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Life begins at 40: In anniversary year, Atlanta Contemporary Art Center to undergo major upgrade

BLDGS: Computer rendering of lecture hall looking back into gallery.
BLDGS: Computer rendering of lecture hall looking back into gallery.

Atlanta Contemporary Art Center

The Atlanta Contemporary Art Center is celebrating its 40th birthday this year. If you’ve hit that mark yourself, you know that, as youthful as you might act and feel, physical signs of aging are inevitable. (If not, get ready.)

In the Contemporary’s case, it’s a heating-air conditioning system that wheezes, belches or doesn’t work at all. It’s a lighting system that gobbles energy, outdated restroom fixtures and a layout that could use some improvement.

So the art center is getting a $500,000 makeover. The main structure will close for a four-month renovation after the current exhibitions come down in mid-June. When it reopens on October 19, the Contemporary will have a sound building, and one that better serves its visitors.

“The plan is not radical,” says Artistic Director Stuart Horodner, “but it is significant.”

Notably, it will include a dedicated lecture hall to better accommodate the center’s lively series of visiting artists and critics. And, say its architects, Brian Bell and David Yocum of the firm bldgs, the project will allow a better sense of the art center’s 30,000-square-foot campus and its multiple programs.

The Atlanta architects are intimately familiar with the campus. In 2008, they wrote a 500-page assessment of the early-20th-century structure, which was built by Standard Oil of Kentucky as a repair shop for its vehicles, discovering, among other things, that the art center, previously unbeknownst to its staff, owns two adjoining parcels of land.

In 2008 Bell and Yocum staged a project called “Boundary Issues,” an “architectural intervention” at the center, during which they revealed a window, previously hidden behind a wall, that looks out onto one of the parcels. The window introduced more natural light into the gallery and, together with silhouettes on adjacent walls mimicking the contours of the land outside, altered viewers’ perception of the building’s relationship to its surroundings.

BLDGS: Boundary Issues.
The architects’ “Boundary Issues” (2008).

You might say that the renovation plan elaborates on themes of “Boundary Issues”: light and perception. It calls for restoring the glass block wall to the left of the entrance and four still hidden windows. Three of them, on an axis with the glass block wall, are behind the back wall of the resource center to the right. When revealed, they will offer a vista from the entrance into the courtyard of the artists’ studios.

Open Studios Patio Party in the courtyard, 2010. (Photo by Stuart Horodner)
The Open Studios patio party in the courtyard in 2010. (Photo by Stuart Horodner)

This move will connect the courtyard to the building and raise awareness of the studios as one of the center’s programs. Horodner imagines outfitting the underused courtyard with tables and chairs, where visitors might take coffee or wine. It could give them a pleasant respite and another reason to hang around.

The Contemporary now holds its lectures in the entrance gallery, where the sight lines are terrible, the HVAC system is deafening and the chairs prevent anyone who wants to visit the gallery from coming in (by madison at here). Turning the space in the center of the building, which houses a gallery and formerly the Atlanta Film Festival’s offices, into a lecture hall will free up the path to the galleries, eliminate set-up time and give prominence to a key aspect of the center’s mission.

BLDGS: Computer rendering of lecture hall looking back into gallery.
A computer rendering of the planned lecture hall looking back into the gallery.

At present, the foyer and circulation paths are amorphous, the reception desk an ad hoc table. The architects will tighten the space and align walls to draw visitors into the galleries. The reception desk will be moved to the classroom on the right — actually the perimeter of a building-within-the-building — through one of its original windows, now boarded up. Another such window, on the hall leading to the courtyard, will serve as a bar.

Board chair Tim Schrager
Board Chairman Tim Schrager.

Contemporary board Chairman Tim Schrager, a serious art collector, expects the upgrades to boost the center’s exhibition program, now limited by the substandard conditions. “It gives us the potential to bring art to Atlanta that we wouldn’t even have asked to borrow before,” he says.

Schrager, who is the driving force behind a $600,000 capital campaign, jump-started the process with a challenge to the board: the Tim & Lauren Schrager Family Foundation would match the first $60,000 of gifts the members gave or solicited. The board has exceeded that goal, and gifts from the Wish Foundation ($50,000), the Tull Foundation ($25,000) and others have brought in $300,000.

The campaign includes $100,000 for the operating budget on top of the renovation costs. Says Schrager: “We believe that we will be able to accelerate our strategic plan with our newly renovated facility, but we will need this $100,000 to bolster exhibitions, programming, PR, marketing, visibility, staff, et cetera. So, rather than wait a year for operational funds to catch up, we felt it would be wise to raise additional funds to expedite that process.” The money will also cover the purchase of furniture.

The art center will not cease activities during the renovation. It will conduct programs in the courtyard outside its entrance and at other locales and events, such as the Decatur Book Festival. And in partnership with the Georgia Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects, it’s holding a design competition for a temporary outdoor installation, to be on view from July 11 through September 26. 

Find more photos from the center’s archives here.

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