All arts organizations will be emerging into a new world as COVID subsides, but this is especially true of VAE Raleigh.

Since leaving its home at 309 West Martin Street last summer, the nonprofit art gallery has signed two new leases. One is for a row of four storefronts at 120 South Wilmington Street, which VAE started using as street-view galleries at the beginning of March.

The other lease, shared with youth-arts nonprofit TheGifted Arts, is for a large space in the Creamery building at 410 Glenwood Avenue, Suite 170. This will be VAE’s new flagship when it reopens in May with De Aqui Y De Alla, a group exhibit about Latinx duality. TheGifted Art, which Nicholé and CJ Morgan founded in Garner a decade ago, is operating in Raleigh now.

Both leases are relatively short-term. The storefronts are set to be demolished within a year, with two weeks’ notice, making way for a 32-story tower. The Creamery lease has a shelf life of 16 to 24 months.

But for once, that’s a feature, not a bug. In conversations among the leaders of VAE, TheGifted Arts, and several other prospective partners (such as the LGBT Center of Raleigh), an idea had taken shape for a community arts hub where lean-margined nonprofits could consolidate resources, eliminate redundant expenses, and forge a sustainable path through the high-priced development squeezing Raleigh’s downtown core.

Low-cost, low-stakes, last-days leases, it turned out, made perfect prototypes.

Brandon Cordrey, VAE’s executive director, presided over much of its nine years in the Warehouse District. Frustrated by the untapped potential of being a small outfit in a big building, he often loaned VAE space to nonprofits like Arts Access for board meetings and other functions.

“We have these galleries that sit empty, and we pay to keep them conditioned for the safety of the artwork, but we’re not using the space a lot of the time, and it’s our second-biggest expense after staff,” Cordrey says. “We realized that if we could operate out of one physical space, we could redirect those funds toward our actual community-service missions.”

Counterintuitively, for all the ventures the pandemic has ruined, it galvanized this one. All of that rent pouring into empty rooms threw the issue into stark relief, and two of the potential partners, VAE and TheGifted Arts, were clear of their leases.

“It was the only time this was going to work, because otherwise, we have leases ranging from six months to eight years, with no real opportunity to get the concentration of funding we’d need for a location big enough for us,” Cordrey says.

Also counterintuitively, inasmuch as urban development drives nonprofits’ woes, artist-friendly property owners and brokers helped make this experiment possible. VAE first used the storefront spaces a few months ago, for ILLUMINATE, a light-art project created at the behest of the Downtown Raleigh Alliance. This lit the way for Kane Realty to let them lease the empty storefronts until they were torn down.

VAE had long been lucky to have creative, civic-minded landlords in Thomas Sayre and the late Steve Schuster, who “gave VAE its first home on Hargett and then supported it through the Martin Street era,” according to Cordrey.

“An architect and an artist who were early investors in downtown when everyone told them it was ludicrous,” he marvels. “They understood the landscape of the city and nonprofits, and they didn’t have a corporate outlook.”

That beneficent torch was picked up by Jamie Dawson, the vice chair of the City of Raleigh Arts Commission and the head of the real estate agency The Dawson Group.

“Jamie has been an advocate for VAE and TheGifted Arts in the past,” Cordrey says. “He thought piloting the community-hub idea before going big was a good idea, and he set his team to helping us find it pro bono.”

The Creamery space mainly consists of three large bays, one broken into offices, one serving as VAE’s main gallery, and one as TheGifted Arts’ larger of two dance studios. The smaller one will also be used for video art by VAE, illustrating the creative possibilities beyond the economic necessities of the permeable arrangement.   

“We can move in, work out the kinks, and at the end of two years either walk away having tried it, or have data that it works that we can show developers,” Cordrey says. “Being willing to be the last tenant here, we got a lot more flexibility [and] a price we could experiment within.”

Another experimental aspect is that, while the two organizations are sharing the space equally, VAE is taking on more of the cost, in acknowledgement of the historic over-resourcing of white-led nonprofits at the expense of Black-led ones like TheGifted Arts, which serves predominantly Black and Latin American arts students through afterschool and weekend classes.

“VAE gets to stay relatively in the downtown core, while TheGifted Arts can become a funding partner of the city, where there are more municipal resources than there are in Garner,” says Cordrey, who hopes developers will take notice as other nonprofits escape their leases and join the coalition. “If we’re going to take advantage of how the city is changing and growing, we can’t just shake our fists in the air. Those four storefronts were going to sit vacant until the wrecking ball went through Alexander Square. Now, they don’t have to.”

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