Castleberry Hill’s Status as an Arts Center in Jeopardy

For some time now, the Castleberry Hill neighborhood in a still-industrial-feeling southwest corner of downtown has been growing like gangbusters. Its ascendant status as an Atlanta arts hub has been crowed about nationally in articles for the New York Times and Elle and more than once in the pages of Creative Loafing.

The neighborhood’s “ArtStrolls” every six weeks or so have been well attended and ribald enough to have created concerns about drinking and excessive revelry at those popular events. With its edgy vibe, vibrant street culture and high concentration of galleries, Castleberry has remained hot in a city where what was once hot can turn overnight into gentrified yuppiedom. It is also the portion of the city that many (myself included) have pinned their hopes on for becoming Atlanta’s art nexus — a yearned-for center in a centerless city.

But recently there has also been some art-world chatter, centered on the small but significant exodus of galleries from the area, including Skot Foreman Fine Art and Ty Stokes Gallery in the past year. Diane Hause’s noncommercial 3Ten Haustudio gallery and residence, one of the earliest arrivals on the Castleberry art scene in 1999, is also up for sale after playing an important role in bringing art and audiences to the neighborhood.

Gallery owner Marcia Wood has heard the gossip, too.

“It’s unfortunate that the first thing people are going to think is always the negative,” she says of the speculation about the gallery closings. “‘Oh, they couldn’t make it in Castleberry.'”

Though the gallery closings seem more related to their owners’ personal trajectories than economics, the potential loss of three galleries leads to the question: Is Castleberry still the destination-oriented arts district it once was?

Sam Romo is a relatively new arrival to Castleberry; he opened his highly regarded contemporary-art gallery Romo in 2005, across Peters Street from 3Ten Haustudio. He is concerned, but hardly panicked by the gallery exodus.

“She’s been around a long time, she knew a lot of people in the art community,” Romo says of Hause. “With her leaving, it’s potentially going to decrease some attendance — potentially.”

Gallery owner Benjamin Krause is less concerned, noting little change in sales or attendance at his gallery since the shuttering of Skot Foreman and Ty Stokes.

“Castleberry has always waxed and waned,” admits Hause, who plans to open a new “art environment” on the North Carolina coast. “It seems to be the nature of the neighborhood.”

As evidence of that very ebb and flow, despite the gallery closings, the neighborhood has also buzzed with rumors of several new galleries debuting, including Atlanta College of Art grad Michael Jones’ studio 75 Mixed Medium and Nicole Zagrodny’s Nozoku Gallery.

And in addition to the array of existing art spaces — including Wertz Contemporary, Garage Projects, Monica Tookes Gallery, Get This! Gallery — the past year also has seen the long-anticipated opening of sushi restaurant Wasabi and No Mas! Mexican Cantina, and the end of January will mark the debut of a 3,000-square-foot wine bistro and merchant, OWC. Co-owner Kenneth Green says he was drawn to Castleberry, not because of its status as a gallery district, but because of its unique streetscape and still-intact, ephemeral quality of “edginess.”

“The fact that it’s not branded in any corporate manner,” Green says, “was important to me, too.”

For Bill Bounds, the owner of Ty Stokes, it’s all relative: “If you think of where we’ve come in three years, [it’s] pretty amazing.” Bounds has been in the Castleberry neighborhood since 1999. The 6,000-square-foot space where Bounds lived and operated Ty Stokes Gallery since 2004 is currently under contract, and its next resident will in all likelihood not use the space as a gallery.

Like many business people and residents in Castleberry, Marcia Wood — who relocated to the neighborhood from Buckhead in 2004 — has had to temper an art-gallery owner’s hopes for the neighborhood with the reality: “For me, it’s like, sure I’d love for Castleberry to be a booming gallery district or for Atlanta to have a booming gallery district, but we never really have.”

“The nature of this beast is that we’re more like L.A. than New York, being a car town, and it won’t happen.”

Ultimately, Castleberry and its “is-it?/is-it-not?” status as an arts destination may actually have something to teach us — ever searching for some sliver of New York, some ersatz Dixie answer to a Chelsea thick with galleries or other indication that we are finally white hot.

In reality, Atlanta’s galleries may be like Atlanta’s other retail boutiques and businesses — a place that residents seek out, drive to and organize their lives around according to interest and taste. It is not necessarily maximum gallery density that makes a neighborhood viable as an arts hub. The better measure of Atlanta’s rising status as an arts-friendly city may be the existence of a variety of galleries, at a number of price points, all over the city in emerging neighborhoods, OTP towns and pricey gold-chip suburbs alike.

— Felicia Feaster, for Creative Loafing
Published November 29, 2006

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