In the beginning, the city’s visual arts community had two centers, Second Street Gallery and the McGuffey Art Center. The acropolis and the agora. The gallery was a place to recognize inspiration, to elevate its status through the ceremony of formal exhibition. The center was a pure democracy in an old schoolhouse, a rabbit’s warren of creative industry that celebrated process. In the intervening years collaborators and competitors, or both, depending on how you look at these things, have filled in the landscape. For the rest of us it’s meant an embarrassment of riches. The Bridge/PAI, Piedmont Council for the Arts, New City Arts Initiative and other arts nonprofits push programming forward, all the while accounting for the convergence of art media, while established galleries like Chroma Projects and Les Yeux du Monde are hanging shows worthy of bigger markets.
This week’s feature celebrates Second Street Gallery’s 40th anniversary, which it recognized February 11, and tells the story of how a contemporary art nonprofit founded as a rejection of the status quo became an institution with the power to define it and the mission to resist it. I’ve written about our 40 year problem a few times: the idea that the cultural and social problems identified in the early ’70s are essentially still unresolved. When Second Street Gallery was created, its board wanted it to contest the commercialization of the art market, on the one hand, and set the bar for local artists, on the other. Democratizer and Tastemaker.
Those of you in the academy may boil in your blood when you hear someone say they do something old “with a modern spin,” but I’m sort of tickled by it. Modernity came and went. So did postmodernity, and now we are at a loss for words as we try to describe where we are in relation to our past. “Contemporary” is a slippery mooring. As the movements of one generation have turned into the institutions of the next, the Internet has thrown Pandora’s box wide open. These days anybody can kickstart a cultural nonprofit with a few clicks of the mouse. The problem? We never know if we’re drinking the nectar of the gods or sipping air at our own imaginary tea parties.