High curator Michael Rooks urges Atlanta forward in galvanizing Nexus Award speech


Michael Rooks, recipient of the 2015 Nexus Award, used his acceptance speech as bully pulpit to remind us what the arts community has achieved and what it can accomplish through collective creativity and will. It was such a heartfelt, rousing address that we wanted to share it with you. -CF

Michael Rooks speaking  at The Contemporary's Nexus Award ceremony.
Michael Rooks speaking at The Contemporary’s Nexus Award ceremony.

Good evening my dear friends.

The words “thank you” are inadequate to express my feelings tonight. I’m truly overwhelmed by this recognition by so many people whom I admire tremendously.

There are so many of you here tonight whom I dearly love and to whom I aspire, that it seems foolish to attempt to put into words to you what this means to me because I think you already know. So instead, I’d like to consider what I believe this acknowledgment means to us.

To the past honorees, however, among whom I feel especially humbled and privileged to share this honor, I’d like to thank you for your example and achievements that have enriched us all: Andrea [Barnwell Brownlee], whose ambitious and inspired curatorial work gives voice to women artists of the African Diaspora; Jerry [Cullum], a visionary writer whose genius lies in his ability to synthesize the experience of art with poetic complexity; Louis [Corrigan], a trailblazing community leader whose innovative ethos and generosity has rekindled the boundless spirit of Nexus; Lisa [Cremin], a leader of responsible and responsive philanthropy who personifies the idiomatic true north for the arts in Atlanta; Lucinda [Bunnen], a brilliant artist and pioneering collector who established photography as an essential feature of contemporary visual culture in our city … and at the High Museum; and Susan [Bridges], den mother to us all, whose generosity of spirit is set off by her unshakable personal integrity.

The Nexus Award truly lives up to its name, connecting the dots among these individuals and their organizations working to make a difference in the cultural life of our city.

Nexus was established by the founders of a gallery called Circle of Confusion — a space dedicated to photography at a time when there was no place for photography in Atlanta. It branched out to establish the Nexus Press — a legacy that my colleague Daniel Fuller has brilliantly brought to life in the Contemporary’s current show — and Nexus helped to shape what would become Art Papers. It represented a protean hub of independent artistic activity in Atlanta, supporting a prosperous artist community with more than 40 studios in the heyday of its studio program and provided a platform for dance and performance where none had existed before.

But an artist looks to what she can be, not what she was. So Nexus became the Contemporary, and the Contemporary continues to build on this important legacy under the leadership of Julie Delliquanti, along with Daniel Fuller, Rachel Reese and other dedicated staff and volunteers. It provides a critically important platform for new art forms and new voices like none other in Atlanta and remains a nexus connecting us socially … and in our common cause as the city’s corps of advocates for contemporary art and culture. To Julie and her board, thank you for all you do, like none other, to enrich our cultural life in the city.

Today our numbers include cohorts, comrades and confreres, both near and far, from dozens of organizations and institutions — from ACP to the Zuckerman and everything in between: the BeltLine, the Botanical Garden, Dashboard and Clark Atlanta University Art Galleries, Columbus State University, the Creatives Project, Flux Projects and GloATL, GSU, Hambidge, Hammonds House, the Hudgens Center, Living Walls, MINT, MOCA GA, MODA, the Spelman College Museum of Fine Arts, UGA and WonderRoot among many, many others.

From the Low Museum to the High Museum and our acclaimed division partners at the Woodruff Arts Center — the Alliance Theatre and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra — we represent one vast, ecumenical, diverse and determined cooperative made up of hundreds of like-minded communities.

We are all in it together, and it’s important to use this occasion to take stock of how far we have come and the distance we have yet to travel. We are reaching a critical mass in our city when the collaborative style of leadership that our past honorees have demonstrated so brilliantly has become essential to the success of our individual futures and our shared good fortune.

For example, together we provide tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars in direct support to artists in Atlanta every year through an array of programs initiated by Artadia, Flux, The Forward Arts Foundation, the Hudgens Center, the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs, MOCA GA and others, including the Antinori Fund at the High Museum used for acquisitions of drawings by artists based in the Atlanta-metro area.


How do we leverage that to continue raising the bar? How can we, as an interconnected network of arts professionals, use our collective powers to help elevate and promote artists in Atlanta? Atlanta has famous actors, famous athletes, famous recording artists and famous television personalities. Atlanta has famous chefs and famous politicians. Atlanta needs famous artists! And it is through this nexus of talent and know-how that we will find the esprit de corps to do it together.

Can we harness the power of collectivity, through a new era of collaboration, to provide opportunity and to promote excellence? Together, can we provide continued professional development to artists and the kind of interconnectivity they need to prosper like their counterparts in the commercial sectors of television, film and the recording arts?

Yes, we can, because we know that access to the arts strengthens shared values, enhances quality of life, diversifies the economy, educates and creates a more competent workforce. We know that access to the arts improves life outcomes for people in traditionally underserved communities and the economically disadvantaged.  And, united, we can school our elected officials so that they understand that access to the arts equals better test scores, for real.

So that is what I think the Nexus Award means to us. Through its recognition of individuals who have had the opportunity to act as catalysts with and on the behalf of others to affect positive change in the quality and diversity of arts presentation and access to it in Atlanta, it is an encouragement to us all to become advocates for the arts.Michael-Rooks-026-High-Res

It’s an encouragement to institutions to value participation over the single-minded pursuit of revenue and to foster the influence of inspired ideas instead of rewarding influence. The city of Atlanta should be a nexus for contemporary art in the Southeast, and together we’ll do it.

I have visited more than 125 artist studios in the last 18 months, often with a posse consisting of Marianne Lambert and Susan Antinori to whom I am grateful for their friendship and their valuable contributions as co-conspirators.

Meeting artists where they live and work — getting to know what makes them tick — is what gives me great joy and keeps me going. I am grateful to the High Museum for giving me the space and encouragement to make that an essential part of my job as the Wieland Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art. Thank you for your encouragement and for this award.

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