Community Show reception: Friday, Sep. 20, 6–9 p.m.
Prompts: Saturday, Sep. 21, 7 p.m.
The Carrack Modern Art, Durham
Last Saturday, as a part of a conference called “Emergent Futures: State of the Field,” The Carrack Modern Art hosted a roundtable discussion on alternative arts organizations that featured Durham community leaders such as Monét Noelle Marshall and Pierce Freelon. The talk ranged widely over inequities, particularly racial ones, in the arts landscape. The gallery was packed with a diverse crowd that offered moving personal stories and snapped their fingers for one another, sitting among the brightly colored bounty of the community show that covered almost every inch of wall space.
In a way, it was a typical day at The Carrack, a noncommercial art gallery that, over the past eight years, has become a haven for Durham’s independent artists by minimizing economic and cultural barriers to participation, and by holding an intentional space for conversations such as this one.
But in another way, it was highly atypical, as this exhibit is The Carrack’s last. After this weekend, with a closing reception on Friday and a final installment of the performance series Prompts on Saturday, the gallery will permanently close.
At first, it was hard to think of this as anything but a tragedy. It’s no stretch to call The Carrack Durham’s most beloved arts landmark. It showed the work of hundreds of local artists (a number that nears one thousand if you factor in the annual community shows), many of them emerging. It accelerated a conversation about injustices in the arts by plunging directly into those conflicts, and it pushed other local institutions to reckon with its example. It forged countless connections among artists and supporters across mediums, genres, genders, races, and classes, and it spawned countless projects and collaborations. It created a revolutionary model and shared it generously.
When you consider that The Carrack achieved all this while charging artists nothing to use the space however they saw fit and taking not a cent from their sales, it’s not a tragedy that it lasted for eight years, it’s a miracle. In the end, its proprietors realized that the free labor baked into the structure ran contrary to their values, with no viable route to sustainability. To their credit, they chose to stop.
In being honest about its troubles as well as its triumphs, The Carrack is priming the next generation of arts leaders to improve on its transformative model. In a world where change is so necessary, permanence isn’t necessarily a virtue. While this is inevitably a story of loss, it’s also about the triumph of transience and the indelible mark that The Carrack leaves behind.
As 2017 turned to 2018, Laura Ritchie was very tired. Since founding The Carrack with John Wendelbo, who exited after a year, she had been the gallery’s sole director and presided over a difficult move from Parrish Street to Main Street, adjacent to Golden Belt. What she thought would be a short project after college had overtaken most of her twenties, and she was ready to do something else. She had also realized that, as a white person who had founded a gallery on Black Wall Street and then moved it to a predominantly African-American neighborhood, she needed to decentralize her leadership if The Carrack was to fully achieve its community-oriented goals.
Though Ritchie was able to start taking a small salary (about $8,000 a year) near the end of her tenure, she had long worked for no pay, aided by a volunteer staff. She knew that asking that of a new director wasn’t fair, and virtually guaranteed one above a certain threshold of cultural privilege. So, with The Carrack’s advisory board and board of directors, she formalized the job description, which would pay $15 an hour for twenty-five hours a week, and they put out a call in the spring of 2018. Saba Taj’s application quickly rose to the top.
Taj already had a deep relationship with The Carrack. As a leader in Durham Artists Movement—a group centered on working-class artists of color, who inhabited the Carrack’s former space on Parrish Street rent-free for the final six months of its lease—she was immersed in a community The Carrack wanted to reach. And as an artist who used to hand out burned CDs of her work to sometimes-confused art-scene players—after all, that’s not how it’s done—before earning an MFA at UNC and achieving professional success, she understood the barriers and anxieties of emerging artists, especially those who did not see themselves reflected in commercial galleries and museums.
“Saba got the job, and everyone was so excited,” Ritchie says, sitting with Taj on The Carrack’s back deck. “Also, Saba was working way more than she was being paid for, and that became clear really quickly.”
Taj succeeded in continuing and streamlining The Carrack’s activities in tandem with operations and fundraising director Kerry Crocker, The Carrack’s secret engine on many levels, from the depths of its databases to its high-profile Muse Masquerade. But a flaw that had always lurked in the model was exposed: It only worked because of Ritchie’s ability and willingness to donate copious amounts of time.
“That was just the way The Carrack evolved,” Ritchie says. “There were no bounds. I just lived and breathed it, which is part of why I was so exhausted. It had always been a dream to pass this on. The primary reason we hadn’t done it earlier was feeling limited by our financial capability.”
In March 2019, Taj received word that she’d earned a post-MFA fellowship at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies. Especially as a parent, she knew she had to take it—which, as Ritchie points out, is exactly the kind of sustainability The Carrack wants for artists. With her Carrack position already proven to be unsustainable, the decision was made to shut down.
By the end of its lifespan, Ritchie says, The Carrack’s annual expenses amounted to about $80,000. As the gallery doesn’t take money from artists or visitors, it had to come from fundraising efforts, sustainers, and large individual or corporate donors. Taj’s arrival unleashed a vision of sustainability for the institution, but the resources required to get there were out of reach, especially for an organization whose fundraising capacity was hampered by its mission. Its main annual fundraiser, the Muse Masquerade at 21c Museum Hotel, was successful, but it also hedged between attracting wealthy donors and being inclusive.
“When I first came in, Kerry really took on Muse Masquerade alone, and how much we ended up raising versus how much labor it took to pull off just didn’t match,” Taj says. “We didn’t want to have this super-bougie thing that our people can’t come to.”
“We were always hyper-concerned about it being inclusive and modeling our values,” Ritchie adds. “We tried pay-what-you-want models, a sliding scale, different tiers. It attracted this [wealthy] crowd, but we also never fully went there.”
Though The Carrack had always operated like a nonprofit, it only became a 501(c)(3) last year, mainly in order to qualify for more grants. But the majority of grants are for programming, not salaries and overhead. To get the funding, it needed more staff, which is exactly what it needed the funding for.
“It was the same stuck place we kept running into,” Ritchie says. “The community loves this project, and none of us want it to go away. But we were in a position where, by continuing without a plan that in eight years we had not been able to formulate, we would be conflicting with our values. We’d be asking artists to work for less than they deserve or creating an organization that is dependent upon the leadership of somebody who can do it without pay, which perpetuates inequity in the arts community.”
On Main Street, The Carrack’s rent was fairly manageable—$1,200, about twice what they’d paid on Parrish—though it now had staff to pay, and the Golden Belt arts landscape had changed. Jazz club The Shed closed; neighboring gallery SPECTRE Arts closed; the Golden Belt studios changed ownership and went fallow, though they have since been revitalized. The Carrack, once the heart of Third Friday art walks, was now cut off from them—a story we’ve seen across the Triangle. As development pushes independent art institutions out of downtowns (see also Chapel Hill’s FRANK Gallery and Raleigh’s Adam Cave Fine Art), the center cannot hold, and the social fabric of local scenes is fraying.
“It’s not straightforward, like our rent went up and we couldn’t afford to be there anymore,” Ritchie says of the original downtown location, which had accessibility issues, with long, steep stairs. “The construction of One City Center made it impossible to be there. Parrish was shut down. We had pieces on two occasions fall off the wall and be damaged because of the construction.”
While the Main Street space is physically accessible, access was still a challenge.
“The art gallery is not a neutral space,” Taj says. “Without trying, it’s a white space, a white box. It feels like you have to be invited or it costs money. It takes real, consistent work to be in a place like this accountably, and we were already struggling in terms of capacity.”
“We didn’t do that groundwork before we made the move,” Ritchie says. “I wish I had been more conscious of my privilege and the long-term outcome of embedding that into the way The Carrack grew. I wasn’t thinking critically about class privilege or whiteness at twenty-three. It felt like a really hard thing to unravel and rebuild.”
“A sustainable model requires planning on the front end,” Taj adds. “Otherwise you get bowled over by the system. It will institutionalize you. Other models need to be really intentionally paved or you’re going to become reliant on unpaid labor to do something generous in a country built on scarcity.”
These are the kinds of lessons that The Carrack hopes to impart to other arts organizations, current and future. But as we examine its struggles, we should also celebrate its success, which carries on in the connections it forged. They will long outlast the space. The Carrack’s final planned shows are dispersing throughout Durham—to NorthStar Church of the Arts, The Fruit, Durham Art Guild, The Mothership, and Golden Belt, which, Taj says, agreed to honor the zero-commission model.
“Things are different than when The Carrack started, and this creates space for what we need now, which might look different,” Taj says. “And I trust the artists here.”
Indeed, trust is the essential thing The Carrack offered to artists trying to navigate an elite system designed to keep them out.
“Even after everything I’ve done, there’s a discomfort in museum spaces and commercial galleries that persists to this day,” Taj says. “There’s all these codes that I didn’t grow up learning, and The Carrack was a space where I felt comfortable.”
“We’ve always led with a yes,” Ritchie says. “And then, ‘What do you need?’ As opposed to, ‘Can you do this?’ or ‘Prove it.’ We recognized the labor an artist has already done to create a body of work. We wished we could pay them for that, but we can’t. What we could offer was free space and zero-commission sales, and we then have the privilege to experience the work.”
The Carrack’s generosity allowed artists to experiment and even fail with minimal consequences, which was especially invaluable for those just starting out.
“There’s few places you can show a solo body of work without a resume,” Taj says. “You usually have to do all these things that cost money to be trusted to have a space [in a gallery], and that’s something The Carrack really pushed against.”
It also connected emerging artists with experienced ones, art makers with art funders, and creators from different mediums. Justin Tornow, a choreographer who has been running Prompts at The Carrack since 2013, met visual artist Heather Gordon there, leading to their robust collaborations to follow.
“The culture of ‘yes’ was so exciting, to show up somewhere and have them say, ‘Yeah, what do you need?’ I had never experienced that before,” Tornow says.
“The artists who show in coffee shops versus the ones who show in museums, there’s not connections there,” Taj says. “And I think The Carrack has been really great at creating community and mutual respect among those artists. Folks who were part of the Carrack’s early life—seeing what’s happened with those artists is beautiful.”
One such artist is Wutang McDougal, who started as an intern in The Carrack’s early days and whose works have gone on to be displayed in many Triangle venues.
“The majority of the folks that I know in Durham have been connected through that space,” he says. “It provided an affordable platform for independent black, brown, and queer artists to reach audiences downtown. [But] I also remember that The Carrack can start again in any space. The people, the community, the regulars are what makes the space.”
We all wish The Carrack could have lasted forever, but it’s probably best that it didn’t, because forever isn’t sustainable.
“There’s such a push to be like, ‘Let’s make stuff that stays and grows and we can always count on it,’ and sometimes maybe we don’t need to do that,” Taj says. “We can do something amazing and out-of-the-box and temporary and allow ourselves the flexibility to do that over and over again.”
“There were arts organizations here prior to The Carrack,” Ritchie says. “We emerged in a certain way at a time when we needed to fill a gap and meet some needs. We did that. And now we’ll see what comes next.”
Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.