40th-Anniversary VAE Gala 

Saturday, Mar. 7, 6:30–11 p.m., $65–$150

Dorton Arena, Raleigh

In 1980, Raleigh artists Margot Richter, Bob Rankin, Barbara Burnham, and Marriott Little noticed a problem: There were no local resources for nascent creators to get their feet in the door of the art world. So they started a small group to help aspiring painters and sculptors begin their careers. Four decades later, that idea has grown into a venerable cultural-arts nonprofit on West Martin Street. 

VAE Raleigh, which is celebrating its 40th birthday with a fundraising gala at Dorton Arena on March 7, has been many things to many people: an exhibition space for first-time artists, a place to learn professional skills, and a powerful ally of socially engaged art. It’s been the force behind SPARKCon, Raleigh’s annual pan-arts festival; the host of a queer homecoming and many other kinds of gatherings; and an exhibitor of everything from poetry to painting, neon signs to giant spray-foam ducks. 

The INDY sat down with executive director Brandon Cordrey to discuss the phases of VAE’s history, its efforts to combat the entrenched discrimination of the art world, and more.

INDY: What were those original artists trying to achieve? How have you fulfilled that mission?

BRANDON CORDREY: In 1980, there were four private galleries and great museums [in Raleigh] but no other space for artists to get their start. Artsplosure, the cultural-events production studio, was also founded in 1980, but N.C. State’s Art United didn’t exist, and neither did the United Arts Council, the funding wing of the county. Even the culture of hanging art in coffeeshops wasn’t as prominent as it is now. So those artists created an accessible space, flexible enough for new artists to fail and get better until they got the experience needed to rise to the gallery level. 

For a significant period, VAE was about accessibility for new artists. Then they hired Sarah Powers as director and began to focus on professional skills. Then came Google, and all that information became accessible on the internet. So around 2015, we began to do more work around socially engaged art. We looked around, and the art community had expanded so much around us. That allowed us the opportunity to curate ourselves, to focus on one particular part of art, rather than trying to be everything to everyone. We began to focus on socially engaged art, which we see as contributing to positive change in the community. That’s where we are now.

“Five years ago, our board was 86 percent white. Now it’s 44 percent white, which is much more reflective of the artists we’re working with and the community we serve.”

How have issues around equity in the arts evolved since 1980? How has VAE fought for equity in the arts?

The cultural arts have a strong foundation in racial oppression and segregation. The arts community has begun to look that in its face and figure out ways to rectify it, but we don’t see a lot of diversity at the very highest levels of arts organizations. We’re still trying to achieve that real equity. Five years ago, our board was 86 percent white. Now it’s 44 percent white, which is much more reflective of the artists we’re working with and the community we serve. 

We’ve also tried to change our physical space. We try to write text on the wall that’s readable and solicits feedback; we believe that your interaction with this work and with us is the only way that the work is fully itself. We often play music so it’s not a quiet white box and paint the gallery so it’s actually not a white box. And we have gallery guides who will ask questions. Like for our current exhibit, The Full Light of Day, which showcases the work of artists with disabilities, we ask, how many people with disabilities do you know? If you’ve used words like “retarded” or “wheelchair-bound,” how do you think the artists in this exhibition would feel about that? How do you feel about that? There’s no wrong answer. 

Our space is also fully physically accessible. If someone who’s blind or low-vision comes into a quiet gallery—why would they want to do that? We recently had an audio-described and tactile tour, where we had the Wake Federation for the Blind come through, feel things, and have conversations about the art.  

One notable aspect of VAE is how interdisciplinary you all seem to be. 

If creating social change is your end goal, then you’re much less likely to focus on your own particular medium, and you’re more likely to focus on what will ultimately get you to your goal. With our current project, there’s a lot of visual art in the space, but there’s also redacted literary work, and there’s an artist who came in to do a performance piece that expanded on their visual art piece, which is all found objects. 

What’s the history of your involvement with VAE?

I had been hounding them, and they finally broke down and contracted me to help with street painting at SPARKCon 2013. I came to help and stayed for the whole weekend and didn’t leave, so I could make them like me. I convinced Sarah to hire me as exhibitions manager, then became director of exhibitions and helped with grants. When Sarah took a job with the city of Raleigh, I sent a note and said, hi, I would like your job.

“We’re going to need to move eventually, and with the city growing so fast, what does that mean?”

What’s an exhibit in the past few years that’s stuck with you?

I think our very first Black on Black exhibition, with Mike Williams and Linda Dallas, was a transition point for us. After Eric Garner’s death in 2014, we knew that the arts should be part of the conversation around what was happening. We were not diverse enough as a staff to have that conversation come from us, and we wanted to support two curators of color curating work by artists of color that depict people of color. 

Tell me about the gala. 

It’s at Dorton Arena. There will be circus performers. There will be the Poetry Fox. There will probably be 200 works of art that have been donated by local artists. There will be auctions. We’re doing a commission back to artists who donate, so we expect that this will put about $20,000 of funding into their pockets. Creative attire is encouraged. You’ll see amazing outfits that range from comfy and casual to all-out wacky. It’ll be our biggest celebration of the arts and our biggest celebration of turning 40.

Lastly, what’s on the horizon? 

We’re going to need to move eventually, and with the city growing so fast, what does that mean? What’s the smartest investment for us in terms of physical space, which is our biggest resource and biggest expense? 

We’re also in a strategic planning process. What we’re doing artistically and programmatically is going really well, but now we need to build structures around it. We’ll continue supporting socially engaged art and operating in an open-source way, but I think the quality of our work will continue to get even better as we build those structures and put them in place.

Comment on this story at arts@indyweek.com. 

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.