Art Farm in peril
Boho gallery, studios and theater could be razed for condos
Published 01.01.04
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Jim Stawniak

DON'T BET THE FARM: Dennis Coburn, founder of Reynoldstown's Art Farm, will likely lose his theater and gallery to condos.In the yard of the old Johnson Motor Transport building, constructed in 1947 and left vacant for years, there now sit found objects -- a rusted-shut safe, forever-locked gears, steel drums painted turquoise and cherry and planted with bamboo -- in perfect artistic unity.
Four years ago, artist Dennis Coburn rented the 10,000-square-foot abandoned warehouse and its 1.6-acre lot and began reforming it as a bohemian gallery and theater space. The semi-finished product, Art Farm, emanates a sweet Southern shabbiness. Its 13 resident painters and theater groups evoke the work of such artists as Chan Marshall, the siren of indie band CatPower, and the late Panorama Ray, folk art extraordinaire, both of whom came of age a few streets away in the tight knit, scuffed up Cabbagetown community.
"Art Farm is kind of a relic, a dinosaur in Atlanta," says Andrew Lovell, who for a year has rented an under-priced $250 studio, where he paints with a palate of metal powders and resins in the hues of oxidation and rust. "I think there's kind of an aesthetic down here. It's the beauty of decay."
But what's nostalgically inspiring about Art Farm and its community history might soon become just plain nostalgic.
Three different condominium developments have sprung up around Art Farm in the past year and a half, and the encroachment is far from finished. The group that developed MillTown Lofts, a series of brand new brick buildings reminiscent of a movie set and bordering Art Farm to the west, is looking to annex Art Farm, raze the structure and build more condos.
Art Farm's landlord, Selig Enterprises, is attempting to get the property rezoned from industrial to commercial, according to documents on file at Atlanta City Hall. According to Coburn, Selig is trying to sell the property to MillTown developer Ultima Holdings. Ultima itself had filed a similar rezoning request in 2000 to build the MillTown Lofts, and the City Council approved that request.
The rezoning application for Art Farm is scheduled to go before the city's zoning review board Jan. 8 and on to the council in February. But the application will likely be stalled so that it can be reviewed first by neighborhood groups, which is the norm, according to Bureau of Planning employee Nyna Gentry.
Coburn says he feels slighted by his landlord, who didn't bother telling him that the property was being sold right out from under him. In fact, Coburn says, it was residents of MillTown Lofts who broke the bad news to him.
"I called [my landlord] and he said, 'Well, why would I notify you?'" Coburn claims. "'The deal hasn't been closed yet.'"
A woman who answered the phone at Selig said no one at the company could comment on the sale.
Despite having signed a five-year lease last year, Coburn can be evicted because his lease permits the property owner to sell the building for redevelopment. The fact that Coburn has spent close to $150,000 renovating the property -- and that his rent had been raised a year ago from $2,500 to $3,700 -- matters not.
That's a grave disappointment given both the amount of work Coburn put into reviving Art Farm and his recent struggle to make its hiked-up rent payments. Coburn recently built a second theater on the grounds, with 40 seats compared to the main theater's 80, and has been recruiting new plays.
Coburn says he's booked plays through September in order to make pay the rent. He also says he's afraid that Art Farm won't be open long enough to honor those commitments.
"It's a real struggle now I think between development and arts," Coburn says. "And somebody's going to ask the hard questions, like, what kind of development do you want? What kind of city do you want? Otherwise, everyone's going to be driven out to where, Stone Mountain?"
Taking a break from working on the skeleton of a painting, artist Lovell was equally pessimistic.
"It will be really sad to see it go," he says of Art Farm. "I think all you can do is stall those money machines. You can't stop them."