Bill Lowe Gallery Executive Director Donovan Johnson. (Photo by William Twitty)

The Miami Circle arts district is known for a number of galleries and design firms that call this area of South Buckhead home. Chief among them is the Bill Lowe Gallery, which, over 33 years, has grown to become a driving force of contemporary art in the Southeast and beyond.

Founded by William “Bill” Edward Lowe to bring elite artists and art lovers together, the gallery embraces a kind of “concierge approach” to provide a curatorial experience for clients. The team is able to pull from their extensive collection and established relationships with artists in Atlanta and around the world to source museum-quality works that perfectly suit their clients. 

When Lowe died from lymphoma at the end of 2021, the loss sent shockwaves through the gallery and the arts community in Atlanta. The gallery team, described as more of a family than a group of coworkers, was devastated.

Lowe, a legendary figure in the local arts community, was incredibly knowledgeable, insightful, humorous, and personable. He was the kind of leader who was easy to talk to and always eager to learn new things. In one conversation I had with Lowe towards the end of 2020, he spoke about how much he loved the magic qualities of art; the ability for an artist to take a vision and make it reality through transmutation.

To Lowe, art has the capacity to create a shift both in perception and feeling. His interest in metaphysics lent him an otherworldly approach to curating his gallery, seeking works that were evocative and, in a way, divine. Showcasing works of luminaries such as Thornton Dial, Todd Murphy, Ida Applebrog, Michael David, Dale Chihuly, Markus Lűpertz, and Jimmy O’Neal, Lowe proved that the Bill Lowe Gallery could be an outlet for museum-quality exhibitions in Atlanta.

“Good God, he was extraordinary,” reminisced Donovan Johnson, the newly appointed executive director of Bill Lowe Gallery. 

Johnson worked closely with Lowe, someone who he considers both a mentor and a friend, for the past decade. His career at Bill Lowe began when he was a gallery intern in 2012, later promoted to media coordinator, then a brief stint away when he was recruited to work in the now shuttered Lisa Cooley Gallery in the Lower East Side of New York City.

Inside the Bill Lowe Gallery (Photo by Isadora Pennington)

After his return to Atlanta, Johnson took a job in sales at the Hathaway Contemporary Gallery before following his heart right back to the doors of the Bill Lowe Gallery in 2018. Shortly thereafter, Johnson was appointed to the position of assistant director.

“Bill and I always had a really dynamic working relationship,” explained Johnson. “I think that he really understood me, and I really understood and believed in his vision for the gallery. What was important to me was the spiritual aspect of this work; there’s a profoundly spiritual element to art in general. They channel some type of spirit or energy to create these physical manifestations.” 

Johnson’s childhood was marked by transition, as he grew up on military bases and moved frequently from place to place. His family lived in a number of locations including Texas, Panama, and Germany, which lent him a unique understanding of the world and society. Eventually they settled in Atlanta when Johnson was in middle school. His school experience here was, to put it gently, not great.

“Being a Queer Black man in the South is not easy. It was horrible.” He speaks of his experiences with the wisdom that comes from persevering despite the challenges he faced. In his youth, Johnson leaned on his tenacity and found that art could act as an armor as he moved through the world. It also became a language through which he was able to speak and be heard beyond the spoken word. As a teenager, he began drawing and painting, with a deep love for fashion.

One of his first formative interactions with art was when he saw an Alexander McQueen show in late 2007. McQueen, an an openly gay fashion icon from the United Kingdom, was known for his dramatic and theatrical catwalk shows. Describing it as a pivotal moment in his life, seeing this show opened Johnson’s eyes to the possibility that he, too, could make a career out of art. Meeting Lowe, also a gay man from the South, further cemented Johnson’s belief that he deserved a place in the art world. 

“Bill was an iconic figure for me,” recalled Johnson. “He was my best friend for a really long time, and my biggest mentor and inspiration. He was my foundation for just about all of what I’m doing now. He was really a huge part of my formation as a human being in general.”

Towards the end of his life, Lowe appointed Johnson to the position of executive director. After Lowe’s passing, Johnson has stepped up to lead the gallery equipped with the knowledge and wisdom passed down from its legendary founder. When asked about the direction of the gallery now, his perspective of the gallery’s future, and the way Lowe’s vision lives on through Johnson, he made one thing perfectly clear: he intends to build on Lowe’s work, not simply continue it. 

“We cannot just rest on the fact that this is the Bill Lowe Gallery. We have to move into 2022 with the rest of the world. My vision for the gallery is to help it evolve.”

The gallery’s 2022 schedule has been curated as a sort of homage to the history and legacy of Bill Lowe’s evolution since it was founded in 1989. Each show will highlight artists who were foundational cornerstones in the gallery’s history. In this way, Johnson seeks to pay respect to Lowe’s legacy, the gallery itself, and the work which has made it what it is today. Come 2023, Johnson is refocusing on evolution. 

“This gallery has always been, as Bill would say, a portal to global visual culture. I love that. My hope is to make good on that vision.”

Donovan Johnson, left, and the Bill Lowe Gallery team. (Photo by William Twitty)

Isadora Pennington is a freelance writer and photographer based in Atlanta. She is the editor of Sketchbook by Rough Draft, a weekly Arts newsletter.