It can all disappear so quickly. A dream, an ideal, a vital thread in the fabric of the community. If the last few years have taught us anything it’s that there’s no institution too sacred to bulldoze into memory. We’re a city long on money and short on longterm vision where arts and cultural organizations are championed by the communities they serve, and routinely overlooked by government and private investors. On a positive note, Mayor Reed’s proposed fractional tax for art could bring welcome relief and much-needed funding for many of the city’s small- to mid-sized arts groups, but details have yet to emerge. Meanwhile, development continues nearly unchecked while state arts funding remains on the bottom rung (48th overall) nationally.
Which leads us to the Mammal Gallery. Since opening their doors to the public in September of 2013, the venue, located on South Broad Street in the heart of Downtown Atlanta, has become a vital hub for DIY music, art, camaraderie, and creative collaboration. The three-story space, previously an abandoned nightclub, has hosted countless bands, gallery shows, film screenings, open mic nights, performance pieces, art installations, and just about everything in between. With its downstairs music stage and dance floor, upstairs galleries, and studios available for rent, Mammal has become an incubator for all manner of emerging artists and creative visionaries, dedicated to providing opportunities, and more importantly, a safe and welcoming space, for projects and ideas that oftentimes run counter to Atlanta’s traditional club, arts, and music scenes.
The goal all along has been to help revitalize a once downtrodden area and to work in tandem with neighborhood organizations to help create and foster a renewed sense of community. To use music, art, and performance to challenge preconceptions and entice people to visit Downtown so they can witness firsthand the area’s considerable potential. Through a combination of tireless work and innovative programming, Mammal Gallery has emerged as an anchor for a budding arts district that now includes like-minded spaces Murmur, Downtown Players Club, and Broad Street Visitors Center, as well as pioneering arts and performance venue Eyedrum, located just around the corner on Forsyth Street.
But despite its considerable success and laudable community activism, Mammal Gallery now finds itself at a critical crossroads. Over the last several months, Newport Holdings, a German real estate invest group, has purchased not only the building that houses Mammal, but the entire neighborhood. It has been a whirlwind transition that has caught many in the area off-guard and searching for answers.
“In the next couple of months [Newport] will own every building that every arts organization is in down here as well as the surrounding buildings — they’re even building the huge parking deck behind us,” says Chris Yonker, who, along with friends and colleagues Brian Egan and Dan Dewberry, founded Mammal Gallery. “They’re a big company that can move quickly, that can throw the type of money at people that gets things to go through… It’s kind of crazy how quickly it’s happened.”
Still, these new developments didn’t arrive without warning. Originally, WRS Real Estate Investments, who are currently spearheading redevelopment efforts in Underground Atlanta, showed a keen interest in purchasing the building. It was a move which effectively derailed Yonker and his partners’ own attempts to secure 91 South Broad Street for themselves and rendered their carefully laid business plans useless.
“There was a point where we were planning on buying the building” Yonker explains. “We had shit lined up with a bank and we were going to start paying on the mortgage. But then the developer came in and offered three times the amount we were offering. So we got sunk hard. Paying a mortgage was going to be half our rent. We were setting up our business model based on that, but it got ripped out from underneath us. It was very discouraging. We all felt like were going to shut this place down. At least with the mortgage we could feel like we were working towards something rather than working for little profit to make money for some developer. So we were like, ‘Fuck this! Let’s shut it down; we had a good run.'”
The longer they considered it, however, the more the trio felt they had a responsibility to the neighborhood to continue their efforts. In its relatively short run, Mammal Gallery had evolved into something bigger than any of them, and as Newport began to snatch up all the surrounding properties, their sense of obligation only hardened. As the street’s most established organization, responsible for drawing the greatest amount of people to the area, shutting down would drastically alter the story of the neighborhood and slow — or perhaps even kill — the district’s burgeoning momentum. In the end, they didn’t want to be the catalyst that caused the neighborhood to sink or fail.
So they, along with the other neighborhood arts groups, started planning and organizing. Together they began to brainstorm creative solutions on how to develop into the vision they all shared as a vibrant, inclusive, community-oriented arts district. Soon the newfound coalition discovered their collective voice held weight within the city planner’s office and some degree of political clout. Eventually the group found themselves pitching progressive, creative ways to organically grow their district to mayoral candidates and local officials.
“We started realizing what a massive amount of resources we all hold as a team,” Yonker explains. “It made us get into a room and start navigating through all the issues. How can we prepare for the wave that’s to come? What are some creative ways the city can incentivize Newport to leave us alone and let us grow with the neighborhood rather than getting to the point where it’s nice and pleasant to be here, and then they kick us out. Because that always happens… This arts coalition is really a conduit between the arts organizations and the city. The disconnect always occurs with the city who have money or ways to help, but that line of communication can be difficult to navigate. The city has a bunch of stuff on their plate, so the way you need to approach them is to package something up in a neat little package and put it into their lap so that all they have to do is say yes, because it’s a good idea. That’s the hard part… But then you can start getting funding and incentives for a neighborhood to thrive. This arts coalition serves that purpose — to package up ideas into actionable items. Ideas are never the roadblock, money is.”
But before Mammal Gallery can move forward, they first need to secure their future. And while there is considerable work to be done, Yonker and company remain cautiously optimistic. As one of the last buildings to be secured by Newport, they’ve been able to observe the firm’s dealings with the other arts organizations and make some critical assessments. For the most part, their research has yielded positive findings. While they may not know Newport’s longterm plans, they have been encouraged by the firm’s apparent openness to dialogue and willingness to incorporate existing building and businesses into their vision.
“They care about architecture and old buildings,” says Yonker. “They generally specialize in shopping districts and things of that nature, and it seems that part of their ideology of what they do is they try to create a sustainable ecosystem in a neighborhood and have a lot of different things happening — a diverse neighborhood where all the byproducts of everything work together to create a framework for it all to exist. So they are not the worst thing as far as development companies go. And we hope we can get in with them well and make some cool things happen for the neighborhood rather than the neighborhood get extinguished.”
So now we’ve reached the rub, as it were. With Newport scheduled to take over in April, the future of Mammal Gallery remains definitively cloudy. Assuming the two parties are able to come to agreeable terms for rent, the building still requires considerable work to be brought to code, including much-needed repairs to the sprinkler system. Although as landlords Newport would be responsible for the costs and the labor, the work would force the space to shut down temporarily, leaving Mammal Gallery without any means of generating income. This would place the business on a path towards unsustainable debt that would have the de facto effect of forcing Yonker and his partners out of business.
As such, they have decided to launch a fundraiser in the hopes of securing the funds they need to not only survive the transition, but to also set the business up in such a way that it can become profitable and self-sustaining. This transition will include significant changes to the both the structure of the building and to the way Mammal Gallery operates. These adjustments include creating a retail space — perhaps a restaurant or record store — in the front of the building that can create an additional source of revenue and provide a reason for people to visit the neighborhood during the slow and sleepy daytime hours. In addition, they want to make booking (shows make up the vast percentage of Mammal’s revenue) a permanent paid position, a decision Yonker believes will lead to better, more organized shows that will generate more money and draw more interest to the area.
But before any of this can happen, a substantial amount of cash will need to be raised — somewhere in the neighborhood of $65,000-$70,0000, a number based on one year of operating costs.
“We need to go into these negotiations with a bit of cushion to make sure that we pop up on the other side and can still exist,” says Yonker. “Because if we have stop doing any sort of programming, if we need to stop doing shows, we’ll go into debt and we will shut down. We can’t personally take on more debt than we already have. We’ve basically been volunteers for three years. The only money I make is when I work a shift here like everybody else. Pretty much everything we do here is because we love doing it and we want to see something like this exist in the city. So a lot of this cushion, what it would do, and the reason we’re asking for this money, is to be able to take a step back and reformat our whole business model, fix all the things that need to be fixed, and have the time to do those things properly. We need to be able to dedicate ourselves to setup Mammal in such a way that it can exist for a much longer period of time. The way we operate now, with the amount of rent that we have to pay, and the bills we need to keep this place open, we barely make a profit… If we put all our resources into just skimming above debt or even going into debt, it’s not going to help us — it’s just going to put us farther into a hole.”
While there will be some benefit shows announced in the near future, the bulk of the fundraising will occur online. To help raise the funds, Mammal Gallery is using Tilt, a much more straightforward platform then Kickstarter or GoFundMe. There are no prizes to purchase or giveaways to incentivize people to donate. “The incentive is having Mammal exist,” Yonker says with a laugh. “This is out of necessity. We will not exist if we do not raise this money.”
As a community we speak loudly about the negative effects of rampant development on our neighborhoods and cultural institutions. We rail on social media about the increased whitewashing and suburbanization of our urban core. But in the real world talk is cheap and rent costs money — a lot of it. If we want vital organizations such as Mammal Gallery to continue to exist, if we want Atlanta to have the arts district it needs and deserves, we cannot expect the government or private investors to do the heavy lifting. It’s up to each and every one of us to play whatever part we can, to scrimp and save every dollar we can afford. Without Mammal Gallery as an anchor, it’s much easier for the ideal of an arts district to be set adrift, for the dream to disappear within the murky currents of time. And man, ain’t that dream grand and worth preserving!
“There isn’t another neighborhood like this in the city,” Yonker says. “This is the only spot that is sort of a dense little arts district. You have a high density of galleries in Castleberry and you have some venues in East Atlanta, but not something powerful and beautiful like this. We realized we would be doing a whole lot of bad by giving up. So we wanted to give it a really good try. So you know, even if a year from now or two years from, we feel like we can’t do it ourselves anymore, there is a framework to continue, to keep the spirit alive of this place… We want to see the community grow in the way it has been, in a natural way so it turns into a beautiful quilt with all these things woven into it. This place has a really special feeling to it; we want to be around to help restore it.”