The Contemporary’s gift shop is curated by Lynne Tanzer. (Photos by Isadora Pennington)

“Changing the way we all see art.” This phrase, painted in repeat on the steps in front of the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center in West Midtown, embodies what this non-profit, non-collecting arts institution hopes to achieve in Atlanta.

Unlike many arts organizations in the city, there is never an entry fee to visit the art center, and parking is free on the street and in two adjacent lots, so cost is not an inhibition for art lovers across demographics. 

Founded by a group of photographers in 1973, the organization was initially housed in an elementary school in 1976, later relocating to its current home – a converted warehouse on Means Street – in 1987. Nexus, formally a store-front gallery, offered studio space as well as the Nexus Press, which produced arts publications. In 2000 Nexus rebranded as the Atlanta Contemporary Arts Center, locally known as The Contemporary, and the organization has since played a central role in the Atlanta art scene as well as the foundation of the Westside Arts District. 

The Contemporary debuted its fall exhibition and the shop’s makeover earlier this month. Remnants of Nexus Press can still be seen in the gift shop, with some tables and structural elements pulled from storage as well as rare and hard-to-find arts publications for sale on the shelves there. The shop, helmed by local arts phenom Lynne Tanzer, has been refreshed with aesthetic changes that more accurately represent the clientele. Tanzer has poured her love for the Atlanta artist network into a carefully curated selection of goods that offer something for everyone, at every price point between a few dollars up to around $200. 

At the center of the shop stands a hefty pink table with carved wooden sides that appear to drip down towards the floor. The word ‘Shop’ is painted as if in neon lights across the back wall. Light from an expanse of windows that overlook the courtyard filters in, illuminating a mirror that’s flanked by two- and three-dimensional arches on the far wall. It is the perfect selfie moment. When you get up close, a message on the mirror reads “Baby, you’re not just a work of art, you’re a god-damned masterpiece.”

“I wanted the shop to feel like a hug,” said Tanzer. “The Contemporary is full of serious subject matter, but, as Executive Director Veronica Kessenich reminded us the other day, ‘people come here on their days off.’ They come to us for respite, entertainment, inspiration. I wanted the shop to make people feel held and happy.”

Tanzer has been curating art shows in Atlanta for nearly a decade and has a long list of artist friends, some of whom have pieces for sale in the shop now. Her CV includes partnerships with Indie Craft Experience, Tiny Doors ATL, Living Walls, and even a stint working as Interim Executive Director of Arts ATL.

“I am excited to be able to bring in new makers each quarter,” Tanzer explained. “I’m interested to see what sells well so I can find more of these items. I’m sure I’ll find a theme each time, even if it’s not necessarily noticeable to the patron. This time around I wanted to flip the statistics of gender in a museum around. Women are drastically underrepresented in museums, so 90% of the items in the shop were made by a woman.”

A few notable offerings in the shop include a debut collection of knitted pillows and blankets by Molly Rose Freeman, an exclusive selection of Paige Harwell’s Drainbowland cult cherry earrings in The Contemporary’s pink and purple colorways, an assortment of greeting cards featuring POC by Ariel Young of Copper and Brass Paper Goods, and zero waste artist shrugs by Megan Ilene. Understanding her audience and the demographics of Contemporary’s patrons led Tanzer to be very intentional in the stocking of the shop. Knowing that the audience consists of 56% BIPOC and 76% female, Tanzer says “it was important to me to carry items that make our visitors feel seen, heard and welcome.”

As for what’s currently on display in The Contemporary’s gallery space, Tanzer says her can’t-miss recommendation is Lucinda Bunnen’s photography exhibition titled “Inward, Outward Forward” curated by Allison Grant. Bunnen, now 91, has been the subject of eight books and is a celebrated photographer and arts philanthropist. Tanzer’s impression of her works are that the photographs “feel like scattered journal pages from a rich and vibrant life.”

Personally, I was particularly moved by #ChingaLaMigra, a powerful work by DACAmented artist, activist, public speaker, and entrepreneur Yehimi Cambrón. The installation features 1,966 monarch butterflies pinned and hanging in the Contemporary’s ‘Sliver Space,’ a small slice of confined exhibition space tucked behind a wall. The experience is both beautiful and, when you pause to listen, heartbreaking. Those 1,966 butterflies represent the capacity of the Georgia’s Stewart Detention Center (SDC), one of the largest and busiest immigration detention centers in the country. Voices ring out from behind a partition, telling their stories of how families and spirits have been broken by the experience of being held at SDC. 

The Contemporary strikes a fine balance between the heaviness of the subject matter on display in the galleries and the lighthearted and joyous offerings in the shop. Visitors can be both challenged to contemplate serious topics such as slavery, racism, the prison industrial complex, our own personal histories and all the beauty and trauma that they may include, and also find affirming and empowering gifts for themselves and their loved ones in the shop. “It’s truly special,” said Tanzer. 

Isadora Pennington

Isadora Pennington is a freelance writer and photographer based in Atlanta. She is the editor of Sketchbook by Rough Draft, a weekly Arts newsletter.