Arts and Activism in Atlanta Today: Chris Appleton

Arts and Activism in Atlanta Today: 

An Interview with Chris Appleton

Adam P. Newman & Clinton Fluker, Emory University

This is the third installment in our series of interviews that complement Julia Brock, Teresa Bramlette Reeves, and Kirstie Tepper’s piece “Arts and Activism in 1970s Atlanta” by highlighting the continuing pertinence of the issues in the article in Atlanta today. The subject of this interview is Chris Appleton, cofounder and executive director of WonderRoot, an arts organization that works to improve the cultural and social landscape of Atlanta through creative initiatives and community partnerships. Appleton’s experience developing partnerships between independent art organizations, artists, and the City of Atlanta give him a unique perspective on the current art scene in Atlanta and its relationship with public funding and the diverse communities of the city.

Courtesy Chris Appleton

In their article, “Arts and Activism in 1970s Atlanta,” Brock, Reeves, and Tepper discuss the importance of the post-recession environment for the founding of many arts organizations in Atlanta in the 1970s. Please tell us a little about the larger economic and social contexts of the period when your organization was founded.

WonderRoot was founded in 2004, but really launched to the public in 2008. During that time, we thought a lot about the need for artists to have affordable access to pursue and sustain careers in the arts in Atlanta. The economic recession, in some ways, created a fertile ground for organizations like WonderRoot to pursue that work. For example, space was cheaper. While to a degree there is always a certain grittiness to artistic and creative communities, during the recession there was an even greater DIY spirit that both necessitated and allowed for people to get things done with more limited resources. I don’t think resources necessarily waned for the small and grassroots organizations during the period; there was just a recognition and reality that we would have to do without. Additionally, resources for larger institutions did wane during that period and oftentimes as there is a cut in funding for large institutions, the programming that frequently gets cut earliest is the more community-oriented programming—the programming where there is a lower bar economically. In order for those institutions to keep their doors open, larger institutions need to appeal to deeper pocketed patrons.

Could you tell us about how you see WonderRoot fitting in the arts ecology and arts economy of Atlanta?

WonderRoot’s founding mission was to unite artists and community to inspire positive social change. It’s our mission today. We are really interested in the way art and artists play a role in building more thriving, equitable communities for all people. As we began thinking about that work in 2002, and later doing some of it in the early and mid-2000s, we recognized that if art and artists are playing an important role in building thriving equitable communities, then Atlanta needed to be able to attract and retain that creative talent. We were seeing a lot of our peers, artists, activists, organizers, and thinkers leave Atlanta and go to the usual places—up north and the west coast. So, WonderRoot had this moment of clarity where we said: “If we are going to get artists involved in activist and social justice work, then before we really can ask artists, we need to support their own professional careers.” Artists are oftentimes a marginalized and underserved part of the community in and of themselves, particularly the artists that WonderRoot seeks to serve. So, a great deal of WonderRoot’s programming, services, and resources for the first several years was built around supporting and sustaining artist’s careers in Atlanta, regardless of what they were making art about.

Then, in 2014, we recognized that Atlanta’s cultural community was in a different place than it was in 2004 when we got started—In a good way. Not only were artists staying in Atlanta, artists were starting to move to Atlanta. It’s not where it needs to be, but progress has been made. And this is what you are referring to and what I think Teresa and Julia are referring to, is this re-emergence of Atlanta’s cultural community: organizations like WonderRoot, BURNAWAY, Dashboard, Living Walls, and the Atlanta Contemporary, which sort of started coming back to life in the late 2000s. So as WonderRoot grew as an institution we decided to turn our attention toward garnering more resources and relationships to really doing that mission-critical work at the intersection of art and social justice. That kind of work happens when WonderRoot partners with non-arts civic organizations such as non-profits, community associations, for-profit businesses, and government agencies. So long as they have some social purpose or some social mission, we help them to develop arts-based solutions to pressing social issues in the Atlanta region. This is why WonderRoot was founded more than a decade ago and really that is the mission critical work that we want to do today.

Ten years ago, even five years ago, the torch that we were carrying and sort of leading with was: “Support artists to have working professional careers in Atlanta! We need more support for the arts!” While we still very much believe in that, and have not reduced the level of support in terms of human resources or financial resources that we invest in artist development, we have turned our attention to that arts and social justice, arts and activism-related work. Unfortunately, we have found that the primary arts organizations—many of those organizations that we worked alongside during this renaissance—have been less engaged and less interested in WonderRoot’s newer programming because it is not so clearly art for art’s sake and it’s much more difficult to understand where the peer arts organization plugs into that work.

A great example of this is how WonderRoot is currently working with the Atlanta Municipal Court System and American Friends Service Committee in an arts-based alternative sentencing program. This is a restorative justice program for young men and women between the ages of 18 and 24 who are non-violent first-time offenders. After conviction and at sentencing, they have the opportunity to opt into an arts and leadership development program and out of a jail sentence. But this happens in closed quarters. There are fifteen people who participate in the program for six months. This is not open to the public. It’s not a big public event. It’s not a spectacle. We can’t have video cameras in the rooms showing what’s happening because of the privacy and sensitivity of who is participating in the program and why they ended up in the program. But, I would say this is as important as anything WonderRoot has ever done. However, the arts community is less engaged in that work because, in part, of the more solitary nature of the work, its focus on personal transformation rather than community transformation, but also because its hard to write a review in the AJC of how that works. Where’s the arts criticism piece? How does that connect to the contemporary art world? I think, today, people are calling this discipline, “social practice.” But that’s just a re-articulation of something people have been doing for millennia.

How do you see your organization’s relationship to the various communities of Atlanta?

I see “community” as any self-identified group of people or organizations, identifying around social identities, economic identities, geographic identities, or cultural identities. WonderRoot has prided itself on its ability to work across various communities. I think that our ability to do that is a direct result of our founding belief that change happens when people of disparate experience come together across lines of social difference. The reason we chose art and culture as the tool to make change is that art and culture transcend those barriers and boundaries of race, religion, class, geography, physical ability, sexuality, gender, right? Art and culture is certainly not the only thing that does that. A lot of times sports does that. A lot of times, space does that. But the arts are a particularly powerful tool for transcending those boundaries and barriers. And since that was a core tenet of how and why WonderRoot was started, we said from the get-go that we should work across various disparate communities: the cultural community, the social justice community, the political community, the North Atlanta community, the South Atlanta community, the Intown community, the suburban community. We want to bring people across these boundaries, perceived or real, to come together to find common vocabulary around shared values to advance change.

But I also think that in order for real lasting change to be further catalyzed in Atlanta, our entertainment community, performers in the music industry, and the film and television industry have a great opportunity to get involved with the organizations that are on the ground doing the work like WonderRoot and many, many others. Certainly we’re not the only organization. But I regularly witness these celebrity entertainers, whether they are A-list or not, get involved with larger institutions that are not on the ground making change. Large institutions are so reliant on the systems that are in place in order to keep themselves in business—and this is no fault of any individual there, it is just the nature of systems and institutions—that they can’t quite call for the radical change that is really necessary for Atlanta to be the kind of place where there is greater equity.

You have already spoken about this a bit in your previous answer, but what are the greatest challenges facing Atlanta’s art community when it comes to facilitating social change?

Because Atlanta does not have a thriving gallery community in any sense of the word, when we talk about Atlanta’s arts community we are mainly talking about those individuals and organizations that operate as non-profit cultural institutions. And most often the institutions that are in positions of influence and power are white-led institutions. Those institutions, from the Woodruff Arts Center to the Mint Gallery—two ends of the spectrum—struggle so much to secure the minimum programming they can deliver, even within their own institutions. When we are all trying to figure out how to just feed ourselves, much less feed someone else, financial capacity becomes a major barrier to folks working together in the way that you asked.

Now, why does everyone struggle in the way that we do financially, or why are the resources so limited financially? I think there is a long list of reasons; I think a lot of it has to do with the politics of Atlanta and Georgia, the city and state politics. You know Georgia ranks last in the country for state arts funding per capita out of the states that do provide funding. Who is the Robert Woodruff of 2016? There doesn’t seem to be quite the same civic-minded responsibility from our corporate leadership in regards to art and culture. As for the public funding, we can claim and pretend that Atlanta is a pretty progressive city. It votes Democrat, but there is a big anti-tax sentiment in this state and it requires taxes to provide public funding for the arts.

What is your relationship to city art initiatives and public funding?

WonderRoot receives support every year from the city, the county, the state, and the National Endowment for the Arts. We’re very fortunate to receive support from all of those organizations. In the last couple of years, I have realized that the arts community alone will not be able to successfully lobby for a dedicated funding stream for the arts in the city of Atlanta, like Charlotte has, like Denver, and lots of communities across the country. These are most often percentages of a one-cent sales tax or hotel-motel tax. The hotel-motel industry in other communities really values the role that art and culture plays for tourism and economic development. So, the hotel-motel tax goes to the arts. That doesn’t happen in the Atlanta region. We see things like the hotel-motel tax go to build things like football stadiums, which are in use something like eight weekends a year.

Because this continues to happen over and over, I have this sense that operating only within the arts community to do this lobbying and advocacy work will not be successful. I’ve spent more time over the last couple of years in community development meetings, affordable housing meetings, transit and transportation meetings, trying to learn about and support policy efforts in those arenas than I have in strictly arts arenas. Because the arts community has to make friends and allies with these other communities that are successful. I mean, if you just look at the bike advocacy that has happened in the last few years, really led by the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition, Atlanta is now a bike-friendly place. Five years ago it was not. We as an arts community have got to learn from that and stop just hanging out over here in our corner and going in and lobbying for just pennies—budget dust—because it continues to prove unsuccessful.

The most exciting thing that WonderRoot is involved with right now is the TransFormation Alliance. This is a coalition of organizations that are organized around principles of equitable transit-oriented development. It was started to support MARTA and really serve as an ally to MARTA as MARTA is undertaking its TOD [Transit Oriented Development] program to ensure that the developments that happen in and around transit stations are equitable—that they are sensitive to and inclusive of stakeholders surrounding the stations. So what appears like a mural program we’ve been doing with the Transformation Alliance and MARTA over the last couple years is actually a civil engagement and community development project through the lens of public art. We are increasing stakeholder participation and visioning for the development around these MARTA stations by getting them involved in this mural project. It’s really exciting for us. And that’s where I personally am learning a lot about ways to coordinate efforts to embed art and culture work and policy into these other advocacy initiatives.

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