Best of Atlanta 2019: Arts & Culture


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Shanequa Gay standing in front of the Vine City MARTA station mural
Vine City MARTA station

Photograph by Martha Williams

Best Banner Year: Shanequa Gay

Look on any street corner or in any gallery in Atlanta, and it seems like you’ll find artist Shanequa Gay, whose work ranges from painting to sculpture to performance. This year alone, she’s exhibited work at Chastain Arts Center, the Zuckerman Museum of Art, and the University of North Georgia. The southwest Atlanta native has made it her mission to depict the experiences of people from hybrid cultures, who are often forgotten. Her abstract mural at the Vine City MARTA station recognizes homeless youth throughout the city. The twice-extended Lit Without Sherman, showing at the Hammonds House Museum through December 22, tells the stories of West End residents whose neighborhood is being gentrified.

Lil Nas X

Photograph by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Best Surprise Superstar: Lil Nas X

When teenage rapper Lil Nas X set out to create a country music record, many in the hip-hop and country music worlds guffawed. Now, he’s having the last laugh with his hit song, “Old Town Road.” Even without Billy Ray Cyrus’s appearance, Lil Nas X is certified country. His “Old Town Road” spent 17 weeks at the top of the Billboard Hot 100, breaking the previous record held by both Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men’s “One Sweet Day” and 2017’s “Despacito” by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee featuring Justin Bieber. Is Lil Nas X a one-hit-wonder or a man on a mission? Only time will tell.

On a budget? Most professional theaters, from Broadway to Peachtree Street, offer discounted preview performances before opening night. For example, Georgia Ensemble play previews cost only $14, less than half of some regular tickets.

Best Up-and-Coming Director: Tinashe Kajese-Bolden

Atlanta theater fans will recognize Kajese-Bolden from her numerous roles over the years, including turns in Serial Black Face at Actor’s Express and Detroit ’67 at True Colors Theatre. A few years ago, she hopped in the director’s chair, helming an award-winning production of Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed at Synchronicity Theatre. This year, she won a national Princess Grace Award; next, she’ll direct the Off-Broadway hit School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls at True Colors.

Gabrielle Ortiz, Viviana Chavez, and Denise Santos
Left to right: Gabrielle Ortiz, Viviana Chavez, and Denise Santos

Photograph by Ben Rollins

Best Latinx Leaders: New Play Showcases by Latinas in Media Atlanta

According to a study by the University of Southern California, Latinos made up only 4.5 percent of speaking roles in top U. S. films during the last 12 years. This statistic is no surprise to the women behind Latinas in Media Atlanta, an organization whose mission is to “build a community of Latinas in the performing arts to create a platform and advocate the representation of Latin(a/o/x).” For the past couple of years, they’ve produced fall evenings of original one-act plays by Latinx playwrights. Tickets go fast, so follow the Latinas in Media Atlanta Facebook page to find their next show.

Best Museum Redux: Hammonds House Museum

When Leatrice Ellzy Wright became executive director of the Hammonds House Museum two years ago, she was challenged with transforming the historic house into a museum for the 21st century. After a decade of working with the National Black Arts Festival, she was more than ready for the job. Under her tenure, the museum has launched Hammonds House Honors, the city’s only visual art awards for black artists. In addition, last summer’s Dandy Lion: (Re) Articulating Black Masculine Identity photography exhibition (and corresponding cigar and Cognac sampling) introduced new audiences to the museum. January 10 marks the opening of a solo exhibition from mixed-media artist Masud Olufani, who extrapolates narratives around objects typically used to oppress black people. Next summer, Kevin Sipp will curate The Art of Crunk According to Pastor Troy, an exhibition featuring works by photographer Shannon McCollum and rapper Pastor Troy.

Tyler Perry Studios opening Atlanta
Tyler Perry

Photograph by Paul R. Giunta/Getty Images

Best New Movie Studio: Tyler Perry Studios

To celebrate the opening of his new $250 million, 330-acre studio at Fort McPherson in early October, Tyler Perry threw a massive gala that attracted international celebrities like Oprah, Beyoncé, and Hank Aaron. Perry now claims one of the largest studios in the U.S. and is the first black person to own one outright, without partner backing, since Oscar Micheaux in the early 20th century. The studio has 12 soundstages, each named after black Hollywood legends including Sidney Poitier and the late Diahann Carroll, and 21 ready-made sets including a diner, prison yard, mansion, suburban neighborhood, trailer park, courtroom, baseball field, and even the White House, which Perry is using for his new BET series, The Oval. All of this is set among more than 200 acres of sprawling manicured lawns and rolling hills.

Best Instagrammable Exhibitions: Museum of Design Atlanta

Whether it’s displaying couture gowns or a rock star’s guitar, MODA maximizes its small space to create exhibitions that are the source of Insta-envy. The museum’s aesthetic is all about how smart design has made life better and how it will inform the future. Currently on view, The Design of Dissent features posters from political movements around the world. Up next, Full Circle: Design Without End shows how designers and inventors are tackling climate change.

Best Author to Watch: Tayari Jones

Tayari Jones’s novel An American Marriage explores the complicated dynamics between a wife and her husband, who is wrongfully imprisoned, then unexpectedly exonerated, after she has found comfort with the best man at their wedding. The novel became an instant bestseller when Oprah made it her 2018 book club selection and optioned it for a film. Now, Jones teaches creative writing at Emory University and is writing her fifth book, Old Fourth Ward.

Performers hanging from the ceiling during an aerial silk routine

Photograph courtesy of Havoc Movement Company

Best Moves: Havoc Movement Company

The performers at Havoc Movement push the bounds of physical strength to create something that looks like a collision of burlesque, circus, and optical illusion. Cofounders Jake Guinn, Kristen Noonan, and Jake Scott-Hodes want the company to be “a playground for all the physical storytellers in Atlanta,” and they perform on silks and anything they can climb. They’ve got three original productions slated for next year, including their signature piece, Just Another Play About Rainbows. Performances (and classes!) are mainly held at East Point’s Windmill Arts Center.

Best Dance Innovator: Lauri Stallings

Lauri Stallings keeps coming up with new ways to blend visual art, dance, film, and other media to make live art. In 2009, she created Glo, “a nonprofit platform aimed at building relationships across issues, identities, and creative possibilities.” Up until this spring, she and the Glo artists worked out of the Goat Farm Arts Center, which is currently undergoing a $250-million facelift. Her list of accolades is long and includes the 2018 Hudgens Prize, a 2017 MOCA GA Working Artist Fellowship, and an exhibition at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport (on view through the end of the year). Over the summer, she became the High Museum’s first choreographer as artist in residence. Collaborating with Glo, she created Supple Means of Connection, an interactive, live installation about the roles of women in society—which she was invited to show at the 2019 Florence Biennale.

Best Emerging Theater Company: Atlanta Theatre Club

Onstage roles for 20-something women have long been limited to mean girls and babysitters. So actress Rebeca Robles started her own theater company to offer more diverse opportunities for women like herself. From coming-of-age dramas about abortion to quirky comedies about cancer, Atlanta Theatre Club’s lineup includes the best of Off-Off Broadway plays, plus higher-profile works like the Tony Award–nominated Blackbird.

Another budget tip: Signing up for arts venues’ email lists can hold big rewards since most of them share discount codes with subscribers.

Best Concert to Catch: Algebra Blessett

You only have to hear Algebra Blessett’s singles “U Do It For Me” or “Nobody But You” once for the songs to get stuck in your head. The R&B songstress has been appearing on Atlanta stages for the last two decades, and we hope she never stops. Her voice is soulful, sultry, and sweet with heartbreak and the excitement of new love dripping from every note. She’s lent her vocals to hits such as Esperanza Spalding’s “Black Gold” and Vivian Green’s “Light the Universe.” Blessett runs her own imprint, Slim Frances Music, and sells out dates at City Winery, Center Stage, and other venues throughout the year.

Robert Spano orchestrating
Robert Spano

Photograph courtesy of Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

Best Musical Legacy: Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

One of Atlanta’s crown jewels is celebrating its 75th birthday this year. Throughout the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s illustrious history, it has entertained world leaders, brought Oscar Award–winning films to life by performing scores live on stage, and won numerous Grammy Awards. Through collaborations with dancers, authors, and actors, music director Robert Spano has proven that classical music is vital. He founded the Atlanta School of Composers to nurture a new generation—with the symphony performing nearly 100 contemporary works, including seven ASO-commissioned world premieres, two additional world premieres, and one U.S. premiere. This season opened in September with violinist Joshua Bell, and renowned musicians Itzhak Perlman, Midori, Emanuel Ax, and André Watts will join later in the season. Bravo!

Best Neighborhood Bookstore: FoxTale Bookshoppe

Nestled in downtown Woodstock, this charming bookstore carries New York Times bestsellers and the latest releases from Georgia authors that everyone needs to know. Karen Schwettman opened the store in 2007 with her friends as a passion project for their second act. For Schwettman, “the fox tail is a symbol for feminine creative energy.” They’ve run with that baton over the years, hosting a wide variety of authors, such as Fancy Nancy author Jane O’Connor and Dog the Bounty Hunter for book signings. FoxTale also hosts workshops for writers of all ages.

Best Year for Street Art: 2019’s New Murals

When nonprofit Living Walls held its first annual conference in 2010, Atlanta was known for its ambivalence toward street art. Alex Brewer, whose murals have been commissioned by the High Museum, used to deny he was “HENSE.” But, thanks in no small part to Living Walls, which has facilitated more than 100 murals throughout the metro area, the city is now recognized as one of the nation’s best places for viewing street art. Two cases in point: To commemorate last winter’s Super Bowl LIII, the host committee commissioned 30 murals highlighting the city’s civil rights history. And, as part of a major renovation, Peachtree Center commissioned two massive murals: downtown’s largest, Symphony, by French artist Hopare and the rooftop Paradigm Shift, a seemingly three-dimensional installation by German-based artist 1010. (Unfortunately, this piece is visible only from private offices in Peachtree Center—or on the cover of this magazine!)

Best Clandestine Art Space: The Beacon Atlanta in Grant Park

For many years, Grant Street was a sleepy residential street, but no longer. With the arrival of the Beacon, the already-cool Grant Park neighborhood has gotten a little cooler. Noteworthy tenants include Patria Cocina Mexican restaurant, Pin & Proper (a gaming and entertainment venue), a Haute Cookie, the Brazilian-inspired Buteco Coffee & Bar, and Cardinal (our “Best Secret Bar,” page 79). But there are also many artist studios, which offer works for sale, hold classes, and host open studio nights.

EarthGang Atlanta Mirrorland
WowGr8 and Olu

Photograph by Grizz

Best New Album: EarthGang

This rap group’s shoutouts to their hometown may remind you of OutKast. On EarthGang’s first album, Mirrorland, released earlier this year, you’ll find references to Greenbriar Mall, Underground Atlanta, and the I-85 bridge fire. Comparing Atlanta to the Land of Oz from the all-black musical, The Wiz, Olu and WowGr8 believe there’s no place like home.

Chris Devoe with headphones on
Chris Devoe

Photograph by Alec Robertson

Best Experimental Album: Chris Devoe’s With the Moon

At times quiet and chilling, moody and hypnotic, shimmering and sad, With the Moon feels like the lost soundtrack to a story set in rain-slicked alleys and underground EDM clubs. Created by Chris Devoe, a longtime DJ and fixture in Atlanta’s music scene, and released by Adult Swim, the album is bestowed with gifts from guests such as Brooklyn-based avant-pop musician Helado Negro and trailblazing instrumentalist Prefuse 73. It’s a gorgeous swirl of electronica, with streaks of hip-hop and jazz.

Best Sunday Series: Found Stages Wine & Reading Series at Dunwoody Nature Center

Since its inception, Found Stages has produced plays in a ballroom, office, and via text message—yes, you read that correctly. Removing the walls of theater, the group’s mission is to build community through innovative storytelling. The Wine & Reading Series takes the drama to a pavilion among the trees. From spring to fall, it hosts monthly readings of a new work by a local playwright performed by professional actors. “We put a lot of thought and time into how we allow the audience to explore both the story and space, and how to marry them together so that you couldn’t imagine one without the other,” says cofounder and artistic director Nichole Palmietto.

Lace Larrabee pointing at someone in a crowd during her standup performance

Photograph by Lola Scott

Best Comedy Class: Lace’s Laugh Lab

Live comedy has long been a boys club, but stand-up comic Lace Larrabee is out to change that. Through a six-week course, aspiring performers learn the arts of joke writing, stage presence, managing audiences, and more. At the end of the class, they take the stage at the Punchline for an audience of friends, family, and strangers. Sorry fellas, there are no boys allowed in this all-female class.

Best Place for Kids to Act Out: Atlanta Children’s Theatre Company

Spring Mason has coached the next generation of superstars for more than 20 years. She’s helped audition or cast productions on stage and screen, including Broadway tours of the Lion King and Aladdin and productions by Cartoon Network and GPTV. She’s also a mainstay at Horizon Theatre, coproducing its annual production of Madeline’s Christmas. The company offers after-school classes at metro-area elementary schools as well as summer camps.

Best Up-and-Comer: Lil Baby

Since releasing his debut mixtape and signing with Quality Control Records in 2017, 25-year-old rapper Lil Baby has vaulted to the top of Atlanta’s music scene. His first studio album landed at no. 3 on the U.S. Billboard 200 chart; one year later, BET named him the Best New Artist of 2019. Next, catch him with Future, Young Thug, and Gunna on Super Slimey 2 and on his second album, scheduled to drop at the end of this year.

Superlative Services

Art lessons at the Beacon Atlanta
In the Artist Cove at the Beacon—a collection of studios that offers work for sale to the public in the evenings—SCAD professor Jena Dost teaches painting, drawing, and sculpting classes for children and adults. For the writers in the room, Buteco coffee shop hosts an open-mic night every Tuesday.

New authors events at Foxtale Book Shoppe
Emerging authors who are self-published or who have been published by a small press can pitch and sell their books at six events throughout the year at this Woodstock venue. Any published author can apply.

Young professionals at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
If you’re under 40, the ASO’s BRAVO young professionals program offers networking mixers, free tickets to a Delta Classical Series Concert of your choice, and more perks. For the youngest audience members, the orchestra’s Music for the Very Young concerts are designed for kids under five to dance and sing along.

Readers’ Choice

Best mural
“Rush Hour” by Chris Veal (Boulevard and Edgewood Ave.)

Best local rapper
Killer Mike

Best local band
Zac Brown Band

Best small concert venue
Eddie’s Attic

Best large concert venue

Best annual festival
Atlanta Pride Festival

Best art gallery
Whitespace Gallery

This article appears in our December 2019 issue.