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Arts Issue - Deeply rooted in Reynoldstown

As Chris Appleton ushers WonderRoot into an expansive new era, he's mindful of the potential displacement on surrounding neighborhood

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Sheets of peeling paint droop from the walls. Cracked windowpanes filter the sunlight. Used furniture donated for eventual reuse stretches toward the ceiling like an obstacle course. But as Chris Appleton provides a guided tour around the vacant building, he can already see into 2017, when the nonprofit arts organization intends to move into the renovated facility more than 10 times the size of its current Reynoldstown digs. 

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Since moving to the neighborhood in 2008, WonderRoot (founded in 2004) has been a hub for Atlanta's young DIY arts scene. The little bungalow that could located at 982 Memorial Drive has played host to a constant mashup of experimental artists, DIY basement house shows, and grassroots social initiatives. Its emergence came at a formative time. Young creatives inside the city began simultaneously launching indie galleries (MINT, Beep Beep) and freewheeling art ventures (Living Walls, Dashboard) in the midst of the economic downturn. But half a decade later, much of that startup energy has cooled in the face of the challenged sustainability that has long-defined Atlanta's arts scene. WonderRoot, however, seems headed in the opposite direction.

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As we stand in the vacant building's old gymnasium, where a basketball rim and scoreboard still hang, Appleton explains architectural renderings that show the impending overhaul. "One of the things I'm really excited about that we can only begin to really imagine is what will happen on the grounds," he says, referring to the eight-acre site on which the former Hubert Elementary and, subsequently, Tech High Charter School sit.

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The scope of the transformation is grand. It will convert a 93-year-old school building, vacant since 2012 and leased from Atlanta Public Schools, into a modern facility that houses 45 artist studios, an on-site restaurant, art gallery, performance hall, rooftop patio, live music space, recording studio, printmaking studio, dance studio, digital media lab, and much more. The move will expand WonderRoot from the 4,500-square-foot house — affectionately referred to by Appleton as "this charming, old, shitty house" — located across the street to nearly 54,000 square feet.

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It's difficult to contextualize the impact of such a leap, not just on WonderRoot but Atlanta. Rarely does a grassroots arts nonprofit make the shift to mid-size institution — or "middle-class," as Appleton calls it. By that, he simply means the rarefied space that exists between such longtime staples as the Atlanta Contemporary or Eyedrum and the behemoth Woodruff Arts Center. The city's lack of mid-size organizations has long been a weak spot within the scene. Appleton attributes it to the lack of public and private dollars, especially in the more conservative South, that dates back to the culture wars of the '90s when the increased politicization of art led to significant defunding of the National Endowment of the Arts. In Atlanta, the gaping hole means a regional museum like the High is often pressured to play the role that a true mid-size organization would typically fill. The new headquarters will allow WonderRoot to break through that barrier, with a funding model going forward that relies on self-sustained income more than outside donors.

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The initial undertaking will cost several million dollars. WonderRoot plans for the project to be funded by a variety of sources — public and private — that include individual and foundation support as well as local and national incentive programs that support historic preservation and community development.

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Appleton foresees an increase in the center's annual operating budget from $700,000 to about $1.2 million in the first full fiscal year at WonderRoot's new home. That will bring it just under the $1.5-million threshold of most mid-size arts organizations to start, with increased staff and programming. Renovations and new construction are slated to start in early 2016. When fully operational, the WonderRoot Center for Arts & Social Change will generate more than 50 percent of WonderRoot's income via earned revenue sources, including nearly half a million dollars in studio rental revenue, all while continuing to provide accessible resources to Atlanta's cultural community.

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It's an ambitious leap, but Appleton seems undeterred. At a time when many within Atlanta's arts scene feel anxious about their futures, he's found a way to expand WonderRoot's footprint.

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Appleton's status as an arts scene power player seems to hinge, in part, on his soft heart for arts and social change matched with the hard head necessary for institution building. He possesses both passion and business acumen. As a result, he's become a link between the privileged class and the progressive arts community. But staying grounded in the mission of social change that defines WonderRoot's core values while continuing to grow is a challenge of which Appleton is extremely conscious.

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As Appleton continues the tour of WonderRoot's future home, he talks about how much the organization has changed over the past decade. It parallels his own personal maturation from the creative writing major who wore dreads for three years and had a penchant for following Phish around on tour.

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"I fashioned myself a 21st century hippie, not necessarily in lifestyle but in values," he says. "I was interested in a better world in a really inarticulate way, like I think a lot of 19- and 20-year-old kids are." Those early connections formed through music, travel, and cultural organizing would lead to the founding of WonderRoot as Appleton and his two best friends — Witt Wisebram and Alex West — sought to marry their passions for arts and activism.

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Raised in affluent 'burbs north of the city where he attended top-notch private schools, Appleton comes from a family of Democrats who were "progressive but not necessarily radical thinkers," he says. He attributes his own commitment to social justice to a maternal grandfather who was civically active in his western North Carolina hometown. With his dad's side of the family being very business-oriented, he developed a strong footing in both worlds — community service and enterprise. It became a blueprint for Appleton's own duality.

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"It probably does have a lot to do with growing up in a household where we were talking about both business and talking about a better world," he says.

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Today the locks are long gone. The decision to cut them closely coincided with Appleton's realization that his world-changing vision would find greater fulfillment as an arts administrator.

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"There was undeniably a moment for me where I said, 'I want to play a role in the world being a better place. Where can I be most effective?' I decided that I was not most effective writing short fiction and being an artist," he says. "But I would be more effective leading across a range of organizations and issues with people that come from different parts of the world."

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Growing WonderRoot became a priority early on. After a strategic session in 2012, the team identified the need to move out of the current location on Memorial Drive in Reynoldstown.

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"We'd outgrown the space," he says. "And the brand had outgrown the aesthetic limitations of the building." He also knew that the reliance on contributed dollars for funding was hampering WonderRoot's growth.

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The conclusion was simple: "If we can move to a place that allows us to increase our revenue opportunity, then we can perhaps scale up to the organization that we want to be," he says.

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Easier said than done, of course. But for Appleton, saying is believing. People who know him best describe him as the kind of person who sees opportunity where others see obstacles. "He just has really big eyes," Beth Malone, executive director of indie arts nonprofit Dashboard and a close friend, says of his vision. "He has an innate personal confidence, but he also has a mission. The dude has a calling. He's not just working for Chris Appleton; he's working for this mission."

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While Malone and Creative Director Courtney Hammond are hustling to keep Dashboard afloat in a city where arts funding is notoriously tight, Appleton tends to strategize on an entirely different fiscal scale, she says. "I can't even tell you how much I've learned from his crazy ambition."

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Of course, being a white male from a wealthy background has its advantages. Then there is the social currency that comes with his all-American looks. ArtsATL executive director Susannah Darrow called him "a pretty desirable guy" in a lighthearted 2009 "Art Crush" interview for Burnaway. With a determined jawline and eyes the sincerest shade of blue, it's hard to find a crack in his countenance. His position of privilege admittedly grants him access to a world of wealthy donors and power brokers not all arts administrators are privy to. But Appleton is more interested in subverting the status quo than replicating it.

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"He could be making a lot of money and be a really wealthy dude somewhere, but he's decided to use the family connections he has and the connections he's made in the community to try to make some serious change," Malone says. "It's a really hard thing to go against tradition and trend and to not always be popular."

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He's also taking proactive steps to buffer the impact WonderRoot's expansion will have on Reynoldstown, his home for eight years.

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"Going to an eight-acre, 50,000-plus-square-foot campus, we are inevitably going to have an impact on the economic transformation of Reynoldstown — whether we want to or not," he says. "And so, as an arts and social justice organization, we have a responsibility to our values, to our mission, to the people who have made WonderRoot what it is to try to raise awareness about the consequences of that economic transformation."

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So he spends a lot of time in meetings — not just staff meetings or lawyer meetings or banker meetings, but community development meetings. Reason being, he's dead-set against allowing WonderRoot's expansion to cause the same kind of displacement the arts community is suffering from. "Almost as important as the housing and economic displacement that happens is the cultural displacement," he says.

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Instead of demonizing developers, Appleton is trying what might seem like a foolhardy tactic: the art of negotiation. Not only has he entertained meetings with them, he's working to persuade them to see the value in development that enhances the cultural landscape rather than eroding it.

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On a recent weekday afternoon in October, Appleton convened a meeting of a different sort at WonderRoot. It was the first such meeting with several other players, from independent artists to large institutional curators. Together they gathered to discuss the possibility of forming a political action committee designed to lobby on behalf of Atlanta's greater arts community. Such a PAC could create among local artists and arts advocates a strong united front — the kind politicians respond to when its muscles are flexed.

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In addition to lobbying for increased arts funding, a PAC would also prioritize the collective concerns of artists. With the recent boom in mixed-use development, the creative community is feeling the pinch as the third wave of gentrification hits the city. Rising rents have turned affordable housing into a democratizing concern.

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Appleton stresses the need to "band together as a coalition, not just within the arts community but with other people and other coalitions that share the same sort of values that we all share."

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The Beltline has become an easy scapegoat of sorts, considering some of the cookie-cutter development rising around it. Yet, there's also a less-acknowledged hypocrisy in the art community's failure to recognize its own role in the dynamic.

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"I started WonderRoot as a 19-year-old white guy from North Atlanta who moved into Reynoldstown in 2006," Appleton says. "It's a different neighborhood than it is today and I am sort of complicit in a lot of the stuff that I'm now trying to work against and always have been trying to work against — just more so deliberately and consciously today."

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Still, he can't help but recognize the irony. "There isn't a questioning of the consequences on the previous community of people that were living in that neighborhood by the arts community moving in," Appleton says.

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He points out the creative community's failure to reckon with its own responsibility in the cycle of displacement not to blame artists, but to alter that cycle. "Most often artists are a marginalized part of our societal fabric in the United States themselves, so artists are just fighting for where they can find affordable space and affordable housing opportunities to do the important work that they do. And it is important work. So there doesn't need to be a finger pointed at any artist or any particular group of artists, there just needs to be a questioning of this cycle and this system that we say is inevitable."

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Rather than disengaging, he says, the creative community should be "asking the hard questions of commercial developers and holding elected officials' feet to the fire."

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He sees the formation of a local arts PAC, which would also vie for an increase in overall arts funding, as one tactic among many. He also questions the notion of creative placemaking, in which arts and culture is leveraged to reignite communities. Increasingly across the country, commercial developers are co-opting that process and leaving artists hard up.

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"We need to be wary of that," Appleton says. "And that doesn't mean don't partner with and don't work with developers, it just means ask the hard questions. And get it in writing." He's confident his own talks with incoming developers will result in affordable housing for artists before the current real estate cycle is complete.

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Finding the balance between those two extremes is what inspires Appleton.

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Former WonderRoot Creative Director Maggie Ginestra, who started the organization's notable Walthall Fellowship before leaving the role in 2014 for Philadelphia, values Appleton's ability to be both altruistic and business-oriented. "He really lives in those two mindsets and can make them talk to each other in a way that a lot of people can't," she says, attributing his ability to craft a coherent narrative as one of his main leadership strengths. "His power for transformation lies in his ability to craft story, honor story, and uphold story. He's a storyteller."

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His biggest challenge, as a result, has probably been managing his own expectations.

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"Chris is a person who has vision beyond capacity," says Ginestra, who was WonderRoot's second employee. "He trusts that capacity follows vision."

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Even Appleton is quick to admit that there's a big difference between three best friends starting an organization to change the world and running said organization day-to-day as an executive director without those friends (Wisebram has since left; West remains on the board). "The reality is I'm trying to build an institution that has staying power and is going to last 50 years, 100 years. So I've had to shift my thinking around that."

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While "he hasn't always been the most vulnerable leader," Malone says, "I think he's become a lot more aware of the way that he manages a staff and manages his board. He asks people to tell him what his faults are and he really listens well. I think that also has helped him to move into this other level — that he's really able to listen to the people that he's surrounded himself with."

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At the end of the day, Appleton's commitment is best reflected in his passion for Atlanta.

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"It's my hope that when I'm working across these various social or civic groups that people see my motive as sincere and values-driven," he says. "What allows me to spend time in the arts community with the larger institutions, grassroots organizations and individual artists is because I'm hopeful that all those various groups, at the end of the day, do want to work together. WonderRoot, by nature of its mission, is positioned to be able to work with the larger groups and smaller groups. But in terms of me, personally, it has something to do with the fact that I love all these people who are trying to make Atlanta a more interesting, better place."

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