Poem 88, the contemporary art gallery tucked into an industrial dead-end in northeast Atlanta, turns 10 this year.
It all began when owner and curator Robin Bernat, also an artist, connected with former Atlanta College of Art classmates lacking gallery representation. They’d all done a show at Solomon Projects (now gone) together. When it ended, they wondered, “What next?”
Bernat asked if she could represent them. And did. Poem 88’s first show featured the work multimedia artist EK Huckaby, then came an exhibit of Christina Price Washington’s photograms, followed by California by painter Sharon Shapiro. All are ACA graduates. The gallery’s roster grew from there, and today it numbers 21 artists (see the full lineup HERE).
“After having served on the boards of the High Museum’s Twentieth Century Art Society and Art Papers, and exhibiting my own work,” Bernat says, “I understood the need for galleries to champion the work of local artists. That goal is still paramount.”
Poem 88 – the names comes from a game in which Bernat used favorite words and lucky numbers – is known for championing women artists. Its roster is 62% female, and 42% of those women are age 50 or older. “Women artists are significantly under-represented in museum collections and exhibitions universally,” Bernat says. “There has to be a real rebalancing all over the world in favor of women and people of color. Institutions will have to rethink how much of their holdings are the result of imperialism and colonialism.”
The gallery’s mission is to get Atlanta’s female artists the kind of critical reviews that can help propel their careers. “Artists in Atlanta are making as engaging, thoughtful and provocative work as anywhere else, Bernat says.
The gallery has been in its current home, the Floataway Building on Zonolite Road for five years. It spent its first half decade in the White Provisions building in West Midtown.
Poem 88, she says, like Whitespace (which represents her), Sandler Hudson Gallery and Marcia Wood Gallery is committed to showing Atlanta artists. In addition to Solomon Projects, she laments the loss in recent years of such galleries as Saltworks and Twin Kittens.
As Bernat prepared to close one exhibition and turn her focus to a show of new work by Nancy VanDevender (November 14–December 30), she agreed to answer a few questions for ArtsATL:
ArtsATL: Was it hard to get to 10 years?
Robin Bernat: Oh yeah! It was definitely challenging, she says [laughing].
ArtsATL: How has your perspective on the gallery business evolved over time?
Bernat: I’ve come to the hard realization of how difficult it is to gain national coverage and interest in Atlanta’s wealth of talented artists. The benefits of living in Atlanta for artists, like the affordable cost of living and exhibition opportunities, in some ways, are overwhelmed by the real lack of opportunity outside of Atlanta. So many artists who live and work in Atlanta deserve to be household names everywhere. So, a good part of my job is to function like a PR agency.
Educating collectors is something galleries are tasked with. All these factors make it harder for galleries that are not located in art centers like New York or L.A. or cities with a long history of arts patronage. Now Instagram is so important for galleries and having a strong, online presence. Even 15 years ago, that wasn’t the case (Poem 88 on Instagram).
Since the brutal murder of George Floyd, I think it’s important to acknowledge how essential it is to take action and show more work by people of color and women, especially. It shouldn’t have required such a tragedy to spark this kind of rethinking.
ArtsATL: What are Poem 88 EDITIONS?
Bernat: So far, we’ve designed and published five books and/or artist books including a broadside of drawings by Sean Abrahams and Phillip March Jones’ Pictures Take You Places that’s now sold out. We have another photo catalog in the works. My background is in printmaking and artist books and creative writing. Two of the titles published under Poem 88 EDITIONS are self-published: one a poetry/artist book and the other an artist book based on the Keats’ poem “Bright Star.”.Another publication I’m especially proud of is a memoir by Sue Sigmon Williams titled A Wife’s Journey.
ArtsATL: What do you see in the next 10 years for Poem 88?
Bernat: That is a really difficult question to answer in the middle of a global pandemic. Poem 88 will have to rely almost entirely on an online presence to get through the next year. It’s something I’m exploring now. So I can’t really say for certain what’s ahead except for, perhaps, ramping up our publication arm, Poem 88 EDITIONS.
Poem 88, 1123 Zonolite Road, Suite 20A, has an online presence and is open by appointment only, usually from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday-Friday (but Bernat has been known to welcome visitors on Saturday). Masks and social distancing required. Only five people allowed in the gallery at one time. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 404.735.1000.
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