In the last few years, a wave of arts start-ups — Living Walls, the Creatives Project and Flux Projects among them — have brought a new energy to Atlanta. Atlanta Celebrates Photography, the umbrella organization for the exhibits, lectures, workshops, events and exhibitions that enrich the fall season, is the grandmother of these ventures.
Founded 15 years ago, ACP has matured into one of the city’s important arts organizations. (Grass)rooted in the community, it has nurtured relationships with local galleries, museums, arts organizations, hospitals and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Some 140 venues will participate in this year’s fest, and more than 1,000 artists will exhibit their work.
“ACP has helped to build and expose an even larger audience for the medium in our region,” says Brett Abbott, curator of photography at the High Museum of Art. “I think the wonderful inclusiveness of ACP’s festival has unlocked the potential within photography to be both accessible and profound, and to speak to a wide range of audiences.”
Its impact extends beyond the region. Abbott credits ACP with helping Atlanta earn a reputation as a photography center. It is, according to former High Museum curator Julian Cox, recognized nationally and internationally for its educational and public art programs, and it is one of three American festivals accepted into Festival of Light, an international consortium of 20 such groups.
Quite a trajectory for an idea that started with a conversation on a trip to the beach in 1997. That’s when photographers Corinne Adams and Suzanne Katz hatched a plan for a festival as a vehicle to unite the photographic community and promote the medium.
They formed an organization the following year. Soon after, Susan Todd-Raque, photo historian and educator, joined them. Now on the advisory board, she and Adams (Katz stepped back) carried the flag through ACP’s sometimes difficult gestation, shaping its programs and building support.
From the outset, the concept had some important things going for it. For one, it was a good idea. As Abbott says, Atlanta was a community that was “already hungry for photography programming.”
Second, the founders and many others were committed, energetic, roll-up-your-sleeves active. “I’m a terrier personality,” Adams says. “But we couldn’t have done it without a cadre of people who had the same passion we did,” including Wright Ledbetter, Polly Barr, Judy Pishnery, Jan Fields, Phyllis Rodbell, Judy Lampert and Lucinda Bunnen.
“A village grew this,” says Amy Miller, executive director of ACP since 2007. “If [the volunteers] hadn’t put in the blood, sweat and tears, it could easily have been fly-by-night.” Especially the founders: “Their work ethic, smarts and vision put us into this great position,” Miller says.
By 2004, ACP was a thriving enterprise. Venues from galleries — some that had never shown photography — and coffee shops to theater lobbies and restaurants were mounting photography exhibitions every October. Its lecture series fielded important photographers, curators and others in the field. “My Atlanta,” an exhibit in Piedmont Park, enabled amateur photographers to show their work.
“It was a galvanizing force, a great platform for photography,” says Miller, who experienced it “from the other side” as gallery director of Fay Gold Gallery.
Still, it’s a rare organization that can sustain itself as a volunteer effort. Success or no, after years of juggling family, work and ACP, Adams and Todd-Raque were too exhausted to continue. They decided to shut it down.
And they would have, but for a well-timed newspaper story that made their plans public. The article inspired an anonymous donor to give $25,000 to help fund the salary of a full-time director. Another $15,000 rolled in soon after.
The newspaper article caught Anne Dennington’s eye. Then director of the Lowe Gallery, she had been thinking about making a change, and she wanted the job. “Corinne told me I was crazy,” Dennington recalls. “But I thought it was a chance of a lifetime.”
In her three years as executive director, Dennington professionalized the organization, grew its programs and started new initiatives — for example, the art auction, its major funding source — and public art commissions.
Peter Bahouth’s street-side stereoscopes in 2004 were his first public project — and Dennington’s. She now uses skills she developed running ACP as executive director of Flux Projects, which is devoted to temporary public art. (Training leaders is another example of ACP’s impact.)
Like Abbott, Dennington attributes a measure of ACP’s success to its bottom-up character. For instance, she instituted portfolio reviews in 2005 at the photographers’ request. Conducted by local and national curators, gallerists and other professionals, the reviews offer otherwise unlikely exposure. You can read the testimonials on ACP’s website from photographers who joined a gallery or were included in exhibits because of an encounter during a portfolio review.
“We professionalized the organization, but we didn’t lose the community’s sense of buy-in and ownership,” Dennington says. “People weren’t saying, ‘You took it away from us.’ (A not infrequent syndrome when grass-roots efforts evolve into mainstream institutions.) When ACP made it, it was a victory for everyone. That is my source of greatest pride.”
Cox, who worked with ACP during his five years in Atlanta, is mightily impressed with its evolution and achievement. “Under Anne Dennington’s leadership the organization and its influence grew exponentially,” says Cox, now chief curator at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. “Amy Miller and the current board have taken it to new heights.”
During her tenure, Miller has strengthened existing programs and introduced new ones. “My Atlanta,” which began as a one-night pin-up show, is now a popular exhibit involving 25 schools, six senior centers and numerous individuals.
“It can be a powerful experience for its participants,” Miller says. “Many people are showing their work for the first time. It validates their passion.”
Bradley McCallum’s and Jacqueline Tarry’s 2008 “Within Our Gates,” a powerful melding of space, place and content, remains one of the most memorable temporary public art pieces in a town that has seen a lot of them in recent years.
Miller and board member Bill Boling conceived a project for chronically ill teenagers at Scottish Rite and Egleston hospitals; it went so well that Miller is considering replicating it in other settings. A crew of volunteers set up photo studios in the hospitals and guided the patients in making self-portraits. The opportunity for self-expression was spirit-lifting for the kids — and the volunteers. “Seeing those kids blossom in an hour and a half has been the highlight of my life,” says Adams.
Such experiences — be it the artist who gives her first slide talk, the amateur who gets a prize at “My Atlanta” or the viewer who can, say, attend a lecture by Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee photographer Danny Lyon and see his work in the High Museum’s “Road to Freedom: Photographs of the Civil Rights Movement, 1956-1968” (one of Miller’s personal highlights) — are at the heart of ACP’s success.
Todd-Raque’s scrapbook is so stuffed with highlights that she couldn’t even name a favorite exhibit. “I loved them all,” she says, remembering the beginning, when it was still possible to actually see them all.
No doubt speaking for her fellow founders, she says, “I’m very proud of ACP and how it connects the photography community. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”
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