In the beginning there were two artists, Zack Worrell and Greg Antrim Kelly. They were moved by street art, graffiti, hip-hop, punk, philanthropy and community organizing as art. Then Worrell bought a building. “It was pretty raw,” Kelly says, remembering those first days in the space now known as The Bridge. It had unpainted concrete walls, “and we used clip lamps to light the first show,” he says. But the space manifested exactly what Worrell and Kelly had envisioned: an unintimidating, welcoming place for every person in the community.
“You don’t really need more than 400 square feet to do great things,” Kelly says. “A bigger, more formal space can scare people off, especially people we wanted to connect with.” The character of the place, he says, “is really just an extension of us as people. It didn’t require a lot of conscious thought.”
By 2006, they had a mission statement and a name. Now, a decade later, Kelly, along with Bernard Hankins, Ashley Florence and Tim Popa, have organized a retrospective exhibition called “Looking Forward While Looking Back” to commemorate the last 10 years of The Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative.
As director of The Bridge from 2006 to 2012 (and current curator for the gallery at Studio IX), Kelly curated more than half of the retrospective exhibition that covered his directorship. “The past has lived tucked away,” he says, in the form of handbills, posters and fliers in The Bridge’s archive. The show moves clockwise from the main entrance, highlighting benchmarks and programming both chronologically and thematically. Tables in the center of the room showcase printouts of the original mission statement, annotated to-do lists, Polaroids from community events and influential books. “I wanted to show the process and the things that informed it,” Kelly says, and he encourages visitors to interact with the materials.
“You never knew what to expect,” says former Bridge director Greg Antrim Kelly. There might be slam- dancing one night, an art show with Westhaven community members the next and former UVA president John Casteen sitting in the audience the following evening while his son reads from his latest book of poetry.
The exhibition also features a few select pieces of art that help “tell the narrative of the organization,” Kelly says. One of these is a broadside letterpress printing of a Wendell Berry poem, printed by Virginia Arts of the Book Center co-founder Josef Beery following the poet’s December 2009 visit. Another is a portrait collection of volunteers painted by Eliza Evans.
“What I’m focused on in the first eight years is letting the marketing stuff tell the story with art mixed in,” says Kelly. Florence and Hankins have curated the part that represents The Bridge’s programming from 2013 to 2016, under the directorship of Matthew Slaats (who left in July).
Reflecting on the early years with Worrell, before they had an organization and a name, Kelly says, “It felt vibrant, nascent. That’s my favorite part of anything: the beginning.” Through the visual display of marketing materials, Kelly has created a layering effect intended to represent the constant influx of energy that sustained them. He describes a night when they hosted a punk show and someone got elbowed in the nose. Blood ended up on the wall and they had to hang a show the next day. They hung a piece of art over the stain. “You never knew what to expect,” he says. There might be slam-dancing one night, an art show with Westhaven community members the next and former UVA president John Casteen sitting in the audience the following evening while his son reads from his latest book of poetry.
Kelly’s philosophy as director was “Curate people, not content,” which helped to cultivate an atmosphere of mutual trust between The Bridge and emerging artists. “It’s important for artists to have a space with a very low barrier for access and use, whether financial or the way it’s structured. The Bridge was always really good at that,” Kelly says. “There was an attitude of affirmation. People were encouraged to take risks and fail, to explore ideas. That’s a huge thing for young artists to have that kind of support.”
“Somehow the organization walked this line of being punk and professional at the same time,” he says. “Chaotic but also high-quality. The biggest thing was people felt welcome here.” To Kelly, punk doesn’t mean causing conflict. “It means not being beholden to whatever the norms are, especially if you don’t agree. Not being pinned down, boxed in, labeled or defined by anything other than the moment. That nascent energy as an artist is so much a part of my interest, my personality. How do you push buttons and shake things up out of love, to make things better?”
For Kelly, art has been the channel through which he connects people and makes things better. Through The Bridge, he and Worrell created a place where professional and emerging artists could feel free to express themselves, and connect with people in the city they might not otherwise encounter. “It wasn’t exclusive to art,” Kelly says. “It was more about experiences.”
Contact Raennah Lorne at email@example.com.