Miami Circle has long been home to the home décor trades. Sixty-some showrooms sell furniture and accessories, lighting and countertops in the low-slung buildings lining the broad street off Piedmont Avenue near Sidney Marcus Boulevard.
The lineup has also included a smattering of art galleries and related services. In the last year, however, the number of galleries has grown to a dozen, as well-known galleries have pulled up stakes in Castleberry Hill, Bennett Street and Buckhead to set up shop there.
What accounts for this migration? In two words, real estate. Gallerists are urban nomads. Very few own their spaces, so they have always been at the mercy of landlords, developers and the market. As development ripples through the city, rents in previously unsung areas increase, buildings are razed and neighborhoods change character, forcing galleries to decamp.
Of recent Miami Circle occupants, Signature Shop Contemporary Craft Gallery had to move from the Roswell Road storefront it had occupied for 57 years because the property was slated for a new development (now on hold). Marcia Wood, a Castleberry Hill pioneer, was also forced to leave when her building was sold.
Wood says she wouldn’t otherwise have moved but acknowledged that the district had become much more congested and parking had become a problem. With fewer galleries in the hood and more restaurants and clubs, Castleberry, she says, “wasn’t going in my direction.”
September Gray felt the same way about the changing character of Bennett Street, her former home. When she established her gallery there in 2016, the area had antiques marts, rug shops and assorted small businesses.
She was pleased to be in TULA, an arts-centric building at the end of the street anchored by the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia. But over the last few years often rowdy clubs had begun to dominate the area. “It was not the right vibe,” she says. “It was less cultural and more entertainment-oriented.”
When MOCA GA announced its intention to move to the Goat Farm, TULA became even less desirable to her. She was ready to listen when Mark Karelson, owner of Mason Fine Art invited her and Wood to join a cooperative venture. The trio now share a 9,000-square-foot former auto salon with high ceilings and concrete floors at the end of Miami Circle.
Karelson says his move was in part precipitated by pandemic economics. His former 21,000-square-foot space on Armour Circle had doubled as an event space. “When the pandemic put the kibosh on large social gatherings, I had to reevaluate my business model,” he says. He is buoyant about the marketing possibilities of a three-fer. As he says: “Proximity is good for cross-pollination.”
The potential synergy of like-minded neighbors also attracted Signature Shop’s Carr Cuiston, who chose a spot next door to two other galleries at the midway point of the street. Even with the frustrations of the pandemic, she is encouraged by the energy and camaraderie among shops and galleries.
“I don’t feel like I’m sitting on a desert island. Even though I was in the middle of Buckhead, it was isolated.” And business is burgeoning. “I have new customers, a lot coming in from out of town, who happen to be on the street shopping for their homes,” says Cuiston.
Charles Reinike, whose gallery has been on Miami Circle since 1993, always makes it a point of directing visitors to other galleries and is pleased that others do the same. “It’s important that we all share the visibility,” he says.
Are we seeing the makings of a new art district? It is too soon to answer that question, but Miami Circle has good bones. It offers affordable rent, ample parking and related services, such as two auction houses, frame shops and a couple of restaurants. Buildings are individually owned, which some nomads see as a hedge against wholesale development and eviction. It has the potential for walkability: As a dead end, it is less trafficked, and its sidewalks, though currently discontinuous and in need of attention, encourage pedestrians.
And now it has numbers. “Everything is so spread out,” says Reinike. “I think we have the largest concentration of galleries in Atlanta.” Art dealer Thomas Deans believes the potential is there. “There’s so much possibility. It will be up to the building owners as well as the galleries that lease the space” to make it happen.
But one thing is clear. These gallerists are committed to running a physical space, even though online art sales grew exponentially during the pandemic. Emily West, who owns Anne Irwin Fine Art, says that online sales now account for 80 percent of her business, which has expanded to a national and international clientele. “But artists still want a place to show, and I believe people should see art in person,” she says.
Gallery exhibitions are important tools to help build artists’ careers in ways that aren’t purely transactional, Karelson says. An exhibition is of a different order than an online sale. It is validation for an artist, an important line on the resume. It might get a review and increase an artist’s reputation, bring in a wider audience. It is important to have a physical space to lure curators and collectors, and to interact with them in a richer way.
The gallerists are also acknowledging the civic role that their businesses can play. “I recognize that not everyone who comes in will acquire art,” says Gray, “but there should be an opportunity for people to see the work.”
Catherine Fox, an award-winning art critic, co-founded ArtsATL.org and served as its executive director and executive editor for five years. Fox was the art critic for the Atlanta Journal Constitution from 1981 to 2009.