On (not over) the hill: The McGuffey Art Center looks back at 40

The McGuffey Art Center membership has grown to more than 170 members since its inception 40 years ago. The center kicks off a month of celebration events on Friday. Photo: Bill Moretz The McGuffey Art Center membership has grown to more than 170 members since its inception 40 years ago. The center kicks off a month of celebration events on Friday. Photo: Bill Moretz

With its stalwart presence atop the hill at the northwest end of downtown, there’s no doubt that the McGuffey Art Center is a defining part of the local arts community. Its sturdy brick exterior commands respect while its large sash windows hint at the building’s original use as a school. Built in 1916, McGuffey was a public elementary school until 1973. After sitting empty for a couple of years, it was reborn as the community art center in 1975. This month, a series of exhibitions, performances and other activities is scheduled to celebrate the center’s 40th anniversary.

Perhaps one of the most remarkable aspects of McGuffey is that it has been artist-run from the beginning. In the early 1970s, a group of visual and performing artists began working together to create a shared space in Charlottesville.

Dancer Anne Megibow was one of them. “Word got out that there was this old abandoned school and we wanted to do something like the Torpedo Factory,” says Megibow. Founded in 1974, the Torpedo Factory Art Center in Alexandria is a repurposed munitions plant that now houses studios and galleries. Using this as a model, the group formed the McGuffey Art Association and went to work trying to secure a home for their dream. “We met for our very first meeting downstairs in what had been the auditorium. A bunch of us were sitting on the concrete floor talking about art,” says Megibow. Forty years later, the creative community at McGuffey is still actively engaging in that conversation.

The early period of the McGuffey Art Center was one of experimentation and visible engagement with art. Artists moved into the former classrooms, transforming them into shared studios. At that point, members joined simply by expressing an interest. “If you were breathing and you did something artistic, you were in,” jokes Megibow. Studio doors were decorated with whimsical, even provocative, artwork. Hallways were painted with tri-color stripes of red, orange and yellow that curved over doorways and around corners. This mixed well with the building itself, which still had historic window shades adorned with scribbles and graffiti made by past students. Indeed, dramatic structural changes were slow to come to McGuffey, where the main office and original layout of the school remained fully intact for the first few years.

That changed in August 1981, when a two-alarm fire caused by an electrical malfunction threatened the future of McGuffey. “I was in New York and my studio mate called me and said, ‘McGuffey’s burning,’” says Megibow. The flames gutted the main office and damaged other spaces, but the fire department’s quick response saved a significant amount of work. The destruction even had an unexpected upside: Non- vital renovations that had been postponed for years became necessary, including the addition of a small shop to accompany the downstairs gallery.

Since then, the space has evolved. Hallways became gallery space and formal signs were added to studio doors to identify the work inside. Lunchtime performance art began happening with less frequency, before vanishing entirely. In the early 2000s, “There was a lot of talk about professionalizing,” says Rebekah Wostrel, a ceramics artist who has been a McGuffey member for approximately a decade. “I felt that in those first two or three years there was a funkiness that went away. I felt a loss in that regard…not necessarily in a bad way though, and I think we’ve lived into that change pretty well.”

Mirroring this aesthetic progression, McGuffey membership structure evolved as well, developing and refining a jury process. Though the process isn’t perfect, it enables the submission of a portfolio to be reviewed by the membership of McGuffey and guest jurors from City Council or the local arts community. Once accepted, renting and incubator artists receive studio space; associate members work remotely. Of McGuffey’s roughly 170 members, only about 50 have studios in the building and a handful of them have actually remained in the same studios since 1975. There is turnover though, and efforts continue to be made to open up the space to others, addressing the critical need for space. “My career would not have happened without McGuffey,” says painter Cynthia Burke, who has been working in a McGuffey studio since the late 1990s.

As part of the 40th anniversary, McGuffey will host a collective show titled “Past, Present, Future,” with a First Fridays opening reception on October 2. The exhibitions will include an alumni show as well as a display of center memorabilia and a speculative plan for the building’s future, as imagined by UVA School of Architecture students. In addition, McGuffey artists have created 18″x18″ panels of original artwork to be sold as a fundraiser for the association.

During First Fridays, live performances will accompany the exhibitions and a time capsule will be buried in the front lawn of the building at 6pm. Coordinated by Burke, the time capsule reflects the “State of the Arts—Charlottesville, 2015” through an assortment of items from the local arts community, with plans for it to be unearthed in a century, when its recipients can look back and appreciate our local art through the years.

What item would you add to the arts time capsule?

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