Fast forward: Second Street Gallery celebrates 40 years of contemporary art for the people

Local artist Clay Witt moved his studio into Second Street for the month of February to curate additions to his exhibition “In Thunder, Lightning, or in Rain” on site. Photo: John Robinson Local artist Clay Witt moved his studio into Second Street for the month of February to curate additions to his exhibition “In Thunder, Lightning, or in Rain” on site. Photo: John Robinson

“Perhaps we aren’t being controversial enough,” Steve Taylor, the director of Second Street Gallery, joked during a recent interview after explaining that no one had walked out of a show in a huff recently.

Beneath the joke lay the inherent tension in Taylor’s job: Second Street’s mission for the past 40 years has been to bring contemporary art to the people at no cost. The task involves keeping a nonprofit board engaged and motivated, raising an operating budget, selecting exhibitions that appeal to the general public in a small Virginia city, and attracting the work of cutting edge artists from around the world without a huge budget and major art market as bait.

“We show work that you wouldn’t otherwise see,” Taylor explained. “Part of our job is not just to open eyes but to open minds. . . If somebody says, ‘I hate contemporary art,’ I’ll say, ‘Well what kind of art do you like and why?’ I’m not going to try to convince them to like something they don’t like . . . You can’t convince people to like things, but you can open their minds to the idea behind it.”

Second Street was founded as Central Virginia’s first artist-run alternative art space on February 11, 1973 by a group of artists and academics searching for a place to show their work where survival did not depend on making sales. The gallery, one of the longest surviving nonprofit organizations in the nation focused solely on the art and ideas of the time, has held 10 to 15 shows per year for the past four decades, approximately 500 exhibitions of painting, photography, and installations in total.

Second Street Gallery Director Steve Taylor stands at the intersection of compelling, cutting edge art and the Charlottesville community. Photo: John Robinson

While the organization’s mission has remained remarkably stable over that period, the times they have a-changed. The gallery has moved three times, before finding a permanent home in 2003 at 115 Second St. where they now share a building created specifically for the gallery, and for fellow arts nonprofits Light House and Live Arts. Downtown has gone from a little-used sleepy corner of the city to its thriving cultural center. And the fashion sense of Second Street’s board of directors has, well, um, altered.

“When we look at the photograph of the founders of Second Street Gallery in 1973, it’s like they are dressed in period costume, and have just come from a Jefferson Airplane concert. Perhaps they have,” said Dean Dass, a local artist and an honorary board member at Second Street. “It is also like they have just come from a Vietnam War protest. Perhaps they have. The founding of Second Street Gallery in 1973 has to be seen as part of a worldwide movement of the creation of cooperatives and alternative spaces.”

As a UVA third year who has interned at another Downtown gallery, Chroma Projects, for the past three years, I have been actively involved in the Charlottesville art world since I arrived from Dallas. I found First Fridays during my first months of school and by last summer I had announced my intention to become an art curator, much to my parents’ chagrin. Whenever I want to feel close to the big city art scene I left behind, or when someone asks me about the local art scene, I usually direct them to Second Street, because it democratizes art. It knocks art off of its metaphoric, elevated pedestal, bringing world class exhibitions into an approachable, intimate space.

The gallery is a place where people can interact, view, question, and experience the art and ideas of our moment without the pressure to buy something and without looking over your shoulder at an NYU grad student with French eyeglass frames. It isn’t even 10′ from a bus stop on Water Street.

A local artist in his own right (painter and photographer), a member of McGuffey Art Center, and a past board member of Second Street, Taylor knows the mission of his gallery is to instigate a conversation, not to make money. And, in some ways, he feels the best way to gauge his performance is to look at the faces of the people who see his exhibitions. Nonplussed? No good. Wide-eyed? Right on.

“Well I love a show with technical bravado and ones that catch you off guard and make you think. I think that’s what we do. Hopefully we are a bit of a visual feast when we can be. But, when we can be visual for the soul, that is when we do our best work,” he said.

Pop art mass producer Steve Keene prepares his assembly line of plywood “canvases” for his Second Street show in 2008. “It’s a performance,” said Keene about his work. Photo: Courtesy Second Street Gallery

Take the Daniel Canogar show “Reboot,” which exhibited in March of 2012. Second Street volunteers had to clean up after the gallery’s annual family day, which saw 350 people in the space; take down a previous exhibition; and transform the place into a light-proof box to showcase the Spanish artist’s magical installations of light projected over ghostly forms created from 70 pounds of multicolored computer wires, purchased and scrounged locally.

The results were worth the 460 hours of volunteer time logged during the monumental six-day effort, since visitation doubled from a monthly average of 600 to close to 1,200 people. It also attracted strong financial support from the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation and a host of individual donors.

Children and adults viewed the Canogar show on various intellectual levels. “It was like a magic garden for them talking about fairies and fireflies. And later, we had a group of older men talking about chaos theory and brain synapses,” Taylor said.

Not every show is a smash hit, though, and some are openly disliked.

“We don’t shy away from that. Not everyone is going to love every show. I don’t love every show. Some shows are more easy to access,” Taylor said.

Anne Slaughter, an early board member at Second Street and a founding member of the McGuffey Art Center, attended the gallery’s opening night, a proper vantage point from which to evaluate the success of an idea she watched evolve into a pillar of the arts community she loves.

“It has survived some very lean times financially. A lot of galleries close. But it has maintained its quality. It has always maintained its national character,” she said. “It’s quite an accomplishment.”