GINGER WAGG & WILD ACTIONS: ANDALWAYSWHY
Thursday, June 2–Sunday, June 5, 8 p.m., $10–$20
The Torus Building, Durham
Durham Independent Dance Artists shows usually take place in nightclubs, art galleries, warehousesanywhere but theaters. Ginger Wagg and Wild Actions’ AndAlwaysWhy is no exception. Its premiere this week will also cut the ribbon on the Torus Building, a new space at 947 East Main Street. But already, Wagg is transforming the blank slate.
At a recent preview, two performers scribbled furiously on a paper curtain. It bisected a long, narrow room with planked floors, like the deck of a ship; a high ceiling in the style of pressed tin; and traces of exposed brick that whisper of a layered history. Its likeness to another Durham gallery is striking, as if the Carrack Modern Art had been scooped out of its Parrish Street loft and poured into a street-level storefront.
On one side of the curtain, a front door gestures downtown by way of Main. On the other, a rear door points down a flight of new wooden steps, through the courtyard of SPECTRE Arts and toward Golden Belt. This is significant. The room is a more than symbolic bridge between those poles, and Wagg’s temporary transformation of it foreshadows a lasting one.
As of July 1, this tall, natural-light-filled gallery will be the new home of the Carrack, which is leaving its niche above Loaf bakery to ensconce itself within the artist colony growing in the Torus Building, the multi-studio facility Alicia Lange recently opened. Lange also owns SPECTRE Arts, a gallery that has worked alongside the Carrack to vitalize and diversify the Durham art scene.
Rising rents and endless construction in the heart of downtown certainly played a major role in the decision by Carrack director Laura Ritchie to leave the roughshod loft where she grew her gallery into a local landmark. A snap reaction about big money pushing little art to the fringes is natural, and it’s partly correct. But the upshot is more complex and less gloomy than that.
“This is not a story of how gentrification is destroying the Durham art scene,” Ritchie says. “It’s an exciting story of how we’ve outgrown where we started.”
Indeed, this a story about some of the most influential people in the art scene harnessing pressure to run away from something into momentum to run toward something better: a broader, more collaborative community in a more expansive space.
In moving, the Carrack will consolidate ties with Lange and with Golden Belt in an effort to bolster the district as an arts community. In the process, it stands to dramatically shift the center of gravity in Durham’s artistic social lifeand maybe even change the way you think about downtown.
The Carrack is celebrating its fifth anniversary in conjunction with its move, and it has weathered downtown’s sea changes well. When it opened, foot traffic on Parrish tended to stop at the Blue Coffee Cafe. The Carrack, alongside the likes of Bull City Burger and Monuts, helped change that.
But since January, when the little park abutting Parrish turned into a gaping construction site for a skyscraper, it’s been 2011 all over againexcept now Blue Coffee and Monuts are gone.
We’ve seen other local businesses, such as Nice Price Books in Carrboro, wither when construction cut off casual stop-ins. But the Carrack had already become an intentional destination. It built its dedicated community by pursuing valuesvelocity, openness, diversitythat resonate in Durham.
The Carrack runs its shows for uncommonly short two-week periods, drawing hundreds of artists into its ambit per year. It’s a lively event space, welcoming musicians, filmmakers, poets, and especially dancers, with many events from DIDA, Culture Mill, and Justin Tornow. And its most basic premise is artist empowerment: Ritchie basically hands them the keys and then lets them keep every cent of their sales.
This high turnover and low bar to entry suits a quickly developing scene. More exhibits equals more receptions, the main way many engage with art shows, and the performances tap into communities outside of visual art. By creating an open space and then making sure it stays full, Ritchie has galvanized powerful social energies.
“There are so many galleries that charge you thirty-five dollars to submit two pieces and potentially get rejected,” says Saba Taj, who has had two solo shows at the Carrack, which she says distinguishes itself through “the autonomy they give their artists and the agency built into their framework.”
“The Carrack realizes artists need money from sales rather than giving it to an institution that leaves a lot of people out,” she adds.
In addition to a devoted audience, the Carrack had a sympathetic landlord, Harry Adams, at ASF Downtown. Its rent, though rising, isn’t as high as you might think$1,300 a month in 2016, paid in a lump sum at the beginning of the year. In any case, the rent was within reach after the gallery doubled its fundraising to $30,000 in its Muse Masquerade at 21c Museum Hotel last fall. That was enough to add its first paid staffers in JanuraryRitchie as executive director and Kerry Crocker as director of operationsto its roughly twenty volunteers.
So the Carrack could have stuck it out downtown. But Ritchie had been passively looking for a new space since the gallery opened, and actively searching for the last eighteen months. This was mainly because its famed accessibility had one glaring flawit wasn’t physically accessible to everyone.
This came into sharp focus last year, when Ritchie wanted to present a show by Felicia Robinson, an artist with cerebral palsy. The Carrack’s bent flight of steep stairs, part of its charm, was impassable by wheelchair (though Robinson’s family, incredibly, once carried her up). In the end, Ritchie took the show to SPECTRE Arts. When the Torus Building came along, the accessible space she had patiently awaited appeared, in friendly hands and laden with new collaborative possibilities.
“We’ve been able to do this at our own pace,” Ritchie says. “We’re strong enough as an organization to change locations and let that be a part of our growth, rather than a scary, disorienting shift. By moving out a little further, we can have an easier-to-stomach price and be more intentional about how we share the burden of that cost with our neighbors in that arts district. I think that’s a more long-term solution.”
The new Carrack is a little smaller than the old one, but it feels larger because of its more regular dimensions. Ritchie appreciates that it preserves the Carrack’s distinct aesthetic. But the plywood and drywall of the new space will be much easier to hang art on and patch than the old space’s impractical brick and plaster.
“It checks all the boxes of that magical feeling you get in our current space,” Ritchie says. “It was important that it felt like the old Carrack in some way. It’s hard to put a value on that, but there’s something that happens to people when they walk ina feeling. This space has that, too, and I walked into many that didn’t.”
The Carrack’s mission to connect artists, particularly marginalized and emerging ones, with social and financial support remains the same. The first exhibit in its new space will be a recent art school graduate’s first solo show (The Valley, C. Neyland, July 5–16).
But now, in one of the last remaining middle-class neighborhoods near downtown, the gallery has the chance to engage a community that is broader and more local.
“I hope our programming continues to shift with the community around us,” Ritchie says. “I don’t know what will come from the people in the neighborhood, but we’ll certainly shift to accommodate what they want to see. And the appeal of being surrounded by other arts organizations, part of a larger collaborative effort that I think will have a lot of strength in how Durham changes, was worth giving up on the heart of downtown.”
Scientific Properties broke ground in the Durham art scene when it opened the Golden Belt studio, gallery, and retail complex in a former textile mill in 2008. But it’s always felt stubbornly separate from downtown properthough less so since SPECTRE Arts became a Third Friday destination and, more recently, The Shed brought in new nightlife. The Carrack could be just the tipping point the district needs.
“I think the Durham art scene is shifting geographically and conceptually, and our move is a part of that broader shift,” Ritchie says. “We’re excited about helping continue to activate [the Golden Belt area] as an arts district.”
Heather Gordon, one of the most active artists in Durham, is “not a joiner” by her own reckoning. She didn’t discover the Carrack until several years into its lifespan, when she decided she needed to make more connections to the art scene.
“They’ve always been very good at sending out information, inviting and welcoming people, opening the door,” Gordon says. “I found a lovely place I could exist in because I didn’t feel like I had to be a member.”
Gordon is the artist liaison at Golden Belt, where she has a studio. She says Scientific Properties CEO Gary Kueber gave her one directive: “make it cool.” She responded by filling its unused studios with pop-up shows and residencies, which have become Golden Belt’s main contact points with public life.
“I had spent a couple of years trying to get people to coordinate, but for the most part it didn’t work, because artists don’t function well in really large group dynamics,” Gordon says. “We started seeing a lot of artists leaving the space, mostly around money issues. I thought we needed to bring in the kinds of artists we want to see here and let them do whatever the hell they want.”
Now Gordon is helping to coordinate the more intimate Torus Building. It represents more than the four artist studios separated from the gallery that will soon be the Carrack by a wall made of salvaged SPECTRE boards.
“Me and [Alicia] were really hoping to get Laura to move to us,” Gordon says. “We could see that would pull a lot more community down to enjoy all the other things we had already built. Al just looked at me one day and said, ‘I’m making this building,’ and within a month, she had it done it. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The Torus is wreathed in an ambitious, if embryonic, vision of building the Carrack, SPECTRE Arts, and Golden Belt into a holistically healthy arts districtand then building it outward. The studios are administrated by Lange, who has owned the building since 2012 and was spurred to finally open it because of the new collaborative possiblities in the air.
Otherwise, the specific roles of the people behind the Torus are as abstract and open-ended as its concept of community, which was developed in conversations among Ritchie, Lange, Gordon, SPECTRE employee Leif Gann-Matzen, and several others.
“Heather came up with the Torus moniker, and it fit our vision,” Lange says. “But vision is in the eyes of those who inhabit [the building] … the artists that reside there as well as those who will come and participate.”
“Torus” refers not, as you might guess, to a bull, but to a geometric expression of circular flow. Gordon settled on the shape as she researched systems; it was about inner and outer balance among wholes and their parts.
“The arts themselves, the administrators, the building owners, the people that come to see and shareall can exist in a balance in a toroidal system,” Gordon explains. “There’s personal coherence, my own flow. When I work with other Torus members, I’m moving into a local social system that also has a chance to have balance in its own toroidal flow.”
For Gordon, the goal is to nurture the large, sustainable community she needs to realize her large-scale project ideas. A healthy art scene requires versatility, and the Torus represents a contrasting alternative to Golden Belt, not a challenger. Torus studios are a little cheaper, smaller, and sparer. You get a shell with electricityand an understanding that you’ll be enmeshed in the district’s cultural life through exhibits and collaborations.
“If this goes well, it will be an opportunity for us to mutually empower each other, because there’s a synergistic wholeness to the system that doesn’t exist in Golden Belt,” Gordon says. “But that will require all individuals to have personal coherence. The next six months are a testing period. … I’m excited to see where it goes.”
Expanding how we think about downtown will be increasingly necessary as the city center becomes increasingly impenetrable. Ritchie cites the Scrap Exchange‘s move to Lakewood as an example of the same proactive momentum now driving the Carrack.
And Golden Belt is less than a mile from the center of downtown. It’s on the Bull City Connector, and it has copious free parking. To underscore its accessibility, Ritchie will lead a procession there on June 25. It begins with a closing reception at the old space at 5 p.m. and then heads down Main to the new space at 6:30, followed by a party with food, drinks, and performances.
It’s OK to be both excited to see the new space and sad to bid the old one goodbye. But, in a happy twist, you don’t have to start missing it until 2017 at the earliest.
Saba Taj is a member of the Durham Artists Movement, a collective of people of color and LGBTQ artists. She learned the Carrack was planning to move because she’s involved in a group show slated for September. It gave her and Catherine Edgerton an idea that earned the approval of the rest of DAM: What if they could have their own space on Parrish?
“I reached out to Laura, and there were some other plans in the works,” Taj says. “But she heard us, and she said, ‘This is right and needs to happen,’ and put her force behind our idea.”
Ritchie arranged to sublet the last six months of her lease to DAM, which is currently raising funds (a benefit with live music and performances will take place at 406 North Queen Street at 4 p.m. on June 18). Starting July 4, the group will use the Parrish loft to highlight the work of artists who can be marginalized even in progressive spaces.
Taj, who has been on Carrack jury panels, notes that, while it’s a welcoming space for people of color, very few tend to be among its many applicants.
“What would it mean to set up a framework that breaks down those barriers of access?” she asks. “What would it look like to start a space with a clear intention of privileging exactly those voices? Those are things we’re thinking about specifically.”
Come next year, the fate of 111 West Parrish Street is unknown. The rent will go up, and DAM is unlikely to stay, though it will probably be looking for another space. Whether it finds one in the dense city center or in some sparking new district, it’s the perfect grace note for the Carrack, which has always put its community first, as it begins an exciting new chapterfor itself and, maybe, for downtown.
This article appeared in print with the headline “Pulling Up Stakes”