Multi-story murals bring life to drab concrete walls. Contemporary art adorns the walls of office and condominium lobbies. Sculptures accent open courtyards and parks all across town.
Art is everywhere all at once in Atlanta.
It is a far cry from 1958 when the sole art gallery in town was part of the unimproved High Museum of Art. The only other way for artists to get their work to the market was the annual Atlanta Arts Festival in Piedmont Park.
Into this world Judith Alexander returned after spending four years studying art in Philadelphia and New York City, including a short stint “babysitting a gallery.”
Her father was noted attorney Henry Alexander. He helped defend National Pencil Company factory manager Leo Frank in the Mary Phagan rape and murder trial, one of the most consequential criminal cases in Georgia history. Their home, fronted by four two-story columns on Peachtree Road, was on the land that today is Phipps Plaza.
After one of those Piedmont Park festivals, she decided Atlanta needed an independent art gallery. She was just 24 years old.
Her father gave her a rental house he owned in north Buckhead on Peachtree Road, which she transformed into a white-walled New York-style contemporary space.
She christened it the New Arts Gallery.
Alexander brought important artists to Atlanta, including Jackson Pollock. She created a place for local artists to exhibit their works as well, and for dealers and critics to hold discussions and socialize.
The New Arts Gallery became the nexus of the arts community in Atlanta and the region.
Years later Alexander was struck by another bolt of lightning, this time through the Atlanta Historical Society.
Each year, it produced an exhibition of folk art featuring the work of Georgians with no formal training.
Alexander made making these artists known her mission.
In 1978, she opened the Alexander Gallery on East Paces Ferry Road. In the front window was a large wooden sculpture of a watermelon slice — green, pink and inviting.
She marketed the works of people from across the south who were unknown in the art world.
Her favorite by far was Nellie Mae Rowe, a Vinings resident who decorated her yard with found objects, made dolls and drew colorful pictures on scraps of paper with crayons and markers, among other things.
Alexander took her to New York, where she arranged exhibitions.
As a result, Rowe’s works are in major collections across the country, including the Met, the Smithsonian and the Museum of International Folk Art.
In a sense, Alexander was an artist herself. Her medium was the artists. She was passionate about their work and needed the world to value them appropriately.
Coincidently she wasn’t driven by money. She lived modestly between New York and Atlanta until her unexpected death in 2004.
She was clear-eyed when someone asked her about the key players in the art world. Rather than talk about artists, galleries or museums, she spoke about the money — foundations and patrons. They decided who succeeded more than anything.
Perhaps that is what Alexander railed against; a system that rewarded certain artists and ignored those who didn’t fit into predetermined boxes. Alexander saw outsiders as important creators and spent her life raising their profiles any way she could.
The Judith Alexander Foundation continues to support Georgia artists and the legacy of Nellie Mae Rowe. Visit JudithAlexander.org to learn more.
Someone would have picked up the mantle of contemporary art in Atlanta if not for Judith Alexander. But I doubt that same person would champion Southern folk artists as well.
She was a unique spirit, who planted the seed for the galleries and works dotting the landscape today and the national appreciation of folk art.
“My feelings and thoughts for Atlanta have not changed — that it will grow and grow, and that it will become harder and harder to get about, and because of all of this, there will be an increasing need for all the arts, and, in my case, for the visual arts, for sanity,” Alexander once told an interviewer.
The city finally got her message.