One recent Saturday, Atlanta’s ArtsXchange held a costume celebration called Renaissance: Harlem South. The fundraiser celebrated the cultural contributions of artists past and present as well as the institution itself. The ArtsXchange, which moved to a new home in East Point 10 months ago, is experiencing its own renaissance. It’s transforming as it’s being rediscovered by a new community and a new generation of artists.
Poet, performance artist and administrator Alice Lovelace helped found the original ArtsXchange — more formally known as the Southeast Community Cultural Center — in the 1980s with poet, activist and scholar Ebon Dooley, now deceased. It opened its first home in 1984, in what had been Grant Park Elementary School, a 33,000-square-foot building on four acres. It held a theater, 18 artist studios, classes and space for lease, and became an incubator for both art and social justice activism.
The facility — then called the Arts Exchange — reshaped metro Atlanta’s arts landscape. The inner-city artist colony/community center was an intentional effort to create a multicultural, multidisciplinary and intergenerational space. It became a hub where individual artists could find performance or rehearsal space and where artists and community members could find a wide range of classes.
Arts Exchange took a two-year break while renovating the new East Point space, formerly the 20,000-square-foot Jere Wells Elementary School, about nine miles from its original home. It emerged as the newly rechristened ArtsXchange in a sprawling building that still has an elementary-school feel, evoking all the hopes and fears of engaged learning. Just inside the front doors, you see a large photograph of art icon Romare Bearden (1911–88). It shows him descending a staircase at what was once Atlanta’s Neighborhood Arts Center. He interacts with a young girl who’s gazing up at him open-eyed. Thus, an image from Atlanta’s past anchors its present and its future.
The change from “Arts Exchange” to “ArtsXchange” is a return to the founding mission. “The X means ‘multiplies change,’” says Lovelace. “From the beginning, the institution was a social-activist center for transformative art. Art for people’s sake.”
“It’s all about creating a culture of safety,” says executive director Leslie D. Posey, “allowing space for people to be creative and find creativity within themselves.”
If you were to visit the new center on East Point’s Newnan Street, you’d find an art gallery, a library, the 115-seat Paul Robeson Theatre, 13 artist studios for lease, a music studio and an office for the National Organization of Black Lesbians on Aging.
The Sinclair Gallery is named for Jack Sinclair, a onetime Atlanta artist known for his letterpresses (and a bit of sculpture). Its current exhibition, Atlanta Collects: 10 Notable Fine Art Collections, continues through October 26.
The library is named for Jikki Riley, a Vietnam War veteran, filmmaker, activist and reggae musician. Visitors can sign up for free programs (writing groups, open-mic nights, Scrabble club) and tap into the center’s professional development resources, health services and array of events.
Lovelace, as board chair, remains an indispensable part of ArtsXchange, which gets its energy from the concentration of talent working there. Atlanta artist/activist Charmaine Minniefield has a studio there, as do actor Victor Love (Broadway’s A Few Good Men, the feature film Native Son), muralist Brandon Sadler and visual/performance artist Kenneth Zakee.
The ArtsXchange’s 2019 artists in residence include visual artist Rick Washington, spoken-word artist/community organizer Theresa Davis and music artist Ken J Martin. In addition to working, each artist contributes by volunteering to give public talks, teach classes and help with the community garden.
Since opening in January, the center has been in “the process of actualizing,” says L. Nyrobi N. Moss, director of operations, “living in the possibilities of what we can do and how we can grow.”
The move, she says, gives ArtsXchange the chance to pioneer art on the south side of Fulton County and build a thriving arts community in an area that’s been underserved and underdeveloped. Of the organization’s longevity, Lovelace says, “We’ve had 36 years. We want 36 more.”