The Garage isn’t just a clever nickname. Charlottesville’s smallest art gallery and concert venue is literally a former single-car garage, nestled on First Street adjacent to the parking lot of the Hill & Wood funeral home. Since 2008, they’ve hosted monthly gallery showings, performances by live musicians from around the world, hosted screen printing workshops, and launched annual Christmas caroling expeditions, while dispensing soup, cider, and lemonade to both faithful fans and surprised bystanders.
The actual building belongs to nearby Christ Episcopal Church on High St. The garage came with the house now occupied by the church’s offices. It became a home for art in 2008, when Kate Daughdrill, a volunteer at the church, approached Paul Walker, the minister, about hosting events in the space. Walker immediately agreed, and has benevolently allowed The Garage to host monthly events ever since.
Since Daughdrill’s departure in 2009, The Garage has been in the hands of Sam Bush, an employee of the church, who also plays in a folk band named after the nearby funeral home. “It wasn’t my idea,” said Bush. “So I feel like this whole thing just kind of happened upon me. I feel so lucky. That’s why we’re so thankful to be connected with Christ Church. I’m really grateful for what they’ve offered us—I mean, I say ‘they,’ even though I’m on the staff. Not only are there no bills to pay, but the church allows The Garage to function as a separate entity. I think that’s why we’ve been able to survive—it’s not a venue that needs to turn a profit, and that really frees us up to do what we want to do.”
What they’ve done is, in addition to providing Downtown Charlottesville with a home for events, created a source of inspiration and a focal point for community interaction. More than anything, the project of The Garage emphasizes how much creative energy can by harnessed in the space normally reserved for a single automobile.
The Garage is large enough to host art on three walls, and when bands perform, they often set up in the mouth of the garage door, with a few couches on the sidewalk, leaving most of the audience to congregate across the street on the hillside of Lee Park, expanding the shared space across the block, occasionally interrupted by a bewildered driver passing between the audience and performer.
For larger bands, The Garage has hosted satellite events at nearby locations like The Haven, South Street’s Pink Warehouse, and Christ Church itself. The shared resources and close relationship with the church has led to confusion about whether The Garage is a religious or secular organization, but Bush said it’s never been a source of conflict. “Because we’re allowed to function as a separate entity, we don’t feel the need to have an explicit connection, or an agenda, as far as any religious [aspect]. The purpose of The Garage is to provide Charlottesville with a free art space, and it’s meant to be a gift. People don’t need to see it as a religious institution, they just need to feel welcomed. Of course, religion is such a loaded topic, and it makes a lot of people rightfully uncomfortable, because the church has, unfortunately, throughout history, branded itself as a place where not everybody feels welcome. And we aim in the opposite direction —we want this to be a home for everybody.”
The loose community around The Garage suffered a shock in mid-September, when an elderly driver, departing from the funeral home, accidentally kept her car in reverse and backed through one of The Garage’s brick walls. Thankfully no one was injured, but The Garage now has a gaping, cartoon-like hole where its south face used to be.
Bush took the event in stride, using it as an opportunity to host a fundraiser to renovate the building and solidify the organization’s resources. The Garage launched a Kickstarter campaign at the end of the year, and amazingly, were able to meet their $10,000 goal in under two weeks. Repairs to the building are already underway.
“The honest truth is that the insurance is covering the new wall,” Bush said. “But we’re looking to do a full upgrade across the board—a new electrical system, new lighting, new floors—we actually installed those floors ourselves, four years ago. I hope that The Garage doesn’t lose any of its charm, but we are looking to take things a step further.
“We’re just thrilled,” Bush continued. “The goal felt a little intimidating, and perhaps overly ambitious. Even though all the donations will go towards our budget for the renovation—all that money will be put to good use—still, there was no way to gauge beforehand how much of an effect The Garage has had on Charlottesville. And this whole project was such a celebration, people have been given a chance to express their appreciation, and it’s just meant the world to us.
“We’re hoping that we can be totally up and running again for March,” he said. “That might be a little short, but at the very least, we’ll have a grand opening, a picnic that coincides with Founders Day, for the Tom Tom Founders Festival [on April 13th]. And we’re scheduling a show in the gallery, tentatively, for March—Jordan Grace Owens.
“It’s hard to capture the essence of The Garage in one single moment,” Bush said. “I love all the moments when someone’s walking by, and they’re headed somewhere else, and they hear some music that moves them, and they take a seat on the wall and stay there the rest of the night. Whenever there’s an accidental audience member, that had no idea the show was going on, and they end up staying—that’s exactly what The Garage is about: Happy accidents, no pun intended.”