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Road Trip: 3 Art Outposts Paint a New Picture of the South

Discover the thriving art scene in these out-of-the-way cities and towns in Alabama, Arkansas and Texas

By Sophia Dembling | July 13, 2012
Contributor Photo

Sophia Dembling is a freelance writer who specializes in travel stories.

artist alison saar with her
Artist Alison Saar with her "Memory Project" installation
Photo by Sophia Dembling
If you're an artist, New York City and Los Angeles are great cities. The problem, of course, is they're so expensive that only the exceptionally gifted and lucky can choose making art over making a living.

Life is definitely easier in the South, where all kinds of artists — from painters and sculptors to visual artists and musicians — are colonizing small cities and towns the way previous generations transformed New York's SoHo district. By injecting energy and vibrancy into once-moribund locales, creative types are helping to redefine communities — and lift the local economy.

Throughout America, tiny municipalities and rural outposts are increasingly recogniziing the arts as an economic engine and they're actively engaged in attracting artists to take up residence and open galleries.

Here’s a look at three unexpected art destinations in the South that I recently discovered and fell in love with.
 
Mobile, Ala.

I’m sitting in a large warehouse space surrounded by a kaleidoscope of moving images projected on all four walls and set to music. The full-immersion experience feels like entering someone else’s brain — specifically that of its creator, French artist Xavier de Richemont, who does large-scale video installations for monuments and outdoor sites.

This installation, his first in the United States, is titled "Hokushima," and it features video and narrative that represent centuries of Japanese history and memory. Fittingly, it's part of The Memory Project, a multimedia program that will run through December at the Center for the Living Arts, a nonprofit contemporary arts center in downtown Mobile.
 
The Memory Project introduces the vision of the center’s new executive director, Robert Sain, who is stylishly bald and looks more Southern California than Alabama in his thick, black Philip Johnson-style eyeglasses. Sain’s prestigious resume includes stints with the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and L.A.'s  Museum of Contemporary Art. Sain moved to this 300-year-old Gulf city in March 2011 to take the reins at the art center. The Memory Project is his first large program since coming to town, involving local, regional, national and international artists in all disciplines.

"I saw an extraordinary opportunity here to develop an amazing contemporary art center," Sain says. "Mobile is small enough to get it done and big enough to matter. Our fundamental mission is to be a platform to connect Mobile to the world. We want to engage Mobile in things that matter, and that includes global talent and people down the street."

Although derelict buildings still outnumber the restored structures downtown, plenty of artists have already colonized the area with studios and galleries. The nonprofit Downtown Mobile Alliance hired Artspace, a nonprofit real estate developer that finds affordable property for the arts and artists, to identify buildings that can be renovated in the city’s elegant but neglected historic district.
 
During a gallery walk, held the second Friday of every month, I visited the Robertson Gallery, which exhibits the sleek contemporary canvases of owner/artist Brad Robertson and other artists; the Host Gallery, which offers contemporary works by regional artists in oil and acrylic, as well as pottery and hand-crafted furniture; and the Kangal Gallery in the Sail Loft, which represents 23 local artists working in a variety of mediums, including wood, glass and metal.

"Mobile is not quite a destination location yet," says Susan Kangal, the gallery's owner and director. "But we're hoping it will be."
 
Hot Springs, Ark.

The once-opulent old bathhouses in Hot Springs National Park have been mere shells for decades. The doors were kept locked, so the only thing visitors could do was press their faces against the glass and try to peer past the gloom. (One notable exception: the Buckstaff, which has been continually functioning as a bathhouse since 1912.)
 
But a few years ago the shuttered bathhouses entered the National Park Services’ historic leasing program. The park service secures the building’s infrastructure (plumbing, electricity, etc.), then leases the buildings to carefully vetted businesses and organizations, which pay for further renovations and restoration.
 
In 2009, the Museum of Contemporary Art opened in the 1922 Ozark Bathhouse. The art here is gentle and contemporary — mostly figurative, not too edgy. “A lot of our tourists think we’re going to be very Mod Squad, but we’re not,” executive director Lori Arnold says.
 
I particularly liked a collection of photographs by the late Depression-era Arkansas portrait photographer Disfarmer (née Mike Disfarmer). A gallery walk the first Friday of every month is a good opportunity to visit the museum and about a dozen other exhibition spaces and artists’ studios along Central Avenue, the town’s main drag.
 
Music is coming to Hot Springs, too. The 1892 Hale Bathhouse was recently leased to the Muses Creative Artistry Project, a new, local organization focusing on classical arts. The organization already operates the 3 Arts Café and Bookstore in the Hale’s lobby.
 
Further renovations at the Hale include plans for performance spaces. The Muses' programming is hosted in various locations, including the lovely Anthony Chapel nestled among the pines of Garvan Gardens.
 
On Sept. 22, the organization’s annual gala will feature a full staging of Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte at the Hot Springs Convention Center. Previous galas were held in Little Rock, the state capital, because nobody thought people in Hot Springs would come out for an opera. But last year’s sold-out performance of The Magic Flute at the Arlington Resort Hotel and Spa proved the town was primed for the classical arts — and it needed a bigger venue.
 
 “The community has been very supportive,” says Deleen Davidson, founder of the Muses. “We plan to begin restoration of the Hale Bathhouse as soon as possible.”
 
Marfa, Texas

It's not easy to get to Marfa. The West Texas border town is a long, dusty 200-mile drive from the nearest major airport in Midland/Odessa. And the town reveals itself slowly. At first glance, it appears desolate and still, except for the U.S. and Texas flags flapping in front of the 1886 Presidio County courthouse.
 
But when the minimalist artist, writer and sculptor Donald Judd bought a house in Marfa in the 1970s, he started the town's transformation from a tiny, dusty outpost to — well, a tiny, dusty outpost for contemporary art. He also bought a decommissioned Army base filled with huge artillery sheds that he turned over for the work of other artists. Today, artists and galleries are tucked into the quiet streets and surrounding desert.
 
In the desert outside the Chinati Foundation, about 100 of Judd’s large-scale sculptures attract thousands annually, especially during annual Chinati Weekend (Oct. 5-7). The New York-based Judd Foundation works to maintain and preserve his Marfa works.
 
These festive weekends have introduced all kinds of artists to Marfa. Some of them end up staying, including Dennis Dickinson, a former Californian. He moved to town in 2003 and opened Exhibitions 2D, which features rotating exhibits of minimal and reductive sculpture and drawings. “The minute I came here I thought it was heaven,” he says.

Ree Willaford also moved her contemporary Galleri Urbane here from Silver City, N.M., after a few Chinati weekends. (She later opened another Galleri Urbane in Dallas.)
 
All contemporary arts are represented at Ballroom Marfa, which has a full calendar of visual art shows, with emphasis on emerging artists. The nonprofit space has presented everyone from filmmaker John Waters to indie recording artist Feist.
 
Artists have gentrified this outlaw town. Today, Marfa homes are turning up in the pages of such design magazines as Dwell. The first Marfa Architecture + Design Weekend (Nov. 2-4) will include house tours and symposiums on Marfa style.

Thanks to artists, Marfa has definitely arrived. Of course, if the town continues to prosper, it may soon be too expensive for artists.

Time will tell where they end up next.