A Look at Atlanta's DIY Performance Scene
As two artists who are relatively recent transplants to Atlanta—both of us moved here in 2017—we have each developed a curiosity about the challenges and opportunities faced by performers in the city. This three-part series emerged from conversations we’d been having with friends and collaborators on topics from how the structural aspects of the city has helped form its cultures and communities, to the lack of resources and infrastructure for independent artists, to the number of determined people who pour their blood, sweat, and tears into different corners of Atlanta’s arts communities.
Both from our personal experiences and the discussions we’ve had, one thing is for sure: the Atlanta arts community is in a pivotal stage, both at the micro and macro level. And it is up to all artists here to create the city we want.
Frankie Mulinix: Porter, you inspired this series. We were talking about Atlanta arts and you told me about a discussion you had overheard.
Porter Grubbs: Yes. Some friends and coworkers of mine—artists and arts administrators—were discussing how they could build audiences and secure funding to expand the reach of their platform in the coming year. They spoke about works they found interesting in other cities, and they mused on the potential to bring these projects here or to create Atlanta’s version of these projects.
I felt like they were ignoring what was already in the city: the spaces and the people who were working to create poignant and relevant work. It’s key to come together as a community and invest in each other if we’re going to expand our visibility nationally and internationally.
Frankie: You’ve mentioned to me before that you think Atlanta is entering a renaissance. How would you describe that? What is unique to Atlanta performance?
Porter: There are so many different scenes in Atlanta, so much genre bending, so many cross-disciplinary works. As a whole, I’d say that Atlanta art is very loud, very colorful. I’m mostly thinking about the public art, like murals and sculptures. That’s a testament to the potential of the city as a hub for artists.
Frankie: Having only lived here for a few years, I don’t entirely have a good grasp yet, but I have seen a lot of work that explores the idea of rituals dealing with death and loss. There’s Are We There Yet?, which was presented by your collective, the Mediums Collective. And there’s T. Lang’s performance, part of Her Ritual ATL, on grieving rituals of black women who had lost sons to police brutality, and her earlier piece, Post Up, which explores how, after the Civil War, former slaves posted ads in newspapers for information about family members separated during slavery.
Porter: I’ve seen a lot of work that involves ritual in the dance community. Part of this is because the South is quite spiritual, and even if you dis-identify from organized religions it’s hard to let go of the vibrant spirituality that comes from growing up here.
Frankie: There’s the feeling that history is unresolved here; the ghosts and burdens of the past are still very present.
Porter: There are a lot of ghosts in the South. I think the area is very much the forgotten part of the United States. It’s been an active voice in the country since before our independence. There have been Americans living here and doing things and contributing to the national identity since the colonial era. Then at a certain point the South became the scapegoat for major social issues in the States, and the nuances of its cultural identity were lost inside caricatures of ignorant hillbillies and rednecks. Working-class and low-income people living in rural areas of the South have felt for a long time they have no voice, that they aren’t being represented properly.
While Atlanta has a lot going on, it’s rarely sustainable unless it’s commercial.
Frankie: I agree. Lately I’ve been thinking about how there’s reality, but also how perception creates reality. There’s the South I can get up and interact with, and there’s the South created by the rest of the country. When it’s individuals who’ve never been here who communicate the South to others, it erases what is here: vibrant cultures, innovative creativity, queer voices, different dialects and languages.
Georgia has become a hub for film and TV, but often the projects are being written, funded, produced, and directed by people who aren’t from here, who aren’t necessarily interested in engaging with the real Atlanta. Those projects are a bizarre post-modern simulacrum of the city. The state offers generous tax credits and rebates without restrictions, caps, or expiries, which are very attractive for film and television productions. However, Atlanta actors are generally perceived as not capable or skilled enough for series regular roles. They might get a guest star or recurring role but the main cast is flown in from elsewhere. Because of this disconnect, it feels like there’s no focus on roots, on building a strong foundation to develop local talent. I don’t see a healthy DIY scene here to feed the commercial scene.
Porter: There is a healthy DIY scene, and I have friends who do commercial work as well as independent projects. I think it’s this sense that we’re copying and pasting, like Atlanta’s the new Hollywood. It’s not becoming Atlanta, the next film mecca, it’s becoming Hollywood 2.0. Very rarely do the people who live and create work here receive platforms. It’s a catch-22: you need to have finished work to get a platform to show new work, but if you don’t have a platform to show your work, you haven’t done any work.
Porter: This is something that independent emerging artists across the board have trouble with. But there are some initiatives around Atlanta that help. The Creatives Project provides artists—mostly visual artists, but some performing artists—with subsidized studio space and housing. There’s also Art on the Beltline, MARTA’s Artbound program, and Fulton County Arts Council. But while Atlanta has a lot going on, it’s rarely sustainable unless it’s commercial.
There’s a sense that if we bring in people who already have some prestige, then Atlanta will gain more prestige as well. But we’re only bringing them through the city briefly. There are people who live here who do great stuff, and the question we should be asking is, “How do we raise these people up?”
It’s valuable to learn about perspectives and techniques from people who don’t live in Atlanta, and then to disseminate that throughout the community. At the same time, we should be doing twice as much to support and engage the artists who live here.
Frankie: I absolutely agree. It’s vital to have artists and teachers from elsewhere, but we cannot afford to minimize who is here.
Porter: If you are an emerging independent artist, even if you’ve been here for five or ten years, it’s still hard to find money if you’re not directly associated with a prestigious institution.
Frankie: I have to say, I’ve often sent out emails to other artists, theatre companies, teachers, and universities, trying to meet people and build networks, and I get no reply. I have never had such a wall of silence in any city I’ve lived in before.
Porter: It’s hard to get in touch with people here.
Frankie: It starts to feel like gatekeeping, like, “I don’t want to have to tell you my story or how I evolved this company or where I get my resources.”
Porter: I think Atlanta can feel very territorial because there’s a mindset of scarcity, so if you have resources then you don’t want to give away your sources. In the end, the more people we support the more resources we’ll have as we all become more visible to potential audiences. There are people in Atlanta who share this perspective—they’re the ones who have taken the initiative to create spaces that act as platforms for artists, like Mammal Gallery, the Bakery, and the Work Room when it was around. We need to support these places, which are always looking for the resources to sustain themselves.
When I think about the Atlanta independent art scene, there’s a lot of initiative, of passion. People have a lot to say and they are looking for platforms. There are people who provide these platforms, and you can make work pretty easily if you get in touch with them and propose a clear idea. A lot of the time, people are totally willing to cut deals because we’re all here to support each other, but we also need support from people who have substantial resources, especially financial.
When I think about the Atlanta independent art scene, there’s a lot of initiative, of passion.
Frankie: There’s an immense amount of private wealth around Georgia, but there’s a pageantry involved and a social hierarchy that comes into play with regard to fundraising for the performing arts. It’s very interesting to see where the donations come from and to whom they’re going.
Some local history that fascinates me is how, in 1962, there were really prominent patrons of the arts in Atlanta—
Porter: —and there was a plane crash at Paris’s Orly Airport.
Frankie: There were 113 residents of Atlanta on the plane, 103 of whom were major patrons of the arts, and they died in an accident. It was described as one of the greatest tragedies to hit Atlanta since the Civil War. As a result, the government promised to ensure there wouldn’t be a loss of the arts in Atlanta, and they built the Woodruff Arts Center in memory of those who died. That’s home to the Atlanta Opera, the Atlanta Ballet, the Alliance Theatre, and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. So it was like: Check, we did arts. We won at arts. But that’s not enough.
Porter: A lot of the time, the work created by the more established companies in Atlanta feels very safe. If audiences are only exposed to safe or generally entertaining work, it may not be in their interest to see something they’re not at all familiar with. If I only saw the ballet occasionally, I might not be interested in paying to see an independent artist’s new research at a converted warehouse, because I don’t have a frame of reference for that kind of work.
I think the High Museum of Art has been doing a good job with their artist initiatives, bringing in independent contemporary Atlanta choreographers. I’ve performed there twice—once with T. Lang and once with Bella Dorado—through that initiative. The dance company Fly on a Wall has also performed, so has the contemporary ballet company Terminus. Lauri Stallings, the artistic director of glo ATL, another contemporary dance company, was the first choreographer to be granted a residency there. Visual art institutions are becoming a bit more open to performance, which is good because it means more audiences are going to be exposed to it. A central question is: “How can we streamline this process of building an audience even more?”
Frankie: There’s a lot to contend with in our larger culture and in the habitual ways we experience performance. For a while, HBO’s advertising was essentially, “Now you have no reason to leave home.” Consumption of streaming services can be very passive, plus they can go everywhere and be folded into anyone’s schedule. To see live performance, I have to plan to get to a place at a specific time. It’s starting to become radical for attendees to physically be there and pay for it and be present in all of their senses and participate. It’s an active and participatory medium.
Porter: Definitely. This can often create a barrier, especially in Atlanta, where you have to drive everywhere. It’s a huge time commitment to go to a performance, especially if you don’t live right in the heart of the city, which a lot of people don’t. Part of it is a question of transportation, of accessibility, of audience building. How can we make performances accessible? Not just in the actual act of sharing of them, but also how can we use spaces in Atlanta that are more midway?
A lot of affordable spaces are on the south side, but where are some that might be affordable in the city center, or even on the east side? Can we get spaces along the metro lines? Activating public spaces with quality work is important too because then people who don’t even think about going to a show might see it and be like, “Oh, wow, what is this?” That’s a new audience member, just from performing in a public park or something. So yes, we need more institutional support, but we also need to be creative with building audiences and making physically accessible work.
Frankie: Shana Robbins, a performance artist, was recently part of something on the BeltLine called Habitat. She created a ceremony there to honor the natural habitat that will be decimated in the near future in order to build more high-rise condominiums.
Yes, we need more institutional support, but we also need to be creative with building audiences and making physically accessible work.
Porter: When you look at where Atlanta was five years ago versus where it is now, a lot has developed. It’s kind of like one big experiment. Will it work? Will it not work? I think it will if people have faith in the city and invest in it the way certain people have. It’s really easy to start talking about all the things that don’t exist yet in Atlanta and how hard it is to navigate being an independent artist without a bunch of resources and platforms. It’s important to have discussions like this because then you can identify what is needed most.
Frankie: Yes, and it takes time. Looking at how we build a vibrant DIY performance scene in Atlanta—it’s not something that just turns around in a year.
Porter: The processes have already begun with some of these spaces. Some have closed—that’s just the nature of independent arts—and probably half of them will work out very well. But just the fact that these spaces, these initiatives, these residencies have existed in Atlanta and provided resources to independent artists within the last five years is a testament to how people are trying to make it work, and how audiences are listening and growing.
My art collective, the Mediums Collective, has been a great testament to that. Within a year, I’ve seen people who I’ve never seen before come out to dance works. In general, more people are coming out to see performances in alternative spaces; there are more visual art spaces, more galleries. A lot is happening within the community of artists—we want to make it work.
My collaborator, Peter—a musician who composes most of our music—once said we have to make great stuff before we’re going to get the resources we really need. We have to prove we can do it so we can get a bunch of funding to make even greater work and sustain ourselves. I think this is true with most of the DIY spaces, based on the people I’ve spoken to who run them.
Frankie: We need more incubators, more opportunities for people to have time and space to experiment, create, take stock, and mature.
Porter: Space and time and also an audience. Once I asked what it would cost to rent out the Windmill because I was interested in doing a performance there, and it was way out of my budget. It’s still affordable, but I couldn’t pay that much upfront without any guarantee I’d be able to pay myself back. Then Fly on the Wall came to me with a residency opportunity and I was like, Perfect, this is what I am looking for. I paid a little bit but it wasn’t nearly what the rent was for the Windmill. Space is the most valuable resource, especially for emerging independent artists.
Frankie: For me, renting a space at a rate I can manage has made a massive difference and given me security and safety from which to work. Jillian Mitchell, a local dancer and choreographer who founded the dance ensemble Kit Modus, is a great supporter of local performers. She offers her studio for auditions, rehearsals, video applications, classes, and showcases.
Porter: ShowerHaus Gallery was really great with supporting us in the installation process. They made sure to cover the budget for some of our materials and then during the installation, they helped out with the setup. It was invaluable to us, to have more people there—for helping hands, for advice. You absolutely need support in the form of actual human beings, not just a space rented.
Frankie: I discovered that when I lived in Australia. I was burning out and I realized, I can’t do this all by myself. I found other people to collaborate with. I was good at things they didn’t want to do and vice versa. We were able to capitalize on each other’s strengths and create together from our shared visions and values.
Porter: Let’s end it on this: If you could have your ideal Atlanta, what would it be?
Frankie: One with a high level of public engagement and government support. I want the community to have ownership and dedication to a progressive performance art scene, for them to say: “This is important to me, you can’t take it away from me. It is part of our identity.” I want Atlanta arts to be something we are all really proud of.
Porter: Community ownership of space is a huge thing because that gives power to the people to create accessible platforms for those who have something to share. Also a sense of pride and more dialogue between the city and its artists. Plus public transit. That’s my ideal Atlanta.