Hathaway Contemporary Sets the Bar High

The site prior to renovation.
Hathaway Contemporary’s space prior to renovation.

Ambitious. The adjective seems to accompany every conversation about Hathaway Contemporary. The new gallery, located in the increasingly trendy Howell Mill corridor on Atlanta’s Westside, opened with a splash on April 30, bucking the trend of high-profile contemporary gallery closures over the past five years.

The gallery’s self-described mission is as grand as its sprawling 9,000 square feet: it’s a “place of inclusiveness and education” that, while “focused on the language of visual arts,” aims “to break down traditional barriers between artists, collectors, critics, educators, and the public.” By expressing the “energy and diversity exemplified by the growth of 21st century Atlanta,” it seeks “to build a supportive, sustaining community for the arts.”

Including, educating, and expressing, focusing and breaking and building – it’s exhausting to read about, let alone do. And with recent news that cofounder, curator, and artist Michael David has parted ways with the gallery, which was established as Hathaway David, all these action words now fall primarily on the shoulders of director Laura Hathaway.

Equally ambitious are the aspirations of its inaugural exhibition. The press release for “All Tomorrow’s Parties” announced that the artists and markets of Atlanta and Brooklyn stand on equal critical and economic ground. If the first show’s 10-foot canvases and 5-figure pricing weren’t bold enough, a second iteration of the exhibition – a sort of ballsy part deux – opened in June to reiterate the claim.

Big claims and big words thus filled my mind when Hathaway offered a tour of the space. When we got to talking about the gallery’s location and size, she explained that the search to buy a building for her husband’s construction services company evolved into a quest to find a home for an art gallery.

“It was primarily a business decision,” the pint-sized gallerista said. “We looked everywhere – from Miami Circle to Castleberry Hill. This location offered three times the square footage as other options for the same rent.” Hathaway described her first impression of the space, which had been vacant for 10 years: “The walls were moldy; it was scary.” “Decrepit,” chimed in gallery manager Anne Weems from the front desk. After submitting plans on December 31, 2015, and acquiring permits in January, drywall was mounted, the concrete floor sealed, and HVAC installed in time for the opening reception on April 30.

Main gallery view of "All Tomorrow's Parties" (second hanging).
Main gallery view of second hanging of “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” with works by (l to r) Arnold Mesches, Todd Bienvenu, Samantha Keely Smith, Whitney Wood Bailey, and Fran O’Neill.

A massive central space dominates, but new walls carve out intimate nooks and smaller galleries. Standing in an unfinished back corner, Hathaway told me how she kept a meticulous eye on the buildout’s progress, and about future plans for partitioned studio spaces and, perhaps, a residency program. “There are no doors or hidden desks here,” replied Hathaway with intention when I asked about the lack of doors throughout. “A hidden desk does not include someone in a conversation.”

A partitioned space near the front door is dubbed the Paper Room. It will ultimately house a worktable and flat file storage, but for now it offers a bronze figure by Richard Powell, delicately balanced upon a toe before paintings on paper by artist and psychologist Karen Schwartz, whose abstracted figures evoke the internal and external rhythms of painting and of the psychoanalytic process. In concert with these figurative works on paper, Jessica Scott-Felder’s gold leaf and pencil drawings of chairs on the opposite wall further anticipate the room’s intended purpose. Reinforcing the psychological themes cast in the paintings and sculpture, Felder’s representations of antique objects and their placement explore the interactions between the bodies that crafted them, placed them, and use them.

As we walked into the vast arena in the center of the gallery, our own conversation wandered onto the topics of including, inclusivity, inclusiveness; I asked her what these words mean to her. She offered in response broad interpretations, ranging from works’ medium and size, to conceptual versus nonconceptual content, to showing work by both Hathway-represented and unrepresented artists.

This massive central space, for instance, wouldn’t always house the large-scale paintings of “All Tomorrow’s Parties.” Small, less conceptual works will occupy these walls, too. Off to the side in the main room, Ridley Howard’s little gem Plein-air, near Palaia, Italy, an 8 by 10 inch oil on panel, hints at that intention, but for now, gets lost in the inaugural show’s spectacle.

The Paper Room, Hathaway Contemporary.
The Paper Room, Hathaway Contemporary.

On the subject of her goals to include and educate, Hathaway noted also how unexpected and lovely it was when a group of middle-school-aged girls showed up at the gallery as part of a summer camp program run by Fulton County Arts and Culture. As she spoke, her own two young sons played in the gallery just around the corner.

The gallery’s layout and tone, along with the works currently on view, articulate how seemingly contradictory intentions coexist. Whitney Wood Bailey’s Order/Chaos 68, for example, suggests the commingling of human intervention and happenstance. Oil paint and seltzer achieve a fascinating and colorful record of carbonation’s interaction with pigment. Their random effects play out against an obsessive backdrop of tight gestures – ticks as the artist calls them. Stamps made with the seltzer bottle itself reveal her hand and methods; charmingly, a few stamps are painted to resemble rainbows. This drama between control and chance plays out on a warping paper support that further evinces its maker’s acceptance of natural inclinations. A native of Perry, Georgia, Bailey is based in Brooklyn; she is slated for a November solo exhibition at Hathaway Contemporary.

Whitney Wood Bailey, Order/Chaos 68, 2016; oil and mixed media on paper, 40 by 60 inches.
Whitney Wood Bailey, Order/Chaos 68, 2016; oil and mixed media on paper, 40 by 60 inches.

It was in the Photography Room, cordoned by walls in the gallery’s farthest corner, that Hathaway’s sensitive feel for making art became most legible. “This is my favorite room! I can’t wait until this entire wall is covered with photographs,” her voice bubbled and eyes twinkled. “My grandfather was a photographer. I have this picture of him at 96 hanging off a boat taking a photograph of my sons. What 96-year-old does that?”

“Papaw,” the late James Mooney, Jr., was a professional photographer who published in National Geographic and Life Magazine, among other books and magazines, and won two National Press Photographers Association awards. When she talked about him, I gleaned from her body language and phrasing how the list of business decisions she’d offered before played second fiddle to what could only be described as a labor of love.

We started to talk less about her background in marketing and sales and shifted focus to the photographs and paintings she makes. She told me about the fulfillment she’d found in operating a gallery, how it fuses her lives as a businesswoman and as an artist, and how it engages her introverted and extroverted qualities.

We made our way back to the front of the gallery, where Weems sat at its only – and highly visible – desk. The three of us talked about the Westside Art Walk, which occurs on the third Thursday of each month, and about Hathaway Contemporary’s future plans. Weems touched on visions of those rentable studio spaces, as well as a program that would bring collectors into artists’ studios, specifically to see the trial and error, and mess-ups, that are involved in the creative process. “I visited Christina West’s studio recently,” Weems said. “She has an entire wall of mess-ups. I would love for collectors to see that part of making art.”

Installation view with works by (l to r) Arnold Mesches, Levan Mindiashvili, Todd Bienvenu, and Samantha Keely Smith.
Installation view with works by (l to r) Arnold Mesches, Levan Mindiashvili, Todd Bienvenu, and Samantha Keely Smith. The future Photography Room is in the back corner. 

Hathaway readopted her no nonsense, sharp business decision gesticulations: “You can have the greatest of ideas, but you have to have a strict business plan, and you have to stick to it. You can’t risk acting without thought.”

I took the opportunity to bring up recent gallery closures and the fact that Atlanta’s art scene – and market – is still nascent. Hathaway and Weems exchanged knowing looks; trepidation flickered in their eyes for just a moment.

“Of course there are scary moments,” Weems said with a chuckle. “But we’ve started out with that strong business plan, we’ve got a good sense for overhead control, and we can handle the unpredictable variables. And we have a role to play. Atlanta has a lot of art nonprofits; for-profit galleries are important in giving artists and art professionals the means to make a decent living in this city.”

Hathaway told me she’d heard many times all the skeptical questions I’d raised: Why an art gallery in Atlanta? Why now? Why contemporary? And what does David’s departure mean for the future? “It’s okay to ask those questions – we are confident and here to stay. For now, we’re proceeding slowly – our goal right now is just to be mindful.”

I asked how David’s departure might affect upcoming programming and the artists – particularly those in New York – whom the gallery represents. Hathaway said she’s spoken with nearly all gallery artists, and that they remain committed to the gallery.

As for the curatorial component, there are no plans for a new hire, and exhibitions scheduled through early 2017 will proceed as planned. The gallery’s participation in the upcoming Atlanta Celebrates Photography festival, for example, will likely reveal much about the ultimate role it will play in the Westside scene in particular and the Atlanta market in general. For the ACP festival, Mary Stanley Studio is slated to present an exhibition of Bill Yates’s silver gelatin prints at the gallery. Hathaway said she’s open to inviting more guest curators in the future to lend fresh perspectives, especially for themed group exhibitions.

“I grew up in a small town in Tennessee – inclusivity and education have always been concerns of mine. There are so many people who grow up in the Southeast and have questions about art, who want to know more about it,” Hathaway explained.

Pam Longobardi, Bounty Pilfered, 2014, salvaged ocean plastic.
Pam Longobardi, Bounty Pilfered, 2014, salvaged ocean plastic.

“There’s so much more than the question of what’s hanging on the wall. It’s the why behind the work – it’s in asking ‘why’ that you find the joy that comes from art. And it’s passion. Why is the artist doing this? Why is it important? I think that’s the reason people connect to artists like Pam Longobardi.” Front and center at the gallery’s entrance are Longobardi’s massive accumulations of plastic detritus collected from beaches and from the bodies of creatures that fatally ingested the debris. Based in Atlanta, and among those represented artists who will remain with the gallery, Longobardi’s art compiles an archaeology of consumer culture as it cleans beaches around the world.

Ambition is not a bad thing itself, especially when it’s realistic, tempered by discipline and humanized by good intentions. Without question, a solid professionalism was evident in my conversations with Hathaway and Weems; but there was a wink behind their tangible know-how. Like a little family shop, the space bears a refreshing ease despite being an aircraft hanger filled with challenging works of contemporary art.

A gallery that routinely mounts exhibitions like “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” impressive though it may be, is not sustainable given the current conditions of Atlanta’s contemporary art market. Time will tell if such variables as an influx of young professionals will establish a greater local market for contemporary visual art. In the meantime, it will be exciting to see what Hathaway Contemporary has to offer Atlanta.

Jared Butler is an Atlanta-based art critic.

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