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Art Notes

Out of ATHICA: This past weekend, hundreds of new graduates walked under the famous UGA Arch for the first time, symbolically crossing the threshold from campus to the wider world. Our community celebrates transitions like these throughout the year, but not all of them are tied to the academic calendar. Another important institution in town will also be making a transition this year. ATHICA will celebrate the transition of its founder and fearless Director Lizzie Zucker Saltz into a new phase of her life, passing the torch to new leaders for this beloved arts resource. I spoke with Zucker Saltz and ATHICA’s board president, Katherine McQueen, as well as local artists, curators and board members about their hopes for ATHICA’s future.

Many know Zucker Saltz as the visionary force behind ATHICA. She is the tireless powerhouse who kept the show going over the last decade, with the help of an army of volunteers and interns. But, as she says, “Ten years is a long time to do anything, and I was looking for a successor.†She found one in McQueen, who worked at a nonprofit gallery in Austin for seven years before moving here. Like a lot of ATHICA’s volunteers, McQueen has worn many hats: exhibiting artist, curator, board member and the brainchild of the successful “Mystery Triennial” exhibition. McQueen describes ATHICA’s new operational model as one that will rely more on input from the local community, with small groups working together on specific committees to do all the work required in keeping up the ambitious exhibition and event schedule that the art space has maintained over the years.

Unlike traditional museums and commercial galleries, ATHICA’s mission as a nonprofit space eager to show challenging artwork means it fills a role in our community that other art spaces do not. In this, Zucker Saltz says, “ATHICA can respond in the moment and be spontaneous.†This spontaneity is apparent in the way its affiliated events make the most of local talent and interests: experimental music, literary and multimedia events are part of the reason ATHICA has become a destination for more than only the visual arts.

ATHICA’s exhibitions are also distinguished by the strong curatorial voice which contextualizes the work for audiences unfamiliar with looking at contemporary art. Without being overly didactic, the essays and text accompanying the artwork help make it more accessible. This has recently extended to our youngest art patrons, with a new emphasis on programing for children led by board member Sage Rogers. Arts education programming is an important step in broadening the institute’s role as an “arts incubator.â€

Presenting artwork by established artists and new artists, from people living all over the world and right here in town, is one of ATHICA’s greatest contributions. I asked some locals about their thoughts on ATHICA and Zucker Saltz’s impact.

Noting the importance of presenting artwork by people living outside of our community, Lamar Dodd School of Art Professor Emerita, artist, curator and board member Judy McWillie says, “ATHICA is also a bridge between local talent and ‘the big picture’ since its exhibitions always include artists from other regions of the United States and they are curated with timely issues in mind. Lizzie has attracted local business support for the arts and educated countless interns and volunteers. Working with her is a ‘baptism of fire,’ but her obsessive drive and imagination have been crucial to the organization’s remarkable ambition and success.â€

Remembering ATHICA’s scrappy beginnings, artist and board member Michael Lachowski tells a story that encapsulates its great underground party atmosphere: “My first ATHICA experience was very early. I was hired as the DJ to play a New Year’s Eve party after Five Art (the building owners) got the space semi-inhabitable. It was really cold; there was no heat. We danced in celebration of a new art facility coming to Athens!â€

This excitement about a new art space is also recalled by longtime Athens resident, activist and former ATHICA curator Melissa Link. She notes that, “Athens has undergone quite a transformation over the past two decades. Once upon a time, Athens’ edgier artists were relegated to one-night shows in grungy abandoned warehouses and empty storefronts. As these got bought up and transformed into thriving businesses, outlets for exhibiting such work essentially disappeared. ATHICA filled that void and then some. ATHICA’s professional, accessible and open-minded environment gave this town the cutting-edge and uncensored art space we’d been craving for decades.â€

As a place for new artists and curators to participate in exhibits, Zucker Saltz has been an incredible mentor to so many. Her willingness to encourage people to try something new and stretch their boundaries extends to all. Artist Tatiana Veneruso remembers, “I approached [Lizzie] to use ATHICA to house a show for the Occupy Movement. It was October 2011, and it was such an exciting time, with so much activity, I didn’t think it could be ignored. She didn’t think so, either. I remember going to our first meeting to plan “OCCUPY: This Is What Democracy Looks Like,” feeling confident with my list of 40-45 artists that were participating in the show. ‘Hmm, how ‘bout we go for 99?’ she said. I felt nauseous, but that’s Lizzie, always striving to do better and better.â€

Naming the unique attributes that make Zucker Saltz such a force of nature, board member and former ATHICA curator Beth Sale comments, “Only someone with her incredible amount of dedication, focus and perseverance could have founded ATHICA, nurtured it into a full-fledged contemporary arts center and kept it going strong for 10 years. Lizzie created a much-needed art venue outside the realm of the university and the government, where artists and curators could address significant topics and present challenging material.â€

Ask anyone. Zucker Saltz’s passion for the arts, her drive and ambition to make ATHICA a reality, and her dedication to our community is a rare and precious combination. Her hard work these past 10 years has put ATHICA in a good place for new leadership to take over, ensuring we enjoy another decade of challenging, engaging and fun exhibitions right here in Athens.

John W. English, UGA Professor Emeritus, artist and board member, sums it up: “ATHICA’s reputation as a lively center to embrace contemporary art has now been established, so it’s up to the board of new stewards to keep it going at the high standard Lizzie set. It’s a challenging time for nonprofits, but the mission of keeping the conversation between Athens and artists has never been more worthwhile.â€

As a former ATHICA board member and co-curator myself, I echo these sentiments and thank Lizzie for the gift of ATHICA and for her extraordinary work in creating a unique and vital resource for the arts in our community. But it’s not over! Lizzie will continue to be associated with ATHICA as its artistic director emerita. As the board plans for the future, its members seek your input. Contact them at with your ideas or to offer your support to help sustain and nurture this gift for years to come.

On the Theme of Transitions: This is my last column. My sincere thanks go to Flagpole, Art Notes readers, supporters of the local arts scene and to the many talented and creative artists and curators I have been privileged to get to know this past year. Art is for everyone, and I encourage you to get involved: make art, buy art, go see art, volunteer—your world will be more colorful because of it!


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