The Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative spent the winter months like a hibernating brick beast. The gallery doors were often locked during business hours, and weeks passed with its walls bare and white.
The gallery, meeting place, and event space Charlottesville residents have come to rely on for raucous revels, avant-garde film screenings, sonic experiments, and subversive art was undergoing a quiet sea change. Last November, many were shocked by the announcement that Greg Kelly, the ever-present executive director and co-founder would be moving on. Details behind the change of guard may never be made public, but in February, Matthew Slaats, an artist and community organizer from New York was named Kelly’s successor.
Slaats is finding his feet, and eager to execute his plans for moving the organization forward. Not only has he taken over the daily administration of the gallery, he is programming all of the Bridge’s future events, coordinating community outreach, building partnerships, and fundraising with the help of an intern.
The walls of the Bridge’s one-room gallery are currently covered with the colorful evidence of MapLab, an interactive project Slaats is spearheading. It’s an attempt to create a multi-dimensional “snapshot” of Charlottesville based on data collected through social media quizzes, scavenger hunts, and other “urban investigations.”
The project is a natural continuation of Slaats’ personal artistic interests, which he summarizes as “exploring the connections between people and place.” This relationship has been the thread traveling through Slaats’ education and artistic practice, which began with an MFA in studio art, a BA in archaeology, and an MA in art.
As an artist, Slaats says he is constantly trying to engage the community in a “social practice” that allows collaboration and “addressing a question or creating a project through working with other people and watching it develop over time.”
What does this look like? In 2010, Slaats founded PAUSE (People Art Urban Space Exchange) in Poughkeepsie, NY, which continues in its effort to “create possibilities for re-thinking and re-seeing urban spaces as a group” through organized performances, structures, and partnerships. The Hyde Park Visual History Project was another of Slaats’ explorations of history, community, and geography in which he asked residents for personal photographs that were then projected at a local drive-in movie theatre and on historic buildings throughout the town to illustrate “the relevance of the present alongside the past.”
“In many ways I see organization as an artistic practice,” said Slaats.
Slaats has found the community welcoming. “People here believe in the role the arts can play, and support the arts. I can do things people are really excited about here. They’re receptive. I can have a bit more freedom to try things and to think about what’s possible,” he said.
There are certainly many eyes on him as he takes over from the organization’s original visionary. That responsibility is a weighty one, but one he finds essential. “This cycle of leadership change is vital to an organization’s growth. If the organization is healthy this should keep happening,” Slaats said. “The board and directors put their time and effort and creativity into a place, and then they move on.”
“It’s one thing to build a bridge, it’s another thing to walk across it constantly,” Slaats said. “The core values that Zack and Greg founded the Bridge on are also so core to what I personally think and believe. It’s not a huge stretch—there’s no need to change those missions, and knowing that makes things a lot easier in a lot of ways.”
For Slaats, “walking across the bridge” means maintaining and expanding upon the relationships the founders cultivated, and transitioning from hosting one-off events to creating recurring programs.
So far, Slaats has launched MapLab, he’s partnered with Piedmont Council for the Arts to facilitate the Storyline Project, teamed with Champion Brewery for the Belmont Beer Competition and created the Storm the Bridge fundraising party. And he just announced the launch of a CSA program, assembling boxes of community supported art.
“I’m really interested in the Bridge making connections outside of the arts actually. I’m most interested in connecting with people in food or environment or at the University [of Virginia]. We just did a show on incarceration issues.” he said.
In June, the Bridge presented Mark Strandquist’s “Some Other Places We’ve Missed,” a project that asked prisoners, “If you had a window in your cell, what place from your past would it look out to?” and created prints for each individual to display.
“That’s one of the primary things we should be doing—building connections, starting conversations.” Moving forward, Slaats has plans for continuing those conversations locally, and also bringing in foreign voices.
The first outside voice will be that of Belfast-based artist Johanna Leech, whom Slaats met at the 5×5 project in D.C. last summer. Slaats has invited Leech for a two-month residency at the Bridge, funded by the Northern Irish government, in which she will set up base camp at the gallery, explore the city, and assemble her signature collections and “mini-museums” in October and November based on her observations. Leech’s visit will be the start of what Slaats hopes will be an annual residency program.
“In the future, we’ll still present work in the gallery, do the literature, and the film events the Bridge is known for, but I want to focus on positioning artists so that they’re active agents in the city,” said Slaats. “Instead of presenting, I want to produce. I want the Bridge to create work and to support artists who are creating work. I want us to be less of an end point, more of a starting point—a place for conversations that spur ideas that then go out into our community.”