In the six months since new hands took the helm at Alabama Contemporary Art Center (ACAC), passage through currently rough waters reveals a wise choice. Dauntless spirit and gallows humor mark the course.
“We went and found the most proto-feminist work we could after we heard the political attack ad. We were really concerned people would come looking for proto-feminist stuff and we didn’t want them to be disappointed,” ACAC Executive Director Elizabet Elliott quipped about their newest exhibits.
The art space at 301 Conti Street, open since 2003, was used to smear a politician for his financial support of their existence. The ad claimed the museum pushed “proto-feminist” work in a spin on, “How could you want a man in office who funds culture?”
Elliott views it as good publicity, a bullhorn for their presence. Same with the controversy over their involvement with the Black Lives Matter chalk mural scrawled on the asphalt outside the front door in mid-June. That effort landed their name in statewide news.
“I think more people are likely to say they didn’t know there was a contemporary art museum downtown than would be offended,” Elliott said.
She sensed a name recognition and identity problem anyway. The building made a big splash when it opened as Space 301, and kept that inertia until about 2015. The name changed from Space 301 to Centre for the Living Arts for a bit, and then it changed again to Alabama Contemporary Art Center. The previous director left, the rotation of exhibits slowed — one remained in place for nearly two years — and public interest waned.
Elliott said she will meet people, locals who have “lived here for decades,” and watch eyes fog over when she utters the name. Some “light up” when she references Space 301.
“Right now, we’re more well known in the community for rentals. More people know this as a place where you can get married than they recognize it as a place to go see art,” Elliott said.
The new director’s remedy is shorter-lived shows. Since arriving at ACAC — first as curator, then as executive director — nine exhibits have rotated through the expansive galleries.
They also want the space to provide an integral role, fill in a gap that’s necessary to cultivate talent. She’s prodding adventurers.
“One of our priorities in our exhibition schedule is we want to provide a space for artists who want to take a divergent path or take risks in their work,” Elliott said. “Commercial galleries aren’t going to be interested in something they can’t sell, and established museums aren’t going to be interested in showing something that isn’t already in the lexicon of acceptable art.”
That’s why they chose to install three new shows in the midst of a pandemic. Their documentation, through photos and videos, can earn those artists exposure.
Of their latest exhibit trio, all the talent is drawn from the region. “Hair City Fair” by the artistic team House Pencil Green, is a multimedia installation built around carnivals as vehicles for both communal ritual and aesthetic influence.
“It’s site-specific with banners and roller skates and other fun stuff. It’s a smaller space, but it’s kind of packed,” Elliott said.
Joseph Herring and Amy Ruddick comprise the creative union. They are West Coast transplants currently at the University of West Florida.
The remaining two shows hit on the cheeky “proto-feminist” statement. Mobilian Colleen Comer’s “A Monstrous Feast” is an exploration of modern motherhood and also a departure for her.
“She has an established and viable landscape-painting practice she’s known for. That other stuff is more commercially driven because she has to make a living,” Elliott said.
Comer employs stylistic departure in the show’s paintings, as well as inflatables like a 23-foot woman, which play with parody.
Valerie George’s “Cheer Me Up, Cheer Me On” is an acerbic multimedia celebration drawn from her battle with breast cancer. The University of West Florida professor weaves disparate elements like 17th century paintings with 1970s body art and late 20th century pop music.
“She shot video of herself as various members of a band doing this very weird Nirvana cover. It’s delightful, really funny, but really sad,” Elliott said.
Entrance is free and safety is easy.
“We have so much space in here, you have to work hard to get within 20 feet of somebody, much less six feet,” Elliott said.
Despite her pluckiness, weariness emerged.
“Remind me never to open three exhibitions at once during a pandemic again,” Elliott muttered, then laughed.
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