2024 marks the rise of the independent Atlanta artist

The most exciting work in Atlanta is being produced by artists who are betting on themselves

2024 marks the rise of the independent Atlanta artist
A First Friday event at Underground Atlanta

Photograph courtesy of Underground Atlanta

ARTlanta is a quarterly column dedicated to celebrating the artists, creatives, and designers who give Atlanta its flavor.

One of my favorite things about the art scene in Atlanta is the tenacity of the artists who call this place home. On any given day in the city, you’ll see students shooting a music video in a parking garage, or an aspiring director bringing their vision to life in an empty store front. I’ve walked into galleries that were once factories and seen plays performed in the back room of office buildings. I’m not sure who created the term artrepreneur, but it characterizes the Atlanta art scene very well. I am declaring 2024 year the rise of the independent, self-producing artist.

There has always been an independent spirit to artists in Atlanta. When I say independent, I’m not referring to a selfish, go-it-alone mentality, but more of the idea that you don’t have to wait for a producer.  One of my favorite quotes from author Marianne Williamson is, “Stop waiting for a producer. Produce yourself.” Atlanta artists have had this approach to art making and creative collaboration for years.

Part of that independence is necessitated by the culture around charitable giving in the arts, which desperately needs to change. People are more willing to fund institutions than they are independent artists. After all, when it comes to per capita spending on the arts, Georgia ranks near last in the country. When we look at public, private, and large individual gifts, they typically go to institutions that have six- and seven-figure operating budgets and sit on seven- and eight-figure real estate. These arts institutions pump blood into the heart of our city and they are valuable, but institutions are made up of individuals, and not all individuals are going to get into every institution.

There has to be healthy support for experimental, independent art making, too. After all, the best whiskey is distilled at least three times. I want to see the Atlanta philanthropic community, and others with the financial power to make decisions, put more emphasis on supporting independently produced art. I want to see more funding go to making a lifelong career in the arts possible in our city.

In Atlanta, I see dogged determination from artists who believe in a vision for this city’s artistic future. They are building the Atlanta aesthetic brick-by-brick, repurposing and upcycling their way to innovation—and it’s working. Turn on the radio, and you’ll hear Top 40 songs by Atlanta artists, such as Victoria Monet, who started off as indie songwriters. Look at off-Broadway and Broadway theater listings and you’ll see a plethora of plays developed in Atlanta and/or starring Atlanta talents. Go to the movies and you’ll see the Georgia landscape in Oscar-nominated films such as The Color Purple.

However, all of that starts with independent artists who had an idea and accepted the invitation, as author Elizabeth Gilbert calls it. In this edition of ARTlanta, you’ll find a mix of independent and major exhibitions, plays, and musicals that will be keeping me busy over the next few months.

  • First Fridays at Underground Atlanta are a celebration of Atlanta’s independent arts scene. Be sure to check out the work at Future Dead Artists Gallery, founded by painter Eugene V Byrd III, and featuring his original painting as well as work by other local artists.
  • Night of Ideas returns on March 1 from 5-11 p.m. at the Atlanta History Center. The event features performances and discussions with artists, public officials, academics, and everyday people reflecting on the future of the city. This year’s theme, “Behold the Land,” takes inspiration from a speech by W. E. B. Du Bois and a series of photographs by Atlanta-based artist Sheila Pree Bright.
  • Director Jade Lambert-Smith is producing the Tony Award-winning musical Fela! with a talented cast of local singers and performers, onstage through March 3 at Southwest Arts Center. Set in 1977, and featuring the music of revolutionary Nigerian artist Fela Kuti, the show celebrates the father of modern Afro Beats.
  • Atlanta rapper and singer Kodie Shane, who was featured in Atlanta magazine’s September 2021 issue dedicated to the women changing the face of Southern hip-hop, will be in concert at Aisle 5 in Little Five Points featuring new music and underground favorites.
  • Modern Mystic at Ponce City Market offers incense, crystals, and now comedy. Hosted by comedian Lysandra Vasquez, each month hear from up-and-coming comedians who share the same astrological sign. Tickets for the April Aries and Taurus shows are on sale now.
  • Much has been written about how the state’s film industry explosion can open up more opportunities for locals. Kevin Gillese, former artistic director of Dad’s Garage, independently produced How to Ruin the Holidays, written, filmed and shot in Georgia with an almost entirely Atlanta-based cast. The film is available for streaming on Prime Video and Vudu.
  • Bronx rapper Kemba traveled to Atlanta to see how rap lyrics are used in court cases for his independently-produced documentary As We Speak: Rap Music on Trial, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January. Kemba interviews lawyers and hip-hop artists, including Killer Mike, to make connections between the outlawing of drums during chattel slavery to the siege of Black people’s First Amendment Rights. The documentary is now streaming on Paramount+.

Who’s making waves in your neighborhood? Tell us what you’re creating or seeing using #ARTlanta on Facebook, Instagram and X (Twitter).

About Kelundra Smith
I grew up in Stone Mountain and Loganville, where my parents and teachers got me into the arts early because that’s where energetic girls who talk a lot go. I am a theater critic, journalist, playwright, and lifelong arts lover. My articles about Southern art and artists have been published in the New York Times, ESPN, American Theatre, Garden & Gun, Oxford American, Bitter Southerner, ArtsATL, and elsewhere. As a playwright, my scripts focus on lesser-known historical events in Georgia’s history.