Tucked away on a side street near Raleigh’s Five Points neighborhood, the cinderblock-and-glass building barely stands out from the light-grade industrial buildings around it. Bickett Gallery’s logo–a stack of three circles, light blue on rust-red on tan, on a pale blue background–painted on the outside is the only clue that what’s been going on inside since the spring of 2002 has had a big impact on regional art.
Actually, make that “arts.” Not only has Bickett provided a venue for local, national and foreign visual artists, it’s given musicians young and seasoned a place to be heard and taken seriously–an alternative to the smoke and chaos of the bar scene. Up and coming choreographers and dancers have found a valuable toehold there, in an area where rehearsal and exhibition venues remain too rare. Alternative film and design students have also found sanctuary.
And when these artists have gotten together there–at the bar, perhaps, or for a showing or performance–they’ve proven again and again that when you cross-pollinate the arts, audiences grow.
Curator and founder Molly Miller recalls some of the first reactions when she proposed establishing what her Web site terms a “multimedia mecca”–a space to encourage and provide exposure to artists working in a number of genres. “People said, ‘You don’t know what you want to be. You can’t do that, have a gallery and a band, a gallery and dance, a bar.’”
She gives a guarded laugh, and then says, “I never liked being told what I ‘can’t’ do.”
The practice of simultaneously presenting artists in visual and live genres has proven to be successful for the gallery and added to the exposure of the artists.
“People who like the music they play go there and they wind up seeing modern dance for the first time in their lives,” says choreographer Renay Aumiller. “It’s opened that art for people who wouldn’t necessarily ever know it existed.”
Skip Elsheimer, of A/V Geeks, describes the “accidental audience members” who are out for a drink with friends, then see the group’s archival films and wind up saying, “What’s this? That’s really cool!”
Several things facilitate the crossover effect. The space has a low-key, urbane vibe. Though neutral white walls line the generous gallery space immediately across from the front door, in the bar and conversation area, just off the left, magenta sofas and coffee tables strewn with current art magazines give a lounge-like feel. Through the modest boutique for wearable arts, out the back door and beyond the outside barstools, an ad hoc assortment of chairs, tables and hanging paper lanterns on a patio gives audiences a free space to hang out and gaze across the railroad tracks at the Raleigh skyline.
The effect leads dancer Carson Efird to call Bickett “the first art gallery I ever felt comfortable in.”
Colleague Kathryn Ullom assents: “You feel they actually like having artists, having people being in the space.”
Miller says she wants patrons to feel like they’re sitting in a living room. “I want it to be cheap enough so anyone can come,” she says. “And it’s somewhere I want people to feel it doesn’t matter whether they’re wearing the nicest outfit they own, or they’re in shorts and a T-shirt. It’s supposed to be a comfortable, chill place–that happens to function on a high level when it comes to art in all forms.”
The combination of serious art and casual atmosphere draws an audience that’s ready to be challenged. “You’re not having to babysit this audience,” muses musician Joe Westerlund of DeYarmond Edison, a band that has been given a residency at the space. “People go there to really listen. It’s a good place to try things out.”
The gallery has been changing and is still undergoing change. A just-added screening room will enable the space to do even more with experimental film in the coming year. Miller has been assessing some of the acts and artists it has shown–and will not show again.
“Evolution is very important to me,” she says. “The past year we’ve taken on things in dance, visual art and music, hopefully to take us to a higher level. Now when we have bands come and play, we say, ‘This is not a rock club, it’s an art gallery–and if your music is more rock-club oriented, there are other places for you to go.’
“I will not show art in any genre I do not believe in,” Miller notes. “We have a reputation for high-quality work. That’s important.”
“It’s a serious venue,” Efird says. “She encourages collaboration, and taking risks. She’s open to works in progress–not as an excuse for laziness, but to show you are in the process of developing something.”
Aumiller calls Miller a collaborator: “During our meetings she would ask how I could push the box further, step out of my box even more.”
The result? A series of working contradictions: A casual room, but with a serious commitment to emerging and developing artists. A common ground where creators and patrons can bump into entire art forms they’d never previously considered. A neighborhood bar, where folks can come to be challenged–or just to chill. A multipurpose, multimedia public space. Individually and in total, they make Bickett Gallery a rarity in Raleigh and the region.
Bickett Gallery is located at 209 Bickett Blvd. in Raleigh. For more information, call 836-5358 or visit www.bickettgallery.com.