Twenty years ago, talking about the Triangle’s art scene would have been like talking about its great public transit system or its plentiful vegetarian restaurantsmore aspirational than accurate.
A lot has changed. The number of artists in the region, and the number of places they can showfrom small, flexible galleries to large, world-class facilitieshas skyrocketed. Now the problem isn’t finding something good to see; it’s finding time to see everything good.
With its relatively low cost of living and relatively large amount of cultural opportunities, the Triangle was primed to nuture a thriving art scene long before it had one. The missing element was venues to get work into the public sphere and galvanize communities around it.
In our cover story this week, we look at two indispensable spaces that are celebrating milestone yearsone that has helped build the scene from the top down, the other from the bottom up. Between them, we get a well-rounded picture of how local art has matured, startlingly fast, over the last two decades.
The Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University feels like such a permanent fixture of Durham that it’s easy to forget it has been there for only 10 years. We delve into the story of its humble origins as an obscure campus museum and how it developed its unique collection area in the art of the African diaspora.
Lump has held down its Raleigh spot for an astonishing 20 years. As grassroots and grungy as the Nasher is grand, Lump’s gallery and collective model feels more like Durham in 2015 than Raleigh in 1995. The little gallery that could’s contributions to local life cannot be overstated, and its innovative shows continue to challenge, confound and confront. In celebrating the birthdays of Nasher and Lump, we celebrate the Triangle’s artistic growth, and we can’t wait to see what the next 20 years will bring. Brian Howe
Magnolia blossoms in colored pencil. Oil paintings of the family dog. That’s what art looked like in Raleigh before Lump opened in 1996.
Now it’s hard to imagine the growth of today’s robust and relevant Triangle gallery scene without the cinderblock bunker on Blount Street to seed it.
You won’t catch Lump founder Bill Thelen making such claims, however. “Whether that’s true or not, I don’t know,” he says with characteristic humility. “I’m a person who doesn’t look back that much. I tend to like to look forward.”
But several generations of forward-looking artists single out Lump as the first toehold for work that was otherwise unimaginable in a state that kept sending Jesse Helms to the Senate.
Over two decades of tireless curation, Thelen and his partner, Med Byrd, have hosted hundreds of exhibitions and performances by artists of national renown, including Shepard Fairey, Mark Mothersbaugh, Kymia Nawabi and Barry McGee, while nurturing local luminaries such as Paul Friedrich, Laura Sharp Wilson, Harrison Haynes and Jason Osborne. Many of them will be revisited in this anniversary year, termed “Lumpxx.”
Thelen placed a priority on young, underappreciated artists, giving many their first show. It’s the kind of devotion to emergent work that gives graduating MFA students a reason to stay instead of fleeing to New York or Los Angeles.
Lump became a connection point in its early years, when few such spaces existed in the Triangle. The fearless anti-commercial gallery and Team Lump artist collective have helped regional artists congregate and collaborate while serving as a model for a new generation of art spaces and organizations.
Amy White, a Carrboro-based artist and sometime INDY art critic who has both shown work at Lump and written extensively about the gallery, says, “Lump connected me to the greater art world beyond the Triangle, and the Triangle to the greater art world. It’s that simple.”
“It was a beacon in the middle of nothing but galleries that care about whether something matches your couch,” says Michael Salter, one of Lump’s first studio tenants, who is now an art professor at the University of Oregon. “It launched a shitload of careers. It introduced a serious platform for work that was concept-heavy, in a professional space, with regular programming and intelligent discourse.”
“Raleigh thought it was the next Atlanta, but from an arts standpoint it was still Mayberry,” Byrd chuckles. “We believe that we’ve helped bring the cultural bubble to Raleigh.”
Depending on which way you’re facing, time has either forgotten or rapidly transformed the corner of Cabarrus and Blount where Lump crouches, as if it had just been dropped from the sky and landed there by chance.
Look north or west and you see a new, bustling Raleigh, with disposable income and plenty of places to spend it. Young urbanites in workout gear walk dogs that fit nicely into their Palladium Plaza condos. Within shouting distance of Lump’s front stoop, they might as well be miles away. New Raleigh ends at Cabarrus, a line of segregation that prosperity has chosen to ignore rather than to cross.
Look south or west and you see decades into the past, or even a century. The Tupper Memorial Baptist ChurchLump’s neighborwas founded at the end of the Civil War. So was Shaw University, which has buildings the next block down, past a series of storefronts with boarded windows. At Cabarrus and Blount, Raleigh’s present slams into its past, and neither seems prepared to budge. Is this the worst spot for an avant-garde gallery, or the best one? Twenty years and counting make for a convincing proof-of-concept.
Lump started with one sentence, buried in the classifieds: “Commercial building downtown, with parking.”
“The price was ridiculously low,” Byrd remembers. “I thought that there was bound to be a number missing there.”
The former upholstery shop, cafe, shoe store and nightclub had been vacant for about four years. Because of family issues, the owner needed to sell it that week and had cut the price in half. Thelen needed a cheap studio space and Byrd needed an investment property. Having already lost out on several to the real estate speculators swarming downtown, they didn’t hesitate. If the goal had been a living space and studio in 1970s New York instead of mid-1990s Raleigh, their biopic would be on Netflix by now.
“The thought of actually renting a studio was mind-boggling,” Thelen says. “How do you come up with an extra $250 a month? Or even $90? But Med said, ‘I think it would be cheaper if we got a building and you became a manager and got a free studio.’ I would never think about that, as an artistyou mean I can control my future?”
But, despite inking a mortgage, there were some limitations to their control. The plan had been to chop the building into eight studios so that rent on seven of them would underwrite Thelen’s space. But inside, they found a wall dividing it down the center. Without a central corridor off of which to build rooms, the plan changed to three studios on one side and an open space on the other.
“I’m always one to adapt to what’s already there,” Thelen says. “So I came up with the idea that maybe we could do shows, or show the artists in the studios. It was the architecture, not some curatorial thing.”
Thelen and Byrd spent six months clearing out years of neglect. Condoms, hypodermic needles and rat droppings were everywhere. A wall they thought was painted yellow turned out to be soaked with urine.
Thelen kept some aspects of the old Blue Lady Lounge, the nightclub that had been the last paying tenant, on the studio side of the building. The floor was covered with stars that were painted over just last year, when Kelly McChesney moved Flanders Gallery under Lump’s roof. Like any good speakeasy, the walls were black, which the first studio artists tolerated for a while. Eventually Salter couldn’t stand it anymore and painted them white while Thelen was out for an afternoon.
The day before Lump’s grand opening, Hurricane Fran hit. Thelen and Byrd had just installed the only photography show Lump has ever done, and they dodged fallen oaks and downed power lines to see if their venture had survived. Lump not only weathered the storm; it had electricity, and the opening went on as scheduled.
The early years were wild but entertaining. Downtown was rough, and openings always provided what Byrd calls “street theater.” Salter remembers prostitutes strolling into the gallery to solicit and recently released inmates from Central Prison intimidating gallery visitors for money.
“There was a guy who would come to gallery openings with this live, green snake about 10 inches long,” Salter says, cracking up, “and he would do this trick where he would stick it up his nose and it would come out his mouth. This was just a guy who lived in the neighborhood.”
The shows Thelen curated were like nothing Raleigh had ever seen. In its first year, Lump featured local artists Friedrich, Wilson, André Leon Gray and elin o’Hara slavick. The next year, the first of many Team Lump group shows took place, as well as Quiet!, a collaborative installation of “noisy sound-making devices” by A/V Geeks mastermind Skip Elsheimer and Wifflefist. Try putting that over your couch.
Team Lump began as a group of about eight artist friends who liked to hang out at the gallery. They would make work together, or hand over a piece to let someone else finish it. Before long, it was a legitimate collective with designs on undermining the traditional group show. Members of Team Lump didn’t just hang their work on the wall next to one another; they made all of the work together.
“You give up some of your own identity to a kind of groupthink,” Thelen says. “That changed a lot of things in terms of getting invited to show in other places as a collective, not just, ‘We’ll take this person and this person.’”
Once established as an avant-garde hub, Lump became part of the East Coast network of similar spaces. Team Lump did “gallery exchanges” with comparable collectives, such as Seattle’s Milky World and Brooklyn’s Cinders Gallery. They built a cardboard replica of Lump at Baltimore’s Artscape. Raleigh hadn’t embraced Lump yet, but the larger art world had.
It’s likely that Dallas artist Ludwig Schwarz has shown more at Lump than anyone else. His minimal installationsa recent show consisted of little more than a romantically involved meat smoker and luggage carriercan fluster even the gallery’s staunchest supporters.
“Ludwig was revolutionary for us,” Byrd says. “He was our first truly ultra-conceptual artist.”
Thelen also drew in street-art legends to install work and to tag and sticker-bomb the neighborhood. Fairey did a one-man show in 1999 and, three years later, McGee (fresh off a huge success at the Fondazione Prada in Milan) and Andrew Jeffrey Wright visited from the Bay Area and Philadelphia. In one show, McGee did a mural painting on a gallery wall for which collectors were offering five figures, sight unseen. But he wanted the piece to exist only for the duration of the show. Thelen couldn’t bear to paint over it, so he made Byrd do it.
From day one, Lump has maintained the professionalism of a white-wall gallery while turning its aesthetic on its ear, challenging art-world initiates as well as the goes-with-the-couch crowd.
“They completely kicked my ass as an art writer,” says White. “It takes so much work to meet the work where it is. There’s never anything that happens in Lump that feels redundant or cliché or tired. It’s definitely pushing something.”
I had been making art under the guise of ‘Lump Lipshitz’ for years before I moved here,” Thelen says, explaining the gallery’s name. “Lump was just a nickname I had in college, and [Lifshitz] is Ralph Lauren’s birth name that he changed to sound more WASPy, so I picked it out of the trash.”
When you ask Thelen about his vision for Lump, he might make a rhetorical move to throw you off. But soon enough you’ll find yourself deep in conversation about conventions and expectations, community and the individual, ethics and pedagogy. For Thelen, art-making, curating and teaching are all part of the same unpremeditated project. Ultimately, it’s about figuring out how to do what you need to do and embracing the fact that things done with others tend to have a greater impact in the world.
“Bill’s vision made complete sense to me,” Salter says. “It didn’t matter what the rest of the art world was doing or what academia expected. What mattered was a space that showed smart and engaging work. It’s rooted in this DIY approach, in the same way you might start a band with some friends in your garage and Xerox the posters and have a show in the backyard. You can do anything with nothing.”
Thelen is neither complacent nor restless about Lump’s future, just ready for change. He has more questions than answers about next year and beyond.
“I’ve been talking with people about shows beyond this year,” he says. “But I’ve also been thinking, is a gallery an outdated model? How else, in terms of social practice, could this space be used to look toward newer forms of work? What else could this gallery do to connect to changing contemporary art-making practices?”
Thelen worked on some of those questions through his curation of the inspired The Nothing That Isa drawing show in five parts at CAM Raleigh this year. Some of the show was traditional work on walls, albeit hung in playful, unconventional ways. Other parts of the show were community projects, such as Jason Polan’s open-to-anyone Taco Bell Drawing Club and the Vegan Snake Club, a socially conscious art initiative Thelen runs with his students at Raleigh Charter High School.
Thelen has been extending exhibitions into community activity in this way for years, long before area museums had education and public programs departments. It’s become standard practice across the Triangle for art-goers to get these kinds of chances to engage more deeply.
When the studio side of the building ran its course, Thelen asked McChesney if she wanted to move Flanders into the space. Facing displacement by the Union Station redevelopment, she had been looking for an alternative to her large warehouse near CAM. Now Flanders is a cozy gun-barrel gallery that isn’t forced to book weddings and frat parties on weekends to pay rent.
“I was tired of being an island on my own,” McChesney says. “I felt like it would be better to band together, or be near another gallery that I felt good about.”
Lump and Flanders have their own front entrances, but the spaces aren’t separated inside. Although each has its distinct curatorial sense, Thelen and McChesney like how they complement each other, introducing the audiences they’ve built to work on the other side. That promises to change the complexion of Lump, too.
“I felt like I was living in a vacuum for a while,” Thelen says. “People weren’t really coming to the shows and I was wondering if we’d said all we could say.”
“Lump and Flanders kind of go together, but we’re also so different in a lot of ways,” McChesney says. “It enables a lot of dialogue. If people are intimidated by one show then they have something else to see on the other side.”
People used to be intimidated to come downtown at all. Now restaurants have lines out the door. Galleries are packed on First Fridays. Spaces like CAM and The Pink Building and collectives like Peregrine Projects and SiteWork flesh out a lively scene. And the City of Raleigh is developing an ambitious, comprehensive arts plan. Colored-pencil drawings of magnolias didn’t get us here.
While none of it can quantifiably be traced back to Lump, its role in the city’s transformation is clear to anyone who has followed it. “We put a foundation in,” Byrd says. “That gave people a place to say, ‘This is what I miss from New York or Philadelphia or San Francisco.’ We provided this anchor point that other things could attach to and become real.”
Thelen, typically, deflects credit.
“The architecture determined what it was going to be before we even got here,” he says. “I think I’ve run my whole life like that. Sometimes the ball drops in the right place at the right time. If we had been a week later, Lump never would have happened.” Thank goodness it did.
This article appeared in print with the headline “Museum milestones”