They say that in Charlottesville, the guy who serves your coffee probably has a PhD. Increasingly, the coffeeshop where he works likely serves another function too: art gallery. In the past several years, all over town, new art spaces have proliferated—in restaurants and boutiques, and as cooperatives and nonprofits. The town’s concentration of visual art venues is earning it a national reputation, boosting tourism and attracting artists. “Charlottesville is definitely getting to be known,” says Leah Stoddard, director of Second Street Gallery. “Word of mouth travels fast.”
Examining the burgeoning local arts scene exposes some interesting issues, from the relationship between art and commerce to the quality of tourist-friendly art. But most local art experts agree that the more, the merrier: The variety of spaces benefits the art viewer, the artist and even the art collector. In truth, the wide range of venues—from commercial to non-profits to hybrids—helps showcase why each is a necessary component of a thriving arts scene. And as local artists attest, that’s what Charlottesville’s becoming.
Origin of a species
Ten years ago, art was mostly relegated to museums or more traditional art spaces. Now it’s hard to order a double Americano without catching a glimpse of a landscape, still-life or experimental photo work. More and more restaurants, bookstores, jewelers, churches and even office buildings decorate their walls with rotating art shows. Take, for instance, Downtown Mall coffee spot Mudhouse. Currently customers can see the works of abstract painter Delmon Brown Hall IV while sipping their java. Before the mid-‘90s, such a show would have likely been relegated to a handful of local galleries or one of the few forward-thinking bistros supporting local art.
Sarah Sargent was the director of Second Street Gallery from 1993 to 1999. “When I started at Second Street,” she remembers, “there was Second Street and McGuffey, and [now-defunct] Gallery X, and those were really the only three that were around.” She adds that the current trend of showing art in restaurants and stores was, at the time, almost unheard-of.
A symbiotic relationship between art and Downtown business has fueled the growth of each, say many observers. Whereas Sargent likens the Downtown Mall of 10 years ago to “a wasteland,” there are currently at least 20 separate places to see fine art Downtown, and more than 30 in Charlottesville overall. “It’s impossible now to get a restaurant table on a Friday when there’s an opening,” says Sargent. “I really feel like the arts were responsible for the development in the Downtown area.”
And in return, increased tourism—Downtown or otherwise—has been a contributor to the explosive growth of the gallery world. “We’re getting on the radar now as a regional art center,” says Jill Hartz, director of the UVA Art Museum, adding that Monticello-driven tourism can complement Charlottesville’s standing as an arts destination.
And certainly “in-town” tourism by locals hasn’t hurt the art scene: The popular First Fridays gallery walks have given a celebratory atmosphere to the local art world for at least one night per month. The well-marketed idea of the “Downtown arts district”—since, to be sure, that’s where most art venues are located—might turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. “I think that could only benefit [artists],” says Russell Richards, an artist and member of the McGuffey Art Center.
Everything in its right place
The expansion of art into the commercial realm has sparked some issues regarding culture and commerce. When Lynelle Lawrence, Mudhouse co-owner, talks about the only art show she’s ever had to remove from her Downtown coffeeshop, the story reveals a tension between high culture and the economic engines that underlie it. The show included a sizable pastel drawing of a nude man, surrounded by severed heads on platters.
It was not a hit. After the piece went up on a Monday, says Lawrence, “My phone was ringing literally nonstop. People said they wouldn’t come here, wouldn’t bring their children.” By Friday, the piece (and one other, a female nude with a breastfeeding baby) had been pulled. Lawrence says she herself didn’t mind the works, but “it was not an appropriate space to hang them.”
Lawrence maintains that art is an integral part of Mudhouse’s mission: “to create a space for free expression.” She also says that the severed-head snafu did not make her more skittish about showing provocative art. Yet, as a businessperson, she was forced to choose between art on the walls and customers at the counter.
That’s a consideration most non-commercial spaces—especially those solely devoted to art—generally don’t have to worry about. They can be bolder about what they show, and view controversy as an opportunity rather than a liability. Leah Stoddard, director of Second Street Gallery, recalls that several pieces by Todd Murphy (which dealt with Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with slave Sally Hemings) sparked strong reaction in 2000. The gallery responded by organizing discussions. “I felt like we were being responsible—not ignoring the controversy, not taking advantage of it, but encouraging the audience to have their say,” she says.
Even if a business is explicitly art-centered, it must strike a difficult balance between aesthetic and commercial considerations. Lyn Bolen Rushton, owner of Les Yeux du Monde (now sharing prime Water Street digs with E.G. Designs in Dot 2 Dot), says that her career as a Charlottesville art dealer has taught her about her market’s limitations. Back in the mid-‘90s when she was selling art out of her home, she says, “Some of the most experimental things that I thought were really interesting just didn’t click with the buying audience. People came, but it was hard for me to break even.”
Rushton is now betting on a new solution to the small-town problem of limited art markets: the “hybrid”—mixed-use art and retail space. Dot 2 Dot is now well-regarded by many observers for its mixed stable of local and nationally known artists, supplemented with prints and smaller works by contemporary masters like Jean-Michel Basquiat. Rushton describes her artists as “already-established artists who have a unique place in the art world, and that are somehow going to sell.”
Rushton then hastens to add, “I’m not going to sell out, ever,” and local art teachers and professionals tend to corroborate that statement, using words like “adventurous” and “serious” to describe the art Rushton shows. The vintage furniture and fine papers that make up the E.G. Designs part of the business, Rushton says, contribute to the cozy atmosphere rather than tarnishing the purity of the aesthetic.
There is a wider range of art to be seen in Charlottesville’s retail market than one might expect—even if you have to peer over stacks of merchandise to spot it. Willow 88, also on Water Street, deals in contemporary Chinese, Vietnamese and aboriginal Australian art, paired with antique Chinese furniture. Susan Flury, co-owner, says this is an art niche unique in Charlottesville (commercially, that is—the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection covers part of the same territory). GOvisual concentrates on photography exhibits. Some businesses, like Main Street Market and Les Yeux du Monde’s Starr Hill location, provide a platform for student work.
And, though some may fret about the dilution of the market—or about restaurants that should do their own interior decorating—it’s clear that local artists would have far fewer opportunities to show their work were it not for hybrid spaces. Lawrence says that, from 125 artists who apply yearly to show at Mudhouse, the 12 she chooses are overwhelmingly local. “We love to show first-time art, people that have been turned down elsewhere,” she says, adding that work usually sells briskly in the busy café. At Hamiltons’, City Centro, and Angelo, among others, Charlottesville artists have opportunities for exposure and, with luck, sales.
Feed your head
One group certainly benefiting from the explosion of art spaces is the artists themselves, many of whom delight in the increased opportunities for exposure. But some watchers lament a lack of experimentation in the majority of art shown in Charlottesville.
Rich Davis is a fifth-year studio art major at UVA who describes his own work as “not very traditional. I don’t know if a lot of people even call it art.” His dada-influenced projects include modifying electronic gear and making masks out of giant stuffed animals. Unsurprisingly, Davis finds much of the art in Charlottesville galleries “really conservative, really tried and true.”
Still, he says, “The gallery scene is definitely good for such a small town.” And he singles out the Downtown Gallery at Nature as the one venue he makes a point of visiting, since it sometimes offers video and installation pieces—much rarer in Charlottesville than painting and other traditional media. Piedmont Virginia Community College art professor Chica Tenny says her students, too, favor Nature, and that this is the natural order of things in a vibrant art scene. “It is important for fresh things to start,” she says. “There’s always someone thinking things need to change, and that’s the great thing about artists.”
The dissatisfaction younger, more experimental artists feel sometimes translates into action—a new space, or a temporary takeover of a non-art space, like the use of the Frank Ix Building on Monticello Avenue for the Fringe Festival last October. And having a critical mass of galleries—even conservative or commercial ones—may actually be a crucial factor in allowing experiments to blossom.
For one thing, art draws artists. “Artists are now making a decision to come to Charlottesville and make a home for themselves because of this environment,” says Stoddard.
Artists, in turn, are apt to band together, identify gaps, and fill them. McGuffey Art Center is a Charlottesville institution and the most venerable example of an artists’ cooperative in town, having provided studio and exhibition space since 1975. Richards, who’s had a McGuffey studio for three years, calls it “a fantastic resource” for its high visibility and tight community. Artists get 100 percent of sales from McGuffey walls, whereas commercial galleries, of course, take a cut.
Membership at McGuffey is seen as a mark of accomplishment, and many members are full-time artists. But less-established artists have outlets too. Members of BozART, a cooperative on the Downtown Mall, generally have day jobs, says member Karen Whitehill. “People who really expect to sell a lot are misled. But people who just want to feel like on Friday nights people will come out, be interested and give you some feedback,” she says, find BozART valuable.
Bullseye, meanwhile, is a newer and proudly informal entry in the co-op category. Director Kimberly Larkin says Bullseye’s studio spaces are its most important component. Though she and former partner Stacey Evans ran it as a regular gallery for a year, these days it’s a “vanity gallery” for the seven artists who share the rent.
Without a regular exhibition schedule and conventional hours, says member Monty Montgomery, the space—located under the Jefferson Theater—becomes a dynamic center for exchange and conversation. “I put the sign out at 10 at night” while working, he says. “People come down. Every night, I meet awesome people that can’t come down here during the day.” Bullseye also has a loose relationship with Nature, sometimes organizing joint exhibitions, and Larkin says Bullseye is flexible enough to accommodate possibilities like film screenings and puppet shows.
Tried and true
A true art scene isn’t just an art mall. Traditionally, galleries have served an equally significant purpose as places for artists (and especially students) to learn and be inspired. It is in that area—and in the ability to show more interesting, non-commercial works—that the established non-profit galleries differentiate themselves from upstart boutiques in the gallery world.
While strapped-for-cash artists might feel comfortable just standing and looking in upscale shops—Flury says that Willow 88 often plays host to artists asking about Asian and aboriginal techniques—traditional nonprofit art spaces are still better equipped to educate than their commercial counterparts. Stoddard says that at Second Street, “My whole shifting of the mission was away from the artist’s career to the audience. I’ve tried to make it more of a mini-museum.” That means more informative text to go along with exhibitions, as well as outreach efforts like partnering with local schools and universities for visiting-artist workshops. “I try to share that visitor with as many people as possible,” she says.
Ultimately, Stoddard and Hartz can show work even if they know no one will buy it. Both name installation art—which can be room-sized—as an important part of the contemporary scene that is difficult or impossible to sell, but has been exhibited at Second Street and the museum. Hartz points out too that, “Most of the galleries show contemporary art; there are not a lot that show other time periods and non-Western art. We can have the kind of shows [like the current Shunzhi porcelain show] that no other places in this community can do because of the budgets involved and the staff needed.”
Artists and art teachers agree that these older, non-commercial spaces are still the best for learning. William Bennett, a UVA studio professor, says “I think Second Street Gallery is a really good gallery. I think our students are missing out if they miss out on things that happen there.” Richards, who lived in Washington, D.C., before moving to Charlottesville, says that while he sees lots of peers’ work he respects at McGuffey, for him the UVA Museum is the only local substitute for the capital’s barrage of top-flight museum exhibits. In D.C., he says, “I’d go down to the museums practically every weekend. I really miss that.”
Small galleries at UVA and PVCC provide still more non-commercial—and therefore more adventurous—wall space. In UVA’s Fayerweather Gallery, says Bennett, “We pretty much do exactly what we want. We don’t feel constrained at all.”
Even with the growing hybrid and commercial art spaces, the three area art anchors—Second Street, the UVA Museum and McGuffey—will always have a place. But they are learning how to adapt to a much more crowded house. Second Street’s Stoddard says that publicity has become more pressing in the new climate. “I must admit that I got pretty passive about getting publicity out. I just assumed we would get coverage for exhibitions,” she says. “At first I was sort of like, ‘Hey!’ But then I adjusted my thinking and thought, ‘What am I doing? This is fabulous.’”
Hartz echoes her excitement about the growth of the art scene. “Galleries have become more professional,” she says. “It just adds a lot more vitality to this community. We’d like to be supportive.” Hartz adds that the new spaces create opportunities for city-wide themed shows like 2000’s “Hindsight/Fore-site,” which examined Charlottesville’s Jeffersonian legacy in 20 sites around town and was curated by Rushton.
That kind of synergy between educational, commercial and even government forces (the City helped finance the 1975 renovation of McGuffey School, for example) emerges as the most positive measure of Charlottesville’s arts scene. Established, experimental, academic and for-profit spaces may have different missions, but they don’t necessarily feel competitive.
The emerging “arts corridor” on Water Street (comprising Dot 2 Dot, Nature and the under-construction City Center for Contemporary Arts), says Stoddard, is a good example. “It’s a really thrilling time. There are things we haven’t even thought about that are going to happen with cross-pollination,” she says.
And, just as students need galleries to learn from, galleries need students, who represent future suppliers of their product. Chica Tenny of PVCC says that the school’s art department nurtures connections between students and the local marketplace. “I do think our faculty make an effort to connect them up with places to show,” she says. Whitehill, a former student, says this is precisely how she got involved at BozART. PVCC connects students to the Richmond art world too, since many faculty earned master’s degrees at Virginia Commonwealth University and have connections there.
UVA, says Bennett, is more insular, with students sticking close to grounds. “We’re working on that,” he says. “My colleagues and I would like our students to be a greater part of the arts community in Charlottesville.” The self-containment of UVA compared to PVCC may be unavoidable given that most UVA students grew up elsewhere and move on again after graduation. In fact, says Bennett, “I really encourage our students to leave town. They need a broader view of the world. I also encourage them to come back” after working or getting graduate degrees. Some students, he says, have indeed returned to Charlottesville to find their niches in the art community.
Ultimately, artists themselves provide an important barometer of the health of the art scene. Richards says Charlottesville has been a good environment for him since moving from D.C. three and a half years ago. He was already a full-time artist there and, he says, a big city is probably still an easier place to start an art career. But, he says, “I feel extremely fortunate to have this studio here. McGuffey is pretty unique to Charlottesville.”
Perhaps most tellingly, Richards feels that in Charlottesville he can both put food on the table and remain true to his vision, which sometimes includes explicit sexual content. “I think people are a little bit more enlightened around here than one might think,” he says. “I do have people come in here sometimes and look at my work and kind of turn pale and walk back out the door. But I’ve never felt censored.”