Southern artists find they can go home again

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

On one wall hangs Jasper Johns's ''Numbers'' - a flat aluminum work consisting of rows of numbers. Nearby is Robert Rauschenberg's ''Opal Reunion,'' a large panel jammed with newspaper pages and a paddle, among other things, and with deliberate voids. On another wall is what looks like a large metallic knot , by Lynda Benglis.

When Atlanta gallery owner David Heath exhibited the works of these and five other important, contemporary artists recently, he called the show ''Out of the South'' - because that's where the artists had all gone.

Kenneth Noland, Robert Ryman, Keith Sonnier, and the others had all been born in the South, but had become famous elsewhere, most of them in New York. Today their works may sell for from $12,000 to $1 million, according to Mr. Heath.

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But what about newer visual artists in the South and other parts of the country? Do they, too, still have to pack their paints and other materials and head in Mecca-like procession to New York, or, to a lesser degree, Los Angeles or Chicago?

The answer is changing - due to an increase in galleries, art museums, arts publications, and appreciation in the South of the visual arts, according to a number of Southerners.

The question of leaving has ''become more optional now than it was in the past,'' says Ted Potter, director of the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Arts, in Winston-Salem, N.C. But, he adds, New York and Los Angeles ''are the center of visual-arts powers and will remain that for some time to come.''

John Howett, art history professor at Emory University in Atlanta, calls New York the ''energy center'' for the visual arts. ''Most artists anywhere have to'' go there to become well known, he says. But, he adds, ''in the last 10 years I've seen more and more artists staying (in the South).''

To stay in a non-New York, non-Chicago, or non-Los Angeles home area, a visual artist needs places to have his or her works displayed. This in turn requires museums and galleries, including ones willing to show works of the more radical, alternative artists.

Publications, like Art Papers published in Atlanta, are needed also, say people in the arts community in various Southern cities. Such publications expose works to a larger audience, says Art Papers editor Laura C. Lieberman. But her paper, which began as a newsletter in 1976 and, she says, is one of the few arts publications in the South, is struggling to survive financially. Cutbacks in private grants and federal funds are beginning to take their toll, she says. And she knows of many artists who had intended to stay in the South but are now leaving for New York, where there are more galleries, greater media coverage of the arts, and more art schools.

While Miami, Atlanta, New Orleans, and other Southern cities have had an increase in galleries offering quality works, and while the number of art museums in the South is increasing, another basic issue persists, says gallery owner Heath.

''Part of the problem in the South is the audience,'' he says. There is a very small ''knowledgeable audience,'' he contends. But that problem is not limited to the South, says director Potter. ''There's a lack of appreciation for the art in every state,'' he says. But interest in the visual arts is increasing in Miami, says Ira Licht, director of the Lowe Art Museum in Miami.

Some of the increasing interest is occurring among Southerners, while some of it is spurred by people moving in from other regions, says Genevieve Arnold, a former gallery owner in Atlanta. But the South still has a paucity of art collectors, she says. And collectors are crucial because they not only buy art, but lend some works to museums where artists become better known, she says.

Meanwhile, some artists, like abstract painter Ida Kohlmeyer, who lives just outside New Orleans, are enjoying the best of two worlds. After receiving national recognition by awards and showings at galleries outside the South, she was asked by one of her dealers to move to New York to become still better known.

But she resisted. ''My roots were here,'' she told the Monitor. ''Probably much of my inspiration came from my background here. So I didn't go.''

But her works have - she's had shows in New York, San Francisco, and Atlanta.

''I don't think you have to run where the fireworks are always going on,'' she says. She values ''the repose of not being there [in New York].''

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