Curator Michael Rooks has helped bridge the gap between the High Museum and local artists

His new exhibition, Of Origins and Belonging, Drawn From Atlanta, opens June 1

High Museum's Michael Rooks: Sweet, Sweet, Back, by Cosmo Whyte
Sweet, Sweet, Back, by Cosmo Whyte, from Of Origins and Belonging, Drawn From Atlanta, opening June 1 at the High Museum.

Photograph courtesy of High Museum

In 2013, High Museum curator of modern and contemporary art Michael Rooks offered up a big, wet kiss to Atlanta’s arts community. Drawing Inside the Perimeter featured 41 Atlanta artists. It was the kind of mutual love rarely seen in the then tempestuous relationship between the South’s most important art museum and the regional artists who often felt excluded from its gleaming white citadel on a hill.

Rooks followed it up in 2015 with a 76-artist show called Sprawl! Drawing Outside the Lines, featuring artists both inside and outside the Perimeter, which proved he was as adept at endearing himself to emerging artists as he was at courting moneyed patrons.

High Museum's Michael Rooks
Michael Rooks

Photograph by CatMax Photography, LLC

The most recent iteration of his drawing shows—Of Origins and Belonging, Drawn From Atlanta—features just six local artists, most of whom come from immigrant backgrounds. The show, on display from June 1 until September 29, is deeply influenced by today’s current political climate and immigration debate, says Rooks.

Traveling around the city, Rooks, who’s carless, engages with his Uber and Lyft drivers. “I tend to talk to people and get to know where they’re from.” Also, during visits to Georgia State, SCAD, and the University of Georgia, he noticed students were increasingly creating work informed by having one foot in the U.S. and one foot somewhere else: China, Vietnam, Mexico.

Artists in this show include Jessica Caldas, Yehimi Cambron, Alan Caomin Xie, Wihro Kim, Dianna Settles, and Cosmo Whyte. “People come here to start a new life, whether they’re people like Alan Xie coming from China or Cosmo, who moved here from Jamaica,” says Rooks.

Diverse in their ancestry, the group is also equally divided between men and women, something that might not surprise Rooks’s fans, who have seen him champion feminist and LGBTQ issues.

“Living here for nine years now, I’ve realized that this is one of the most international cities I’ve ever lived in,” says Rooks.

Up next: Rooks wants to bring the world to Atlanta. He’s been traveling to Korea, India, and off-the-beaten-path biennials around the world. And he’d like to present international artists in conversation with Atlanta creatives rooted in those same communities. The goal, he says, would be “to reflect this growing diversity and the multicultural richness of Atlanta.”

This article appears in our June 2019 issue.