Arts and Activism in Atlanta Today: Morgan Carlisle

Arts and Activism in Atlanta Today: 

An Interview with Morgan Carlisle

Adam P. Newman & Clinton Fluker, Emory University

This is the fourth and final 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 Morgan Carlisle, board chair of Eyedrum, a nonprofit artist collective that fosters the experimental and avant-garde across disciplines to create opportunities for dialogue, collaboration, and growth in the contemporary art community. Carlisle’s experience as a curator, dancer, and choreographer give her a unique perspective on the current art scene in Atlanta and its relationship to the development of a budding art district in South Downtown where Eyedrum is currently headquartered.

Courtesy Morgan Carlisle

When did Eyedrum start and when did you get involved with the organization? 

Eyedrum started in 1998 as a visual art and music venue—but now we also have committees in film, performance, literature, and education. We are close to the 20-year anniversary. In terms of my involvement, I am entering my third year as a board member and I’ve been board chair now for a year. I came to Atlanta to go to college at Kennesaw State and when I graduated I had two years where I didn’t know what I was doing with my life. But I knew I wanted to get invested in the arts so I started going downtown to shows and talking to people.

In the course of that, I met a bunch of Eyedrum folks who informed me about this show called Existing Conditions that I then applied for. At the time, I was having a really hard time getting work in Atlanta as an artist and they were the first group that actually paid me. That was a big deal to me because I knew that when they looked at my application they just saw my work. They didn’t see me as a female of color. I could tell that they didn’t do that scan, they just wanted my work and that’s all they talked about. They were really excited about my idea and it sold me on them. I wanted to be a part of their board. I wanted to start a performance committee there so I could bring dance and other performance opportunities to talented dancers I knew who were having the same hard time as me.

When I was nominated to be board chair I didn’t really want it because I didn’t think that I had the ability to take over this 18-year-old art organization. What made me decide to say yes was that I didn’t see a lot of people in the executive position of an arts organization who were women of color. There are a lot of women; they’re just not of color. So I felt that I would be doing my community a disservice by not assuming the position and being seen as a person of color in a big organization. I didn’t know exactly what I was going do at the time, but more than anything I felt that I couldn’t say no, I had to be that person.

How do you see your organization in relationship to different communities Atlanta?
 

Eyedrum is an open and safe place for experimental and avant-garde work.There are not a lot of places that will look at somebody’s crazy proposal and go: this is awesome! We’ve got to see this! When it comes to community, we love the area that we are in. South Downtown is really turning into this place where people can be themselves, come and hangout, see something cool, and be curious.

And we feel like we can make a difference here. Earlier in the year we received $25,000 grant from the Foodwell Alliance to build a garden on our rooftop. And it’s been quite a journey! We do not have a garden yet; we’ve had to bring structural engineers into the building and X-ray our roof before we get things approved because apparently gardens are incredibly heavy. But, when it happens, we can have a community garden and do workshops, maybe even hire more people. We can also be a place where people come visit while waiting on the bus. There are usually about 30–50 people waiting outside our building during the workweek. Instead, they can come up to the garden, hang out there, and buy some fresh produce. These are things that we want to offer the community. If we know we are staying there, we can really invest in some of these things. We can make our rooftop garden the most beautiful thing you have ever seen. Then we can bring in private funders and be like: “Help us do this!”

Could you tell us about Eyedrum’s current space and how you see the organization fitting into the arts ecology and arts economy of Atlanta?

Artists are always first. Our board and our committees are comprised of artists—everybody’s an artist save a couple of folks. So, at the heart of it, artists come first and that is the community we want to support. We are not developers and we are not trying to be. All we want to do is preserve what we do as an organization so that we can continue to do it on a bigger scale. So, when it comes to economic contributions, I feel like that’s a hard question to answer because we are really more concerned with community engagement, artistic engagement, and promotion of artists.

When it comes to the economic stuff, most importantly we want to own our building because we want to continue doing what we are doing here. The space we are in now is a series of six storefronts along Forsyth Street south of the corner of Forsyth and MLK. We moved into the space in the summer of 2013. Four of the storefronts are useable and the others are in a state of disarray and we have a rooftop. We rent the whole building from LAZ Parking for a dollar a year plus we pay city property taxes. That really changed the game for us. Before that, we were in C4 for a little while doing satellite programming because we didn’t really have a space. But that made it very difficult to generate funds because we were paying for rent.  We were not able to do the programming that we normally do. So, this new space has been big for us because a lot of our money comes from our programming. We have 20–25 programs a month and many of them are very low budget. If they’re not free, they are $5–7.

What is Eyedrum’s relationship to city art initiatives and public funding? 

Programming is our main funder. We do get funding from the city but it’s not a lot. Wish it were more! We haven’t really tapped into a lot of funding from private donors either. A lot of the artists that are around us are poor so we can’t ask them for money. Most of our audience are artists, therefore we can’t ask them necessarily to support Eyedrum in a bigger way than just coming to our shows. So, I guess that a part of the issue is that nobody around us has money and we are serving a community that doesn’t have money and we want to serve that community. 

So, that really leaves us with city and foundational support in terms of grants. Atlanta’s so small and there are so many organizations that it’s very competitive. There just isn’t a lot of funding. The city does need to fund more but I feel like that’s a very simple way to say it. What’s their selection process? I don’t know! How do they decide we get this amount and this group gets another? I don’t know and I don’t want to speculate because I don’t know them. I’m not in the meetings.

What I do know as the board chair of an organization is that the city calls me up and reminds me that I have reports due. So, the city is being very supportive. It’s tough because the interaction that I’m getting is very positive and very encouraging within the Eyedrum space that I’m in. But, if I were not here, I would have no clue who these people are or what the funding is all about.

But, when I meet city officials and government representatives, I see a pretty diverse group of people, which is encouraging and nice. I feel like they probably want to be diverse in their funding and want to uplift all the different communities. The problem that I see is a lack of information for those communities—for all the communities who need the funding most. So, there are a lot of communities who don’t know how to apply for grants. They don’t know who to meet or how to make those connections. At Eyedrum, we try to address the problem by connecting people to the city and telling them how to apply. I know the information is out there online but sometimes it just takes a person really making sure that everyone knows what resources are available. If people don’t know that there are different city programs, that there is the Office of Cultural Affairs, that there is Fulton County Arts—if people don’t know that already, how are they going to find it? They aren’t quite sure what to look for—How do I fit into that government programming? Am I eligible? I just wish there was a little more tenacity in making sure that all the groups know that this exists.

What are the greatest challenges facing Atlanta’s art community when it comes to facilitating social change
 

Because we now have this space, we have a responsibility to protect our community—to not be just a stepping stone for whitewashing or art washing. We don’t want to be that story. This location is so great and when we moved here nobody wanted it. They said this is scary, its dangerous, we don’t want to be here,we don’t want to visit. Now people are just stopping by and we are not even there all the time! We are starting to build that kind of community and setting where people just stop by because they want to be a part of what we are building.

However, the area that we are in is still underdeveloped. We are seeing the beginning of a major redevelopment coming online in the next 5–10 years. It’s shaped the area in a way that maybe is not bad, but it’s not what we want to see. We’re not excited about having a potential Baby Gap next door! Now, development isn’t bad necessarily. It can be bad for some folks; it can be great for others. I feel that big development and community organizations, like us, can go hand in hand.

We’re bringing in folks they’re bringing in folks—why can’t we all just get along? That’s how I feel about it. Especially, when we think about South Downtown being an artist district. I think Atlanta needs that because it doesn’t have it and another highly developed area isn’t special. It’s something that people like and they feel comfortable with and they feel safe and everything’s clean and beautiful but its not culture and it doesn’t build character and at the end of the day it doesn’t bring in new people.

People are not going to fly to Atlanta to go visit another commercial space. They are going to fly into the city to see the arts district, just like when you go to New York City you want to see SoHo. People want that and it’s not just the locals, it’s also people who are visiting Atlanta. When you can come into a city and see what culture the city actually has, that’s what tourists want to see. They don’t want to see something that they can get in any metropolitan area. I do think Atlanta’s done some interesting development already. For example, Ponce City Market is a really cool and hip way to bring in those more commercial businesses and also make you feel like you are getting some type of cultural interaction. But at the end of the day if you could have a real arts district, why wouldn’t you do that?

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