locations, but it comes with access to an enthusiastic curator and newly hired group of administrators who strive to make the program a more positive experience for its participants. At the risk of becoming simply a prime studio location for those artists who can afford it, the program will need to continue to increase tangible benefits and offer an inexpensive location for artists to work. These distinguishing factors would ensure a continued positive experience and reinforce the program as a destination for Atlanta’s best artists.

Brendan Carroll is a painter living in Atlanta.

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