What’s at stake for West End’s art scene?
How the neighborhood’s artists are adapting to the COVID-19 era
By Naya Clark, Nzingha Hall, and Aboubacar Kante
Additional reporting by Brent Brewer
Image credit: Shanequa Gay
By Naya Clark, Nzingha Hall, and Aboubacar Kante
Additional reporting by Brent Brewer
Image credit: Shanequa Gay
This story was produced entirely by Canopy Atlanta’s West End Fellows, community members who gained reporting skills through a six-week training program to tell stories about their neighborhood. Learn more about how we produced this issue.
SHANEQUA GAY SPENT 21 DAYS of labor and love in 2019 creating the visual language for “Lit Without Sherman: Love Letter to West End”—an ephemeral exhibit that used Hammonds House’s inner walls, which hold the residence-turned-museum’s more than 450 works from the African diaspora, as a canvas. The artist’s exhibition integrated murals, textured wallpaper, and video vignettes featuring scenes inspired by the community: teens selling water bottles on highway ramps as a “welcoming committee,” a local couple on a date, photographer Sue Ross waxing nostalgic about West End’s community pride, and sociologist and activist W.E.B. Du Bois stylized as a drum major in a nod to the intellectual heft of the nearby Atlanta University Center where he once taught.
The walls eventually were painted over, but captured images of Gay’s art serve as a reminder of the close ties between West End with the artists who have called it home.
Since the 1970s, Black artists have revered West End. Drawing influence from the heyday of Harlem’s 125th Street and Los Angeles’s Leimert Park, the neighborhood’s arts institutions such as Hammonds House, Shrine of the Black Madonna, West End Performing Arts Center, and the former Afrikan Djeli Cultural Center connected blue-collar workers with entrepreneurs, creatives with curators, and protesters with street prophets.
West End has left an imprint on Pearl Cleage’s novels, Melissa Alexander’s photographs, T. Lang’s choreography, and Kebbi Williams’ blue note. Those artists, in turn, transformed the neighborhood into a cultural hub.
“We need artists,” says Alexander. “With West End, if we are not creating art here, then who will know that we existed? ”
This past spring, when the pandemic arrived, West End’s arts scene screeched to a halt. Coronavirus led to the cancellation of gatherings small and large. In-person events forced on hiatus meant lost dollars for artists and arts organizations. In an unprecedented time of need, West End’s artists reckoned with a crisis playing out across Atlanta, one that revealed deep racial inequities in the relationships between arts organizations and the civic institutions that fund their work.
“We need artists . . . If we are not creating art [in West End], then who will know that we existed?” — Melissa Alexander
As members of West End’s arts scene adapted to a new normal, they also learned that in May 2020, one of the region’s key cultural financial resources, the Community Foundation of Greater Atlanta’s Metropolitan Atlanta Arts Fund, issued the vast majority of $580,000 in emergency grants to white-led organizations. Heather Infantry, executive director of Generator, a nonprofit focused on ideas about the future of cities, called out the Community Foundation’s history of primarily awarding grants to white-led organizations, which she felt was due to application requirements that “functionally disqualified most Black organizations from applying.”
Weeks later, a group of over 30 Black artists—including some based in West End—sent a letter to the Community Foundation that called for the removal of those so-called application barriers such as the requirements to have a full financial audit and at least one full-time employee. “They not only ignore the chronic underfunding that makes it impossible to afford such deliverables, [they] reinforce the false premise that Black arts organizations are incompetent with funds or don’t care to be ‘rigorous’ in their business practices, and are therefore ‘untrustworthy’ as stewards of donor funds,” the letter said. After a series of closed meetings between the Community Foundation’s leaders and Black arts organizers, the institution overhauled the application process. Another funding round for $1.15 million followed: That time, 91 percent of those dollars went to organizations led or founded by Black people, Indigenous people, or people of color.
While the funding helped some West End–based organizations such as Hammonds House and T. Lang Dance Studio, others weren’t as lucky. (Community Foundation CEO Frank Fernandez said in August that it would convene a Black arts task force to address funding inequities.) Without more funds from a variety of sources, the neighborhood’s arts organizations are finding it harder to manage the threats of COVID-19 and gentrification. It raises questions fundamental to West End’s future: How does a changing neighborhood preserve and maintain a cultural legacy? How can a community safeguard its artistic gems?
To answer those questions, Canopy Atlanta’s Fellows chronicled the state of West End’s arts scene through the span of a week, capturing the peril facing its organizations and the ingenuity of the people still creating in spite of that uncertainty.
Melissa Alexander, who goes by the moniker Phyllis Iller, has an adorable laugh and a contagious smile. She sits porch-side on a sunny day sipping a soft drink, her mid-length braids with wooden beads casually swaying in the air.
Iller is known by her neighbors as the “girl with the camera.” Her perspective contains multitudes. She is a West End resident, mother, and photographer who captures the daily lives of her neighbors through portraiture and documentary films and often puts the neighbors behind the lens. In December 2017, she raised $1,000 to launch the Illest Photowalk, where children were given disposable cameras to walk around West End and shoot, while she taught and guided.
“West End is my muse,” she says. “I never want to be far away from where I live when it comes to my work.”
Once the pandemic began, Iller found inspiration with her “Pull-Up Sessions,” a series of socially distant portraits featuring residents. The project served as an opportunity to celebrate with those who feel rejuvenated by what she calls “The Great Pause,” and to uplift those who are in need of emotional support in the midst of the pandemic.
Her latest documentary, To West End, With Love first premiered at Gallery 992 in 2018. The film was a visual tribute to a neighborhood steeped in blackness, history, and a love, a West End that gentrification and impending change cannot consume.
Iller would like to see more of that sentiment in the community’s art. “I would like to see some stuff over here that isn’t always rooted in our struggle,” she says. “We don’t get those fun, swirly, cartoon-like murals. Why can’t we be whimsical? Why do we always have to be so serious? Why can’t we show Black love? I would like for it to be here in my own neighborhood, [because] there’s a richness here that simply just exists because it’s us.”
— Nzingha Hall
Sheba Rem, a local spoken-word artist, is a master of multitasking. She gets her hair twisted by a stylist at Kay Design Studio while taking calls about her live show, “Poetry vs. Hip Hop.” In between calls, Rem mentions that she intends on making West End her “forever home” with the hopes that her community continues to get comfortable with its Black LGBTQ artists and residents. “It’s all about connectivity and family and community,” she says about the art-focused spaces she frequents.
Before the pandemic, Sheba held poetry workshops at Gallery 992 about literacy, art, and culture, while teaching poetry and composition at Clark Atlanta University.
Since the pandemic, she realizes that members of West End’s artistic communities must sustain themselves with new kinds of creative opportunities, fairer pay, and increased queer inclusivity in the neighborhood’s artistic spaces.
“The time is now to refine, rebuild, and set the tone of how the community shows up for one another,” Sheba says.
Soon after, another call comes, and she takes it. She knows she has to, for these spaces don’t create themselves.
— Nzingha Hall
CHECK OUT: In the heart of West End, Billy Hollins’ studio has been in business for 40-plus years. Adjacent to Gallery 992, it stands as the only African-American-owned photo studio in West End.
On the side of the Goodwill building on Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard, Ashley Dopson paints Heroine, a mural of nine women who have shaped southwest Atlanta. They include West End legends like Pearl Cleage, the playwright whose mother founded the Shrine of the Black Madonna, and Hattie Guinn Watkins, who helped her son, Willie, found the Watkins Funeral Home. It also features female activists, entrepreneurs, and educators who have improved the Ralph David Abernathy corridor in recent years.
The mural is part of the annual Elevate Atlanta, a weeklong public arts festival hosted by the city, which spotlighted West End earlier this month.
In 1974, then Mayor Maynard Jackson created the Bureau of Cultural Affairs to make the arts more accessible to residents and the city attractive to Black artists worldwide through taxpayer-funded grants. Now known as the Office of Cultural Affairs (OCA), the city annually distributes $2 million into Atlanta’s community organizations and individual artists. Last year, the office partnered with West End Neighborhood Development (WEND) to find professional artists to design two murals along White Street.
But Camille Russell Love, director of the OCA, said arts funding is in peril due to the pandemic.
“We anticipated a budget cut,” she says. “Unlike the federal government, the city cannot operate on a deathbed. Our budget was cut 11 percent. So we’ll be providing funds [this year] but we will have less money to offer for the next fiscal year.”
In a survey conducted by Dad’s Garage Theatre Company, 96 percent of Atlanta arts organizations expressed the need for additional funding after they projected more than $10 million in collective losses due to the pandemic shutdown. Organizations with budgets under $250,000 expected to lose a tenth of their annual revenue, while those between $1 million and $2 million anticipated average losses of $345,000. Overall, one out of five local arts nonprofits thought they could close during the pandemic.
Despite those cuts, Love had enough funding to move forward with portions of Elevate. The programming featured virtual film screenings and panel discussions tied to West End, as well as a walking tour focused on the neighborhood’s public art. It included Dopson’s mural of the women past and present who helped the community through its darkest times, and defined it in its brightest moments.
— Naya Clark
CHECK OUT: The Malcolm X Festival, which promotes human rights and self-determination, is West End’s annual fete of the birthday of Malcolm X Shabazz, born on May 19, 1925.
The Shrine of the Black Madonna’s Bishop Randy Brown speaks about the church’s role in creating space for West End’s artists.
The greatest part about the Shrine of the Black Madonna has been being able to serve in the community. That is what I lift up above anything else. The Shrine is situated and anchored in the West End and has been a viable anchor since 1975, when it expanded from Detroit to Atlanta. The vibrancy of the West End always drew my attention. The ability to walk to the MARTA Station. The cultural center is a hub for the community to come in and get their African art and books written by African-descended authors. The Karimu art gallery is where we feature a lot of local artists in that studio. Each year, we do Jazz Notes, which is a fundraising for the West End Learning Center. The space used to be a movie theater, so it’s given us an opportunity to reconfigure the footprint there to do events that bring in the community, like the Buy Black Marketplace that we’ll be doing [late October] in our back parking lot. We’ll have strict guidelines so that people can stay physically distanced and still be socially connected while attending.
— As told to Aboubacar Kante
THE CONNECT: Mother of West End and author Pearl Cleage is also the daughter of Albert Cleage, founder of Shrine of the Black Madonna. Pearl Cleage was also Mayor Jackson’s speechwriter and later married Michael Lomax, Fulton County’s Board of Commissioner’s first African-American chairman and the first director of the City’s Bureau of Cultural Affairs.
On the corner of Peeples Street and Lucile Avenue, Hammonds House appears like something out of a storybook, as if someone grand and mysterious inhabits the home. The redwood-colored building with dark green trimming has a pointed roof at the center, a cobblestone pathway, and an expansive porch.
Founded in 1988, the museum was the home of Otis Thrash Hammonds, a prominent doctor with a passion for arts philanthropy and collecting and preserving African and African American artifacts. “He put his money behind his belief and desire to make sure the arts continued to proliferate, not only in Black areas for Black people, but really throughout Atlanta,” says Leatrice Ellzy, executive director of Hammonds House. The house went through several renovations. In fact, Dr. Hammonds only lived in the home for a year before his passing. Shortly after his death, the Fulton County Board of Commissioners, under the leadership of Chairman Michael Lomax, purchased the house. Lomax added what Ellzy described as “painstaking details,” to the home, including over 250 art pieces and artifacts from some of the most important Black artists of the time such as Nellie Mae, John Biggers, and Romare Bearden.
During the pandemic, Hammonds House has facilitated online readings and conversations with the likes of writer Michelle Gipson, jazz musician Carl Anthony, and poet Felton Eaddy. Ellzy is confident—thanks to individual and philanthropic support—that the institution will survive.
“The Hammonds House Museum is going to be sitting on that corner,” Ellzy says. “The cultural points [like] the Shrine of Black Madonna are going to be there. So, I’m not so concerned about that part of it.”
What Ellzy does worry about, however, is the development that will continue to displace longtime residents from their homes. Despite West End’s changing demographics, she believes that historic institutions like Hammonds House—along with that of the nearby Atlanta University Center—will continue to provide an anchor to the Black arts scene in the community.
“As long as they remain,” she says, “we will always have a foothold.”
— Naya Clark
NEARBY: Less than a mile away from Hammonds House on Dargan Place, the Omenala Griot Afrocentric Museum opened in 1992 as a teaching and research facility designed to uplift and inculcate African American history and culture through diasporic artifacts, artwork, and historical literature, as well as interactive group discussions and events.
Friday always seems to be one of the busiest days of the week for the raw, kale-centered restaurant Tassili’s Raw Reality. Even during a pandemic, business seems to be booming, particularly now that patrons are able to order inside with proper safety precautions. Hand sanitizer is provided for visitors, but, despite the social distance, there’s still a closeness in the way Tassili’s staff interacts with its customers. Behind their masks, staff smile at new patrons, asking how their days are going, and make small talk with regulars.
While food is being prepared, music videos of local artists and clips from recent community events play on mounted television screens. The walls in the dining room gallery are covered with rotating installations of art and artifacts. Outside are vendors who sell masks made of authentic prints from various countries in Africa, copper bracelets, and Black Lives Matter T-shirts.
Tassili Ma’at, the restaurant’s owner and namesake, changed her diet to raw vegan in 2007, after being diagnosed with arthritis from years of professionally braiding and locking hair. She served her new raw vegan eats first for friends and at local festivals. Then, she brought the fare to market by subletting a small space inside Princess Dixon’s Healthful Essence, the vegetarian Caribbean restaurant near the West End Mall.
And just like Princess Dixon held space for Ma’at to test her raw vegan fare before launching out in her own brick-and-mortar down the street, Tassili’s is making space for local artists and artisans, on and off the menu.
— Naya Clark
MOONLIGHTING: Cafe 640 West Community Cafe, owned by Jay White, has community-building roots, as its name suggests. The cafe specializes in healthy breakfast and lunch sandwiches by day, and collaborative art event space—including once serving as the temporary digs for the famed Apache Cafe—by night.
Jim Auchmutey is an author and former reporter at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution who currently serves on the board at Wren’s Nest as chair of the communications and events committee. He spoke with Canopy Atlanta about West End, the Wren’s Nest, and the struggles faced during the pandemic.
What do you think that West End has that you can’t find anywhere else?
I don’t think a lot of people in metro Atlanta actually know about West End. To greater metro Atlanta, I don’t think they know how much of a great slice of history is in the area.
On the subject of visibility in West End, do you think that you’ve come across any barriers when it comes to attracting local residents and tourists?
We have an issue there. On one hand, it is a predominantly African American neighborhood, and that’s changed some. For many years, we were a place that was associated with a very white view of the Old South. We feel that’s sort of an erroneous interpretation if you consider where these stories came from. After the George Floyd killing, I wanted to put a banner outside that said “Black Stories Matter.” They’re not all African American stories, but the most famous ones are, and those are most certainly the mouths that Joel Chandler Harris heard them from. So, we feel that, in its root, this is about African American culture—even though for many years it didn’t seem that way. On the other hand, if you look at the history of the house and the fact that it was segregated until the 1960s, you can see why there is skepticism from local residents, particularly the older residents.
How is the Wren’s Nest managing to stay afloat without in-person events?
It’s been tough. We have managed to get the PPP [federal loan]. We got a matching campaign through the mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs strictly to launch our online storytelling. We were getting ready to have our big annual fundraiser when the lockdown happened. Last winter, we had a grant to restore one of the rooms, and we’ve rebuilt part of the porch and the back steps. You wouldn’t know it because we’re trying to go three weeks without mowing the grass to save money. Fortunately we hadn’t spent a lot of money on it, but only made half of what we were expecting. So, we’re probably not as desperate as some of the other organizations are because our overhead is very low. Right now, we’re working with two part-time employees. We can’t keep doing this indefinitely:. If we didn’t have another penny come in before December, we’d have to close down. Our cushion is probably about four months. I don’t see us opening before the new year.
— Aboubacar Kante
As shadows fall over West End, cars line the length of Peeples Street. Families, couples, and friends walk toward the symphony of saxophones, djembes, flutes, and drums. On the corner of Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard, Kebbi Williams, Gallery 992’s owner and bandleader of Wolfpack, plays his saxophone emphatically.
Before the pandemic, Gallery 992’s Sunday night jam sessions used to take place in the space’s cafe and gallery. Now, the gathering spills out into a lot outside in what’s become a weekly festival. A man passes out glow sticks to pockets of people safely distanced. Women in flowy outfits dance as sweethearts trade kisses in the grass. Heads bob to rhythms, and kids run and scream tirelessly while the grownups chuckle at their cuteness or scold them for reckless behavior.
Gallery 992, a gathering spot for musicians to perform and jam with each other, allows artists to experiment with playing others’ styles and fine-tune their abilities in a laid back environment. Williams also organizes the nonprofit and corresponding festival, Music in the Park, which gives music students a chance to play with professionals in free outdoor concerts. The annual festival offers live entertainment to local residents who may otherwise not be able to access musical programming. Music in the Park drew tens of thousands of residents—from West End and elsewhere—through its own programming and partnerships with events like Atlanta Streets Alive, which blocks off the streets for an afternoon to draw attention to alternate transportation modes.
The irony is not lost on Williams, who recalls how the neighborhood was culturally and economically devastated by the crack cocaine epidemic and the 2008 recession, when West End’s felt the disproportionate impact of mortgage fraud. In fact, it was the way that drugs and predatory economic practices impacted the neighborhood that inspired Williams to develop a space for people to focus on the arts. He wanted it to represent the diverse communities that make up West End: the dreamers and thinkers, vegans and yogis, Orthodox Christians, Muslims, Hebrew Israelites, 5 Percenters, and Rastafarians.
“That’s one of the fears I have, is that gentrifiers won’t see the spirituality,” Williams says. “They’ll just bulldoze over it, and they will just have bars [that are] not necessarily culturally unique. I think that is a strength of the West End: It is culturally diverse and powerful.”
In contrast, Williams sees Gallery 992 as a spiritual space for artists and art lovers alike. He considers music to be his religion. Like any revered house of worship, Gallery 992—and the community it has created in West End—is worth saving. Even if it means adapting to the new rules of the pandemic.
— Naya Clark
A timeline of Gallery 992
2010: After Afrikan Djeli Cultural Center moved from its vibrant, two-story spot on Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard, Kebbi Williams became one of West End’s cultural stewards, especially for live music. Without a reliable venue, Williams and his friends performed pop-up gigs all over Atlanta but were firmly based in West End.
2011: Kebbi Williams formed a nonprofit and established a world-music festival in Howell Park, Music in the Park.
2014: West End’s Cultural Capital underground scene got “daylighted” at the Atlanta Streets Alive West End route.
2016: Kebbi Williams opened Gallery 992 as an art gallery, year-round arts education facility, and event space.
2018: Music in the Park put on an open streets event with the Atlanta Streets Alive organizers. The event included a 70-piece jazz orchestra.
2020: COVID-19 shuttered all the neighborhood’s arts venues. Gallery 992 became the first art venue to open back up July 1 for Jazz Jams in the lot next to Gallery 992.