In late 2016, Willow Goldstein and her mother, artist Olive Hagemeier, were enjoying one of their favorite pastimes: driving around town, looking at properties, and daydreaming about what they could become. The immediate need was a new place for Goldstein to live. Born in Kirkwood and raised in Cabbagetown, the arts organizer had just returned to Atlanta after 10 years in Boston and Brooklyn. In southwest Atlanta’s Oakland City neighborhood, mother and daughter turned onto Warner Street and happened upon Kaleidoscape, a 22,500-square-foot venue famous for all-night raves, then in its dying days.
Goldstein had been tinkering with the idea of starting an arts center similar to what she saw during her years in the Northeast: an inclusive space where young artists could pursue their work, whether on a stage or in workshops designed to build community. She knew this particular location—nestled in an industrial wasteland but close to revitalizing Adair Park and the BeltLine’s Westside Trail—would be ideal for such a project. “I said, ‘This is terrifying, but I want to do this,’” says Goldstein, who soon signed a lease with the building’s owners and later bought a home in Oakland City. (Goldstein serves on Atlanta’s editorial advisory board.)
Using money borrowed from friends and family, credit cards, and a loan backed with her house as collateral, Goldstein and friends turned the building into a labyrinth of venues, galleries, workspaces, and a woodshop. A call on Craigslist for artists to provide work and volunteers resulted in more pieces and hands than Goldstein and her small crew knew what to do with. In October 2017, they opened the doors of the Bakery, what would become a constantly churning complex of spaces popular with young, queer, and creative Atlantans that have hosted large-scale puppet shows, space-rock operas, escape rooms, and immersive plays, in addition to punk rock concerts, political rallies, and quiet, white-wall gallery exhibitions. Unabashedly progressive, the space hosts arguably Atlanta’s only truly gender-neutral restroom, where all comers do their business at the same time. Props, decorations, and even sound systems have been left behind by visiting artists, helping to add character and sustain one of the city’s most interesting for-profit, do-it-yourself arts spaces. “It’s not about trying to make it super-radical or super-underground, just accessible,” says Goldstein.
One night might feature an onslaught of anti-fascist black metal headlined by Detroit-based Neckbeard Deathcamp, replete with activists in the lobby selling protest kits that include pepper spray and bandannas to use as masks. The next could bring a spoken-word reading in Bakie’s Kansas City, the maroon speakeasy just off the Hanger, the Bakery’s largest venue, where Catalyst Arts Atlanta built a replica of K2 for an immersive play that featured actors suspended over the audience. Six weeks earlier, Atlanta-based folk artist and musician Lonnie Holley, fresh off being exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, had performed under an iPad-controlled lattice of LED lights to an intimate crowd of roughly 100 people. During the day and on off-nights, volunteers and staff lead sound baths, yoga practices, and outdoor film screenings of documentaries. Workshops could range from nude-model sketching sessions to classes on building LED-illuminated clouds or sewing pockets on pants. Have an idea for a T-shirt? Use the silk-screen press (just leave a donation). Budding urban farmers can learn about small crops in the garden, growing strawberries, basil, and corn. Despite all this varied activity, Daniel DeSimone, who books most of the bands at the Bakery, says, “The point is not for a bunch of artists to hang out in a warehouse. It’s to build something bigger.”
That framework is an evolution of the DIY model, says Randy Gue of Emory University’s Stuart A. Rose Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Book Library. Long-gone and sorely missed Atlanta performance spaces like the Metroplex and the Somber Reptile were primarily music venues—or, in the case of the Blue Rat Gallery, an arts space—that hosted local, regional, and national bands. The venues offered local creatives in the fragmented metro region a vital place to gather, says Gue, who curated the archive’s exhibition on Atlanta’s punk rock history. Performers and audiences alike hatched plans for bands, fanzines, and other projects inside the venues and in their parking lots and brought them to life elsewhere. Now, Gue says, people can watch a great band on stage and launch an advocacy group through the venue’s own programs and workshops.
The Bakery is also helping fill a local void. WonderRoot, the Reynoldstown nonprofit that aims to educate and empower communities with the arts, no longer hosts music acts. The Mammal Gallery and other South Downtown arts groups shut their doors after a developer purchased their buildings. Eyedrum, the indomitable DIY space that’s moved around Atlanta over its 20-year history, is working to establish a new space, as is Mammal. Murmur, a South Downtown gallery and event space that hosted the Atlanta Zine Fest, and the Bakery have to carry much of the DIY weight.
For Goldstein and other Bakery employees and volunteers, keeping the center running is part labor of love, part dream fulfillment. Goldstein and other staffers juggle multiple jobs—one employee said they don’t get paid until the Bakery makes its financial goals. Though the space has indie spirit, Goldstein, as creative director and owner of the business, oversees everything; her day ranges from answering endless emails to emptying trash to staying late into the night to run events.
Part of the beauty of DIY, says DeSimone, is building something and then breaking it down. In May, Trees Atlanta went under contract to buy the Bakery’s building. Though the nonprofit declined to discuss its vision for the property until the sale closed, it plans to honor the Bakery’s lease, which expires next June. Goldstein and company have no plans to slow down and want to expand their audience. Whether they move the operation, focus more on events, or evolve the Bakery into an arts advisement model, they believe they’ve built something lasting. “They wouldn’t be buying the Bakery,” says Amanda Norris, the center’s community manager. “They’d be buying the building. The Bakery lives on.”
This article appears in our August 2019 issue.