Local non-profit prospers with volunteer support

By: TOMMY MCGAHEE

Putting down the phone, Mary Miller sighs a breathe of relief.  She smiles at the photographs online and chuckles at her own picture.  Turning back to work, she knows she will be back again this weekend.

At first glance Mary Miller is your typical librarian – a studious, literature loving worker at the University of Georgia’s Peabody Awards department.  A documentary junkie and novel enthusiast, her desk is cluttered with dusty books and archaic tapes of television classics.

But look a little closer, and you’ll find more than meets the eye.

An active philanthropist, Miller is one of many who dedicate their time each week to Athica, Athens’ own Institute for Contemporary Art.

Beginning in 2002 as a completely volunteer organization full of UGA students, faculty and local artists, Athica has recently matured enough to hire a paid director to run its front office.

Located in a 2,200 sq. foot warehouse within a growing area of downtown Athens, the Tracy St. “Unit 4” has slowly matured and developed a healthy number of local followers.  With the utilization of social media, Athica has been able to target a larger audience than with traditional mailings.

Facebook and Myspace invitations have enabled personalized messages and responses, something that Miller believes brought record turnout to their latest show.

“I think we’ve gotten a little bit smarter in communicating with the community,” Miller said.  “We have a Facebook page, so instead of just sending something in the mail you can specifically invite people.  Everyone on the board invites 50 people – that’s 500 people who have specifically been asked to come.”

The Saturday opening brought 300 people and set a benchmark for future Athica events.  Focusing on America’s addiction to fossil fuels, the event featured Christoph Gielen and art illustrating greenhouse gas emissions’ effects on global climate change.

Athica gained national recognition by receiving the Andy Warhol Foundation grant early last year for the organization’s dedication to non-mainstream art.  The three-year-long donation will be used to bring a nationally known artist to Athens whose work has been controversial in other venues.

“That’s real recognition of Athica’s success as far as our ability to mount interesting shows and promote arts that would otherwise lack a venue of expression,” Miller said.  “It’s a prestigious grant for an institution like ours, and having won it is a ‘You’ve come a long way, baby’ kind of thing.”

Money is the real contention for the group.  Miller fears community donations can affect Athica’s choice in exhibit selections, and says a careful balance must be maintained.

“We do want art that will make people think, but some of that is art that some people will be uncomfortable with,” Miller said.  “Do you not exhibit that because you want the county to give you money?  Especially with the economy tanking, it’s a balance to make ends meet.”

Local donations are appreciated, and a list of preferred items are available online on their Web site, www.athica.org.  Suggested items include 120 watt flood and spot bulbs, small tools and pedestals.

Mayor Heidi Davison contributes a yearly donation from a personal discretionary fund, but the group is careful in how they choose to use it.  Thank-you postcards are often made, and the image is thoughtfully chosen.

“We’re not being controversial for controversy’s sake, but there might be the moment that your donor is one of the people that finds the art that you brought difficult,” Miller said.  “How do you structure your relationship with them so that ultimately they’re at peace with that?”

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