Since VAE Raleigh first opened in 1980, the community arts nonprofit and First Friday fixture has had three distinct phases. For the first 25 years, it was mainly just a place to show and sell local art; its name, which stands for Visual Art Exchange, is a vestige of that time.

For the next 10 years, while briskly rotating through exhibits, the nonprofit refocused on professional-development services, with programs to help artists with everything from retail to taxes.

Its third phase, which began around 2015, has been more fluid. A period of soul-searching, experimentation, and concerted change has produced the twin values of transparency and accountability. Those values are now enshrined in a publicly available policy that emphasizes community leadership, social justice, and diversity—one that was set in motion years before the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 compelled many arts organizations to grapple with these issues for the first time.

Though he would be the last person to claim sole credit for it, this transformative phase has coincided with the tenure of Brandon Cordrey, who will step down as executive director at the end of the year.

His replacement, the result of a national search, is Kayla G. Coleman, whom the public can meet at an annual fundraising gala on February 26 at Dorton Arena.

Coleman’s move to VAE means that she will be leaving her job as deputy director of New York City’s Percent for Art program, which allocates a fraction of city-funded construction budgets to public art.

That a small, relatively obscure nonprofit should draw such a hire underlines the concrete advances in financial sustainability and ethical clarity it has made in recent years. Though it’s natural to regard this as VAE 4.0, it seems that phase 3 might have a lot of life left after Cordrey.

Though born and raised in Harlem, Kayla Coleman has family in Raleigh and has regularly visited. Over the last two years, working for New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs, she has spread hundreds of site-specific art projects through the five boroughs. The role was the first time she’s ever had one full-time arts job rather than patchworking together part-time gigs, and it came as a relief.

And yet, Coleman says, when the VAE job posting went up, “I said, ‘Kayla, this is for you.’ Middle of the day, on the clock, I put my work aside and started an application. I don’t even remember what I wrote, it was almost like a stream of consciousness took over.”

Whatever it was, Cordrey says it earned the instant and unanimous approval of the hiring committee. Coleman also had a deep background in nonprofits and community art spaces, which were still what she loved most, and was familiar with VAE, having attended a SPARKcon festival it produced.

“I enjoy the work I was doing with the city, in that it was already funded and providing opportunities to artists,” she says. “But I felt really stifled, even silenced, in a way. God forbid that I say the wrong thing on the internet and The New York Times decides it’s an official statement from the city. The work I do involves using my voice.”

Coleman first went to college at the University of Lynchburg in Virginia. “I’m a child of immigrants, so I was supposed to be a doctor,” she says, laughing. “I was taking the worst course I’ve ever taken, Statistics of Psychology. I had never failed anything in my life, but I failed it because I was reading my gen ed art history textbook instead of studying.”

She knew that she wanted to study art, but the school had only a minor, so she moved back home. There, she hustled to pay off student loans and double majored in gallery and museum studies and photography at Queensborough Community College, a CUNY school. Next were four years of art history at Brooklyn College, followed by grad school at City College in Harlem.

“All my studies were at CUNY, and I would not change it,” Coleman says. “There are all kinds of ideas about where one should go and how that affects your career, but I enjoyed going to school in New York City. While I was doing these courses, I was also going to the openings on Tuesday and Thursday nights and drinking the cheap wine and networking.”

In her work for the city, Coleman is particularly proud of getting art into public schools without art programs; before that, she did similarly service-oriented work in places like an overpoliced South Bronx neighborhood. Her interest in the racial and commercial dynamics of the art world began with the same gen ed art history textbook.

“I was looking for myself in it, and, living in Harlem, I know that Black people made this stuff, so why isn’t it here?” she says. “I discovered this question that fuels me: Who controls the discourse, who controls the narrative, who gets to say what has historical relevance?”

As a newcomer to Raleigh, Coleman says that she’s not eager to upset VAE’s foundation, which is freshly painted and working well, though she agrees with the suggestion that Raleigh provides more room to try, fail, and try again at the unprofitable work of creating a just arts culture than the high-stakes New York art world does, especially with VAE’s existing progressive momentum.

“One thing I love about VAE is that they’re very transparent, and they have this amazing strategic plan,” Coleman says. “I could see myself in that. I could see the amazing work they had been doing and how I could contribute. The diversity of their board and staff let me know they are very open to different perspectives and serving the community. I think it’s amazing Brandon was able to do that in the time he was able to do it—because, let me tell you, that kind of work isn’t happening in New York, one of the most diverse cities in the world.”

Brandon Cordrey is from Rutherfordton, a tiny rural town in western North Carolina. Though artistic role models were hard to come by, he started drawing and painting at an early age.

“Practical humans surrounded me,” he says. “But my dad had an auto body shop, so the idea of painting a car—those very perfect finishing touches, doing something in the correct, layered process—took hold.”

Later, while studying painting and drawing at East Carolina University, he also worked at the Greenville Museum of Art and had a lofty-sounding title directing arts programming for the city, which mainly involved tiring out summer camp kids in fields.

After he graduated in 2010, a friend suggested Raleigh for its affordable housing (yes, just a decade ago); there, Cordrey landed in a full-time apprenticeship with the famously colorful, cantankerous late gallerist Lee Hansley.

“That was the first time I got to fully lay out an exhibition,” Cordrey remembers. “If Lee wasn’t paying attention, he’d let me do it.”

After three years with Hansley, Cordrey moved on to a hodgepodge of jobs, working simultaneously at Flanders Gallery, the YMCA, CAM Raleigh, and, most important, Arts Access, which serves adults and children with disabilities.

“When I met Betsy [Ludwig], I texted my husband, ‘Oh, she has the job that I want,’” Cordrey says. “It’s art, but it also matters. It has a purpose beyond putting paintings on a wall.”

All of these experiences honed Cordrey’s interest in the practical, granular ways that art can meet community needs.

“Sometimes, the arts get used to paper over problems—literally murals on the sides of police stations,” Cordrey says. “I hate art speak, and I hate going into a space and reading the wall text, the ‘liminal layers’ and all that. I think funders should drill down more on how this is helping the community.”

Erika Corey, VAE’s director of operations, hired Cordrey as a contract worker for the freewheeling public arts festival SPARKcon at a time when a part-time exhibitions manager position happened to be opening at VAE.

Executive director Sarah Powers hired him in 2013. Three years later, when she left to helm the Office of Raleigh Arts, the board voted in Cordrey. He slowed down the gallery’s pace, trimmed its programs, and started to take stock.

“I’m very lucky because I inherited such a concrete foundation from Sarah’s work,” Cordrey says. “In 11 years, she had built a loyal following of financial supporters and volunteers and artists. It was a process that worked, but it was a very hectic pace.”

In Cordrey’s view, VAE has always evolved to meet the needs of its moment. When spaces for emerging artists were scarce, VAE met that need. Later, when such spaces had proliferated and bred a generation of artists that needed professional guidance, VAE did that too, opening a retail shop and educational program for local artisans in a time before DECO and Edge of Urge.

Then, when organizations like Triangle ArtWorks ably took up those functions, VAE “began to ask a lot of questions,” Cordrey says. “Why are the arts so white? What is the end goal? Why do opportunities and funding seem to funnel so narrowly in Raleigh? How can art provide real opportunities or solve problems rather than just generating conversations about them?”

As VAE’s programming has grown more representative of Raleigh, its board of directors, almost all white when Cordrey took over, now has no single-race majority. Diversity has grown among what was once an all-white, able-bodied, and predominantly female staff. Employees now receive health care options, paid time off, and salaries that are competitive, as far as arts nonprofits go. And, according to Cordrey, funding for artists has increased 18-fold, with significant gains from a long-sought Andy Warhol Foundation grant.

More uncertain is where VAE will be located this time next year. Since leaving its longtime home on West Martin Street, it’s had a temporary lease with TheGifted Arts on Glenwood Avenue, but that expires sometime in 2022 when a construction project begins.

“I’d really love to find a space for VAE, but the control freak in me has to let that go,” Cordrey says, laughing. “Or, maybe I’ll sign a lease in the next four weeks.”

For Cordrey, a white man, the logical endgame of his efforts to undermine white supremacy in his role at VAE was for him to give it up. He wasn’t sure what he would do when he decided to leave, but he recently accepted a position as development director for North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services, a nonprofit law firm that aids incarcerated people and advocates for criminal-justice reforms.

“I really enjoy having goals and meeting them, and VAE was up for that when I got here,” he says, sitting before a banner emblazoned with the brief, direct mission statement about social consciousness. “Now, we can actually afford to pay someone who doesn’t look like me or rely on second income from a partner—the systems that keep holding white leaders in the top spots in these nonprofits. Kayla’s qualifications were impressive, and it was remarkable how aligned she was with VAE’s current thinking on equitable compensation for artists, how programming should be built through community collaboration, and racial-disability-queer justice more broadly in the arts.”

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