Inside of the former Jere A. Wells Elementary School in East Point, Georgia–just southwest of Atlanta–piles of sawdust sprinkled the floors. Workers standing atop ladders and passing through the halls called sweet greetings to my tour guide.
“Hello, Mrs. Alice!” smiled one.
“There’s the lady in charge!” said another.
Lovelace, a poet, essayist, playwright, and longtime teaching artist who exudes charismatic energy, was showing me around the new home of the ArtsXchange. She co-founded the organization (originally called the Arts Exchange), along with the late poet and activist Ebon Dooley, 35 years ago.
“Ebon and I were both from the schools of art for art’s sake, and art for the people’s sake,” Lovelace said.
“We always viewed art as an integral component of culture, and of the struggle for social and economic justice. Art can articulate these issues and allow us to unpack and simplify what they mean.”
Together, they shaped the Arts Exchange into a grassroots institution that supported generations of artists while making art accessible to marginalized communities.
Now, the organization is undergoing a revival that Lovelace launched in September with a fundraiser and the first annual Ebon Dooley Arts & Justice Awards ceremony, memorializing her co-founder, who died in 2006.
On a Saturday evening, a crowd of people dressed in vibrant African prints, flowing summer dresses, and quirky suits in striking colors enjoyed a live jazz band and art installations in the lead up to the awards ceremony.
Recipients included Sistagraphy, a 25-year-old collective of Black women photographers whose founder, Sheila Turner, passed away last April. Theater artist and activist Bobbie Paul, who founded the anti-nuclear group Georgia Women’s Action for New Directions, received an award, as did Dianne Mathiowetz, who serves on the board of directors of Radio Free Georgia (WRFG) and is involved in many local social justice groups. The youngest award recipient was Tasnim Mosabber, a visual artist who works with South Asian survivors of violence.
“Alice is a visionary for creating the Ebon Dooley Awards,” said Emery Wright, who co-directs Project South, a regional organization dedicated to building grassroots political power.
Wright worked with Dooley at WRFG, a community radio station Dooley co-founded several years before the Arts Exchange. Wright considers him a mentor.
“We have to lift up the leadership that it took to get where we are, and Ebon is a huge part of that. We shouldn’t iconicize leaders, and this event doesn’t do that, because it’s true to his legacy of celebrating others.”
Still Dooley’s story merits telling, as he shaped the politics and culture of Atlanta in innumerable ways.
Born Leo Thomas Hale in 1942, Dooley grew up in the small farming town of Milan in western Tennessee. He dove into higher education as early as he did activism, attending Fisk University on scholarship after 10th grade. There, he was managing editor of the school’s literary magazine and newspaper, where he worked with a freshman reporter named Nikki Giovanni.
Dooley was a servant of his people from early on, with a plan to make change through law. As a Columbia Law student, he attended the first Black Power Conference in Newark in 1967. According to his obituary, he was so moved by the Chicago delegation that he chucked a job offer on Wall Street to become a VISTA legal volunteer in the Windy City.
There he became a major presence in the Chicago arts movement, writing poetry and joining the Organization for Black American Culture (OBAC) Writers Workshop, which published anthologies of its members’ work, aiming to free Black literature from Western restriction. With OBAC, he had the chance to regularly work with Gwendolyn Brooks, one of his biggest influences.
Dooley moved to Atlanta in 1969. “He brought all those experiences to Atlanta and added so much to not only the arts scene, but to cultural and social movement,” Lovelace said.
Dooley took over ownership of Timbuktu New Market of Africa, one of the first Black-owned bookstores in Atlanta. As the community of progressive creatives grew, the bookstore became a hub for them, as well as for activists. It was a perfect tool for connecting people who might not otherwise have met, as Dooley’s work and outreach spanned Atlanta Legal Aid, education, and the earliest days of WRFG.
As one of the community radio station’s early organizers, Dooley was on a mission to bring progressive perspectives to the air. He helped teach a broadcasting class that was available to anyone who wanted to sign up.
“What Ebon really did for me, for all of us, was lift us up—he was just the type of person that made you want to be better,” said Wright, who now sits on WRFG’s board.
As WRFG was getting off the ground, Dooley also had his hands in the local arts realm, establishing the Southern Collective of African American Writers with Toni Cade Bambara, a leading voice in Black feminism and a giant the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s.
Dooley was also involved in starting the Dunbar Center and the Center for Black Arts. Those experiences led him to found the Southeast Community Cultural Center, the precursor to the Arts Exchange, which launched in 1983.
Art as a tool in advancing socio-political causes was always at the forefront of the Arts Exchange mission.
“Ebon understood the proletarian nature of arts—that it speaks to the masses,” Lovelace said. “What he created throughout Atlanta was unique in that it crossed ethnicity, cultures, class.
“You can’t think about the Civil Rights Movement without thinking about the songs, the posters, the sayings, the Panthers and their drawings—all forms of art,” she added. “Atlanta was the right place for artists who had that kind of consciousness.”
“You can’t think about the Civil Rights Movement without thinking about the songs, the posters, the sayings, the Panthers and their drawings—all forms of art.”
That alchemy of art and politics is what drew Lovelace to Atlanta in 1976. She had seen the city’s first Black mayor, Maynard Jackson, on an interview on “The Today Show,” raving about Atlanta and the “New South.”
“My husband and I moved here from St. Louis and fell in love with it,” she said.
Jackson’s arts appreciation showed up in the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, which he established in 1974. Jackson went so far as to assert that “the arts need to be perceived as a necessity for life, particularly for the poor who are given so few options; the arts help give a larger vision of life.”
“That showed us where his priority for arts was, and he supported arts events all the time. It was a boom for the arts scene,” Lovelace said. This also led to more county and state funding for the arts. Plus, there was federal funding available through the National Endowment for the Arts, and programs created by the Nixon administration.
“Being an artist in Atlanta, you had a lot of options to fund yourself,” Lovelace said. “That frees you up to create.”
But things have changed. Funding dried up as President Ronald Reagan shrank federal spending, and many states and localities followed the trend.
In 2017, Georgia ranked 49th in state spending on the arts, at a measly 11 cents per person. In Atlanta, the Department of Cultural Affairs downsized to a bureau, and is now just an office.
Hope floats, though, as the city’s 2019 budget includes an arts budget increase to $2 million from $995,000.
“What people have to realize is that the arts is an industry—not a frill, not an add-on,” Lovelace said. “When companies think about moving or opening new offices, they look at the arts culture in the cities they are considering.”
After all, no city exists without some degree of artistic influence.
“If the city needs a bridge, an artist has to design it. Landscaping. Architecture. Logos. Signs. An artist had to be involved in all of those things,” she said. “So artists aren’t asking for handouts; we deserve to be respected for what we contribute to the city’s bottom line. We generate revenue.”
Georgia’s booming filming industry, for example, shows what can happen when public dollars are invested in the arts.
“We wouldn’t be seeing the level of filmmaking in Georgia if not for a deep infrastructure of the arts that we have here,” she said.
With Lovelace at the helm, and Dooley’s ongoing involvement, the Arts Exchange evolved through the epochs. Now it’s next chapter as the ArtsXchange is beginning.
Joining Lovelace in leading the organization is Ivan Davis, a native Panamanian, musician, and techie with a background in arts administration.
“Even what he’s done so far with our website makes a big difference for us,” Lovelace said. “He’s very talented with the digital side.”
The new building sits on 3.8 acres, boasting 21,000 square feet. It features 13 private studios open for lease to artists of all media; the 120-seat Paul Robeson Theatre with a proscenium stage; the Ebon Dooley Black Box Theatre; the Jack Sinclair Gallery; a dance studio; and two co-working spaces, one for artists and one for small organizations.
“We dream of a sculpture garden and an outdoor children’s theater,” as the former location had, said Lovelace.
“We can’t rush the dream. Everything will happen in its own time.”
Lovelace said the organization plans to host programs that stoke creativity in children.
“It’s not always about teaching children how to draw,” she said. “Art can show a child that there’s more than one or two ways to think about something. It can expand their minds, it can help with other school subjects, and get them to think critically about any aspect of life. We want to reach the children in any way we can.”
On January 10, a ribbon cutting ceremony will mark the opening of the new ArtsXchange and soon artists will move into the studio spaces.
For artists, a studio to develop, amass and store their works, along with the gallery and theater space to showcase their work, are critical to their success.
“That’s what we offer, and our balance of professional and emerging artists is also a benefit to the artists here,”Lovelace said. “We’ve had Guggenheim Fellows in studios right next to self-taught artists—sharing ideas, having conversation, then the next thing you know, collaboration!”