Chances are you’ve been invited to one of Asheville’s cafes, salons, bookstores or breweries not for a book, beer or haircut, but for an art opening.
Whatever their main purpose, these businesses-turned-galleries are some of the city’s premier spaces for art. They’re accessible to new artists wanting to show their work, and approachable for those seeking an intimate view into Asheville’s ever-evolving arts scene. These spaces also offer experimental grounds for established artists seeking outlets for new material, collaborations or curating. Some artists and audiences prefer such rooms for the inherently low-profile ambiance.
It’s not that the works on display in cafes and bookstores are any better, or worse, for that matter, than exhibits hanging in Asheville Art Gallery, Blue Spiral 1 or Satellite Gallery, among others. Rather, it’s about an atmospheric difference — one that opens both the setting and the artwork up to experimentation and, most importantly, a less typical audience.
Larry Hopkins, owner of Ananda Hair Salon, began showing artwork in his downtown location just a year after it opened in 1995. He wanted to continue that trend with the Ananda’s new satellite location in the Wedge Studios. “I loved the energy, loved the trains, the artistry,” says Hopkins. “We wanted to absorb that culture, the culture of the neighborhood.”
The salon owner partnered with River Arts District-based painter Jeremy Russell, who organizes Ananda’s exhibitions. “Jeremy is bringing in people who I couldn’t have,” Hopkins says. “It makes it more viable than it’s been in the past.”
Russell uses the space to introduce lesser-known works by Asheville artists, particularly those who seldom show downtown. “When I find work and a process that’s sincere,” Russell says, “I want to show it to other people.”
But he does face one problem: creating a fine-arts mentality in a non-fine-arts setting. “When you walk into a gallery, you know what its primary function is — to show and sell work,” Russell says. In an alternative gallery, “how do you bridge that gap? How do you get people to take it seriously?” His plan includes a rotating exhibit calendar and scheduled openings. He hopes that the relaxed, artistic atmosphere of the Wedge building and its brewery will lure new patrons. Beyond that, Russell’s priority is the integrity of the work. “I’d love to move a lot of art,” he says, “but it’s more important to have good work than a lot of sales.” Such a sentiment would certainly make a gallerist cringe. Yet it helps illustrate the biggest ideological split between business that moonlight as art spaces and their white-walled and track-lit fine-arts brethren for whom exhibitions are the primary function: “One space is reliant on selling art,” Russell says, “the other isn’t.”
When the artwork is freed from paying the bills, Russell says, there’s less pressure to sell and more room for artistic exploration.
Not for sale
Ananda’s primary function is hairstyling. Likewise, Izzy’s serves coffee, and Push Skate Shop sells skateboarding equipment. While all three show and sell artwork, art is not the central moneymaker for any of them.
“Push was a way to merge my two passions together — skateboarding and art — in the same room,” says shop owner Rob Sebrell. The store, he says, funds the gallery, allowing the artists to take risks.
“The artists can do whatever they’d like. I trust their vision for what they want back there,” he says, referring to the gallery’s location in the back of the store. “Some artists respond to that. But I don’t gauge the success of the shows on the number of sales.”
Sebrell cites Severn Eaton’s December 2011 exhibition. Eaton covered the gallery from floor to ceiling with scraps from hundreds of advertisements. He also papered the entrance, forcing gallery-goers to come in through a small crawl space. “I think Sev’s installation was probably the most successful show we’ve ever had,” Sebrell says, “and there wasn’t even anything for sale.”
In 8 1/2 years, Push has featured everything from drawing and painting exhibits to group shows and a few full-gallery installations. The artists and conceptual content have been just as varied as the shows, says Sebrell. He attributes that to the space’s creative freedom.
Ross and Kristin Britton, the owners of Izzy’s Coffee Den, look at their Lexington Avenue space as a type of malleable canvas. “Izzy’s is essentially a concrete box. You’re hanging on walls, but also in a minimalist space,” Ross says. “You either add or subtract from that.”
When it comes to booking shows, the couple embrace that same experimental nature exhibited in the shop’s art. “There’s something that attracts, stylistically, a certain sect of artists,” Ross says. Many are untrained artists and craftsmen whose work he likens to new folk art. Urban folk art, maybe.
Some months are better than others, Ross admits, recalling a handful of experimental shows that received negative customer reviews. But those shows, he says, however abstract or lackluster, are often the most talked about. “The conversation lingers throughout the year, and we appreciate that,” he says.
“It really is a place for experimenting,” says Ross, who also credits the work as the purpose of the space. “We’re putting ourselves out there,” he says, “but the artists are putting themselves out there too.”
— Kyle Sherard writes about visual arts for Xpress and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.