I meet Catherine Fox on a sunny Friday afternoon in her home. She is welcoming and smiles warmly, all while apologizing for Sammy, her little dog, who is excited to see a new person in the house.
Catherine is the co-founder of ArtsATL, Atlanta’s most comprehensive digital arts-coverage publication. ArtsATL has been recognized by numerous publications for its role as a resource about Atlanta’s arts and culture, including Creative Loafing‘s reader’s choice awards (2013-2015) and mentions from The New Yorker, Art Journal, New York Times, WABE, Atlanta Magazine, and others. Catherine herself received the 2013 Community Impact Administrator Arts Award from the Emory College Center for Creativity and Arts (CCA).
She was born in Detroit, to a family interested in the arts: her grandmother was involved in Detroit’s music and museum scenes and her sisters wound up working in the applied arts as interior designer and food stylist, respectively. Catherine attended Kingswood School Cranbrook, a K12 institution designed by Eliel Saarinen, a well-known Finnish architect; the school also has a well-known arts academy.
She remembers always knowing that she wanted to study art history. Catherine attended University of Michigan to pursue her longstanding arts interest — she went even further and chose to obtain a master’s degree from the university. She then married and moved to the South where she worked in a few art galleries, gave tours at the High Museum and got a job at Georgia State University in the Art department as the Assistant to the Gallery Director, a position that allowed her to meet many artists.
Catherine considered getting a Ph.D. in Art History so that she could teach and she started the program at Emory with ILA (Institute of the Liberal Arts) but her studies on hold when she found out that she was pregnant.
Just as she returned to GSU after her pregnancy, she got a call from The Constitution (that would later become The Atlanta Journal Constitution or AJC) gauging her interest in joining their team as the art critic, an opportunity that she calls “fortuitous.” She was offered a tryout period and she realized that she found her vocation. “Something just clicked, I liked doing that!,” Catherine recounts.
She likes writing and she appreciated the freedom that art criticism writing offered her, as compared to academic writing. She recounts that at the time, there were two publications, the Journal and the Constitution. The Journal had an art critic, but the Constitution didn’t. She was the first one, and when the two publications merged soon after, she became the art critic for the combined entity — and she did the job for 27 years.
“It was a fabulous education and I had such wonderful experiences. Looking back, I was there during the Golden Age of newspapering, especially as compared to today. I liked the thrill of the newsroom, and the smart and interesting people. I had lots of travel opportunities and I was always learning — which is the thing I love the most,” Catherine says.
“Then things started to go south at the paper. At the time there were nine full-time critics, including me. They started letting some of the people go. I was still there, but it was clear that arts criticism was no longer a priority for them anymore — they wouldn’t even promise that I would keep my position — they might’ve put me into a different one,” she explains.
Her colleague, Pierre Ruhe, was the classical music critic. One day, he told her that they should start their own publication. They both left the AJC in 2009 and immediately started ArtsATL.
“Clearly, I was totally naive about how to run a business, or anything besides how to write a newspaper. At the Constitution I just had to write and oversee a few freelancers — but I didn’t have to worry about paying the bills, editing or hiring writers,” she recounts. “But we bumbled through — Pierre had to bow out after a year or so because he had young children and this was not a money-making proposition. So I took over and built it up to what it is today.”
“This was a start-up and I had to learn new skills,” she explains. “I had to learn about balance sheets and fundraising and grant-writing… It was a very different experience, but very exciting in its own way because I thought we were doing something very important and we were filling a gap that the AJC had left. They have since bulked up their arts reporting, I think in response to us.”
She describes the beginnings of ArtsATL as a “very shoe-string operation”. When they started, nobody earned any money — people wrote because they wanted a platform.
“I am fortunate because I had a supportive husband, so that gave me stability. Digital publications were new, there wasn’t a precedent for ArtsATL, so we were making it up as we went. Louis Corrigan, who is an Atlanta arts lover and arts philanthropist, called Pierre and me one day and said, ‘Here’s a check for $5000.’ That jumpstarted everything, it enabled us to pay people a little bit and to bring on an ad-sales person. It just made everything more possible.”
ArtsATL didn’t have any headquarters, so Catherine and her team worked from their homes and met in coffee shops. She is grateful for the many people who helped them with free services because they believed in the idea behind the organization.
“We then built a board — we were lucky with our board because they were people who were not only interested in the arts, but also deeply involved in the arts and that gave us a whole lot of credibility. The board members had some clout in the community and could influence people to help us, people who might’ve not given us the time of the day. It all just snowballed like that — there were these plateaus and then there were these events that jumped us up: for example, when the Blank Foundation gave us a $50,000 grant for marketing and audience building. That was a huge leap forward for us. Our readership tripled,” she remembers.
In 2016, Catherine retired from running the organization. “I decided it was time for another generation to take it over. Digital anything isn’t my strength, I’m really a print journalist. I think it was important I was there at the beginning because people knew me and I had the credibility. Yet institutions have cycles and I thought the next cycle was upon us,” she confesses.
Catherine recounts that when she decided to leave ArtsATL, she felt burned out. So upon leaving, she took some time off for herself. In the first year, she wrote for ArtsATL, “got serious” about Scrabble, read many novels, travelled, and visited her two grandchildren. “I was retired [laughs].”
Then she realized she wanted to get back to being more involved in the arts community; she recently joined ArtsATL’s board. “I want to see my baby thrive! [laughs].”
In addition, she recently became a member of the Fulton County Arts Council Board — the biggest funder of the arts in the state. “I thought that would be an important place to be, having been on the other side, asking for money. I thought I could bring another perspective there.”
Catherine has been serving on the advisory board of the Kennesaw State Dance Theater. “I really love dance and I respect Ivan Pulinkala, who is the head of KSU Dance.”
She recognizes that she doesn’t want to return to the frenzy of a full-time job. “I don’t want a full-time job anymore, but I want to feel productive and be productive. I always feel good when I do something arts related. I found that I engage with art better when I’m writing about it, so I wanted to get that feeling of engagement back,” she says.
Catherine is so exposed to a variety of arts and artists that I feel compelled to ask her what are some stories that she wrote that stand out to her. “One was when I visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. when it opened. That was such a moving experience and translating that into words for the readers was profound. Another time was when the High [Museum] had a partnership with some Florentine museums — the High funded the restoration of certain iconic works of art that then came here. I was able to go in and watch the conservators work and really dig into that story. That was fascinating,” she remembers.
Fun fact: Catherine has a special penchant for writing obituaries. “I love to get a person’s story. I always found it so rewarding, people are grateful… Part of what ArtsATL does is that it’s an archive of Atlanta — honoring the people who impacted the arts scene is a really important thing to do.”
I ask her about Atlanta’s arts scene and how she sees it improving. “I have to tell you, there was a week when I went to Colm Tóibín’s lecture at Emory, to a performance of Terminus [Modern Ballet Theatre] at Serenbe and to Al Taylor’s exhibit at the High Museum (on display until March 18). They were all excellent! You don’t have to leave Atlanta for excellent art. Anything can always improve, but I think that we should recognize what we have achieved. I’m a glass-is-half-empty kind of person, but I felt very full, very proud [when I experienced the above-mentioned events].”
However, Catherine recognizes that the arts are not encouraged and supported enough in the city. “Our state funding [for the arts] is 48th or 49th in this country. There are some very generous individuals who do support the arts, but that could be a lot more robust. It’s a matter of values — some cities have a cultural history that’s much richer than ours and they’ve also had charismatic leaders who know how to lead and make people follow. We haven’t had so much of that. There are people doing amazing things here — as a corporate entity, MailChimp is the leader of the city — it supports so many arts groups. I understand that a lot of foundations are focusing on other things — there are big needs in this world! — but ultimately, you get what you pay for.”
She encourages young artists and students of the arts to appreciate their involvement with the liberal arts — and really pursue it. “Any art of any substance isn’t only about itself. Artists are readers and thinkers. The more you know, the more you’ll get out of the arts. To be an artist, to be a writer, you have to know about the world — about art, literature, science. Artists find inspiration in so many unexpected places. I’m a real proponent of the liberal arts. It’s a very important foundation for a well-lived life.”
Ultimately, she praises the arts for offering her plenty of aesthetic experiences and for being a lens through which she can see the world. “Art is a conduit for other worlds, ” she remarks. Beyond her belief in the power of aesthetics, her life’s work certainly reflects her dedication to opening up new worlds to others.
By Loli Lucaciu