Tucked on a street off the vibrant main Little Five plaza, the Little Five Points Community Center is an old school building housing different Atlanta organizations — among them, ART PAPERS, the oldest non-profit contemporary art magazine in the U.S. As I walk in, music emanates from a classroom labeled with the sign “Manga African Dance Company.” Making my way upstairs, I pass by the Atlanta Jugglers Association and the Marching Abominables and see an arrow pointing towards the Horizon Theatre. This place is culturally alive.
Upstairs, I find the ART PAPERS office and a smiling Saskia Benjamin (ART PAPERS executive director) at its entrance. The sunny production room houses countless magazines published in prior years, papers with notes and computers. Its large windows frame an old oak: I can see how this environment stimulates quality content production.
According to its website, ART PAPERS, an Atlanta-based nonprofit organization, exists to provide an accessible forum for examining, discussing, and documenting a full spectrum of contemporary art and culture and the ways these affect and reflect our lives.
ART PAPERS was founded during the heyday of the National Endowment for the Arts in 1976 by artists who felt isolated from the larger, worldwide discourse about art.
“What’s exciting about it is that we have a voice from the south, but it’s a global voice,” explains Saskia. “Because we’re from Atlanta, which is not considered a cultural capital, we’re really conscious that there’s really interesting work being done outside of cultural capitals. We’re looking at interesting artists and shows in small towns all over the globe.”
Saskia is telling me the magazine is in the midst of switching to a quarterly system (it was previously produced six times a year). “We’re super excited about it. It enables us to have the content and the design be more in lock-step with each other. For a while, it was all formulaic, but we can now highlight both. We’ll also have more time for live programming and our new website. We’re a full-time staff of two with one other part-time person, and we do a lot.”
How did Saskia come to lead such an important arts outlet?
“I wasn’t originally planning to get into publishing, but I’ve been here for five years now,” she explains. “I’m able to use my background in city planning and along with Victoria [Camblin, editor and artistic director], we are looking at how art and culture informs city planning or is informed by that. We’re covering art and transportation, art and architecture, art and the natural environment. It’s part of our mission and passion to demonstrate how art and culture is vital for any vibrant city.”
The winding road that led her to ART PAPERS started in her hometown, Little Rock, Arkansas. There, Saskia was always surrounded by art, her dad being an art historian who would take the family to Europe for visits to famous museums. Her Dutch mom, a biochemist, teacher and lawyer, ran an arts program for Little Rock’s City Hall. Saskia studied art history, like her father, and developed a penchant for trying new things, like her mother.
Emory felt like home from the first visit. “It was a great fit,” Saskia remembers. “I studied ancient art history, Roman art, with a co-major in Latin and a minor in dance. The dance community at Emory was my home away from home.”
After college, she worked at the High Museum of Art on several Olympic exhibitions. She then went to the University of Southern California to get her Ph.D. There, she taught dance and continued to study Roman art, just to realize she didn’t want to become a specialist in Roman sarcophagi at 26. She came back to Atlanta to work at the High Museum, where she stayed for seven years in various positions across the institution. Soon after the Midtown Alliance created a blueprint for the midtown area that included the arts, Saskia realized she wanted to pursue a masters in city planning. She got accepted into the Georgia Tech program where she wrote her thesis as a city infrastructure plan that took the arts into account.
Soon after graduating, she took a job with the Georgia Conservancy to create environmentally sound planning solutions for communities that couldn’t afford to hire large planning firms. She then worked for the Atlanta Contemporary as their Director of Institutional Advancement where she was involved in fundraising. That job prepared her for her current position, which “is never dull.”
As executive director, Saskia is in charge of fundraising, organizational management —everything from budgeting to staff management— marketing outreach and advertising sales. She also manages special events such as the ART PAPERS annual auction happening every February.
“It’s a behemoth of an event,” Saskia explains. “It has 230-250 artists, each donating a piece for the event. Last year we had more than 1,100 people attend. It’s a lot of planning and coordination but it generates us a lot of money. However, we give back to the artists in the form of commissions — last year we gave $41,000 worth,” she says.
She credits Emory for many of the skills she uses in her job. At Emory, she learned how to make a case for an argument, how to be a strong writer and how to tell stories while being passionate about people and content. She underlines the importance of not only being a good student at Emory, but also being a good student of the city. “I encourage people to get off campus and really experience the city. Go see the arts, participate and lend a voice, lend a hand.”
She encourages students to intern in general, and to intern at ART PAPERS, in particular. “We often have features or stories with research components, and we assign those to our interns and they get a by-line. It’s a great way to start fostering the next generation of voices. We need that. We want to encourage people to see and be able to express what they have seen in a way that has relevance to others.”
She calls herself a believer in the value of arts and culture. “There’s such a fear of jobs being automated. There are jobs that can’t be automated, that won’t be automated — those are the ones that are truly creative. People who have liberal arts degrees, who have been thought to think and write efficiently, they will become people who will be highly sought after in corporate America, as we need to think about new ways of doing things.”
Saskia’s goal in life is to leave things better than she found them. She strives to be a good steward and to bring creativity to new situations. As a problem-solver, she is constantly looking for solutions.
Hence, her schedule outside of work is full. She is involved with The Beltline Tax Allocation District Advisory Committee (TADAC), an official citizen-run organization created through the City Council. Saskia works in the Arts and Culture branch of TADAC and she is excited to collaborate with passionate people who dedicate their time and knowledge to a project outside of their regular jobs. “We deal with things like affordable housing. The city is facing a lot of issues around affordability, and that affects the arts as well. We are losing a lot of artists because they can’t afford to live here anymore.”
Saskia is also on the steering committee for The United Arts Front, a group created in 2016 and comprised of dedicated individuals from a variety of organizations around town — dance organizations, hip-hop studios, museums, and galleries, among others.
“Our mission is to find a sustainable funding source for the arts in the city. For a city of our size, we have a very small number of non-profits that would be considered ‘major’, with budgets of over $1 million. There’s a lot of organizations, like ART PAPERS, that are in the $500,000 range or smaller, and it’s a struggle. For as many Fortune 500 companies as we have, for as many educational institutions— it’s a shame that the arts aren’t supported more.
“We decided that instead of saying ‘woe on us’, we are taking a more empowered stance. Here we are, we have a voice, we can help you with issues that you have, we have talent, we have access to communities. Let’s work together to find a solution to all these issues.”
Saskia underlines the importance of saving time for her family. She has a six-year old little boy who wants to become “a rich and well-known artist,” a decision at least partly influenced by having two artist parents. “I tell him, ‘if you can figure that one out, good for you,’ [laughing]. He loves to go to the studio with his dad and he makes art when he’s there. It’s nice to pass the skill on, he’s growing up in the arts.”
In Saskia’s final remarks to me, she looks at the Atlanta arts scene as a whole. “The arts and the city are in an interesting point right now. I think the Atlanta arts scene has always had an inferiority complex — we aren’t New York. Well, we can’t ever be New York, geographically and structurally. We can be an Atlanta, and be the best Atlanta we can be. Back to the issue of affordability, artists can’t afford to be in New York and Atlanta can really take advantage of that in really significant ways.”
Looking at the city’s successes in the film and hip-hop industries, we could say that Atlanta has a good shot at an artistic blossoming on a larger scale. “Those two industries are examples of things that have thrived here. The arts is a lens through which we can both understand the world around us and overcome cultural differences, but it’s also a tool that a city can use for redevelopment or to create vibrancy.”
By Loli Lucaciu