—Article by Emilie Menzel
With the recent closures of The Carrack and The Mothership, Manbites Dog Theater and SPECTRE Arts, the Triangle is running noticeably low on independent, artist-centered arts spaces. Such spaces are vital to our arts community’s well-being. They cultivate open conversation about the arts world and offer flexibility in a way institutional-run galleries and museums often cannot. They offer affordable and welcoming venues for exhibition and performance space, and they support burgeoning artists as well as established. Such spaces respond quickly and organically to local arts community needs. The arts world can be a challenging and competitive field, and our artist-centered spaces remind us of arts’ joyful productivity, diversity, and community.
We commend the artists who have felt this gap in our community and, within a time of already great emotional and financial strain, used their emotional and financial resources to respond. Here are three such up-and-coming artist-led arts spaces, focused on championing marginalized artists and building arts community for the region they call home:
1. BASEMENT, Chapel Hill
BASEMENT in Chapel Hill is run by a cohort of seven UNC Chapel Hill Studio Arts MFA graduates: Jonh Blanco, Sarah Elizabeth Cornejo, John DeKemper, Peter Hoffman, Mike Keaveney, Laura Little, Chieko Murasugi, and UNC Art Department faculty Hồng-An Trương. These artists specialize in a wide range of media—painting, photography, performance art, video art, sculptors, to name a few. Many are multi-modal artists, and the result is an interdisciplinary and excitingly explorative approach to arts space.
BASEMENT, which opened its first show in November 2019, arose from the group’s wish to provide the community with more places to exhibit art and gather as artists within the Triangle, especially in Chapel Hill. The space itself is within the basement of a Chapel Hill resident’s home (thus the name), at an address only disclosed by word of mouth, after easily initiated contact with the owners, or through signing up on BASEMENT’s website. The group has renovated two-thirds of the space into a beautiful, well-lit, white-walled gallery. The remaining third of the space has been decidedly left raw with low light and concrete, complete with exposed water-heater, and is perfect for films, performance, and installation art. The design of the physical space allows BASEMENT wide versatility in the mediums and tones of art exhibited.
The art space’s cohort collaboratively and rigorously chooses artists with ties to the Southeast, with particular emphasis on artists whose work runs outside of traditional institutions’ focus. BASEMENT’s artist-led model allows them the backbone and financial independence to feature openly political, envelope-pushing work. They are not a selling venue, so there are no financial interests entangled with their artist features.
“We support artists who typically have a research-based practice, who bring important issues to the table to make us think as well as be visually engaged,” explains Chieko Murasugi. “We’re looking for artists to engage us intellectually and morally and emotionally, who have a depth to their practice. Artists who tend to be overlooked by mainstream art institutions—That’s important, too, to give voice to artists who have not necessarily been given prominent place…We want to have a space that feels inclusive and welcoming so these voices can be heard and the community can interact with and learn from them. A space like BASEMENT allows for this kind of freedom and flexibility because we’re independent but function as a collective voice.”
2. The Dig In, Chapel Hill / Carrboro
On the town line between Chapel Hill and Carrboro, performance artists CJ Suitt and Ginger Wagg are gathering community conversation and experience into a new, non-commercial, emergent arts and community space, currently named The Dig In. The Dig In shares floor space with a small cigar shop, has colorfully painted patios, and a roof that’s prime for dance parties and performance art. In short, The Dig In is chalk full of ideas.
The intention of the space grew from a series of inclusive artist gatherings of the same name, Dig Ins which took place in private back yards, living rooms, kitchens. The salons brought together artists, art critics, and arts administrators—creators at all stages of the artistic cycle—and let them talk deeply and candidly about current arts events, ideas, and movements as well as their work.
The Dig In artist salons placed an emphasis on honest, rich conversation, and that philosophy has now been transferred to The Dig In emergent art space. CJ and Ginger emphasize that The Dig In is built on a practice of embodied listening, an “intersection between stillness in listening and active listening,” as CJ puts it. Part of this deep listening is what led Ginger and CJ to call The Dig In an emergent art space. And they mean it—they want this space built as a collaboration with the community.
“When visitors arrive,” explains Ginger, “they immediately see a sign with a version of our evolving mission statement. As it solidifies, we will update and create more permanent signage. The sign reads: ‘This is an EMERGENT ART and PERFORMANCE space, to gather together, to create, and collectively build. A place to listen, critically think, and discuss what’s important to us. A space to strengthen our vision, each other’s hearts and our relationships to what art can achieve. Open time helps us imagine then create what’s possible—to expand, to transform.’”
CJ calls this “moving at the speed of trust,” meaning that one builds a space with a community and as a community as you gain their input and earn their faith. CJ and Ginger understand that if you want people to feel welcomed and comfortable in your space, you welcome those people to shape it at all parts of the process. The two hope The Dig In will offer particular support for local community artists through performance events, visual arts shows, readings, communal space, and local artist library, and more, and they’re open to learning and adapting to how that support might best appear. They wish for The Dig In to become “a new epicenter for work that’s already being done,” says CJ, and by work they mean art, but also conversation, activism, and social practice.
3. Peel, Carrboro
Moving from Chapel Hill, we now arrive in Carrboro, where photographer, teacher, and curator Lindsay Metivier has just signed the lease for her new arts space, Peel. The space will inherit the structure and philosophy of Lindsay’s Boston-based arts space Aviary Gallery, a gallery, artist boutique, and photography lab which has lived happily for nine years in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. Peel itself will be an art gallery, community event space, digital photography lab, and retail space. And, after managing a space in Boston for so many years, Lindsay is quite excited to now be the proud owner of 14 parking spots in Downtown Carrboro.
Jokes aside, Lindsay is delighted to be able to offer Peel as an affordable, accessible multi-purpose event and exhibition space for the community. “One goal I have for the space,” Lindsay explains, “is that it feels accessible, that it’s not a white-cube gallery that people feel they can’t go into to walk around or can’t submit their own ideas to.” She promises lots of electronic music shows, local film screenings, poetry readings, photography workshops, and monthly gallery exhibitions. The digital photography lab portion will include photography scanning and printing, as well as multiple stations for local artists to rent by the hour. Additionally, the studio portion of Peel will feature a full lighting studio where people can have their artwork professionally photographed.
Lindsay’s already at work organizing collaborations with other local arts organizations LEVEL Retreat, Cosmic Rays Film Festival, The ArtsCenter, and Attic 506 (Chapel Hill’s original artist-led arts space, in recent history at least). “I’m excited to work with local curators and bring in art shows that I wouldn’t have thought of.” She hopes Peel and other upcoming art spaces can help revive the monthly art walks, as well.
“There’s a real shortage of art spaces, and particularly non-traditional art spaces,” notes Lindsay. “The emphasis [for Peel] is going to be on emerging and mid-career artists, with focus on including communities which have been marginalized due to things like sexuality, ethnicity, gender, disability, class status, education level, and immigration status. Those are things [in art spaces] that I think are seriously lacking in the area, and in the world.”