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A novel agreement between a landlord and artists gives Raleigh a new art space

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The bright pink single-story building at 501 E. Davie St. used to be a dentist's office. Its bubblegum hue was an attempt by its previous owner to deter parking-lot loitering in an area plagued by illicit activity. It worked, according to James Goodnight—not the SAS Institute founder, but his son—who now owns the property simply known as The Pink Building.

Across the street is the Stone's Warehouse property, a crumbling bus depot that Raleigh City Council voted to sell to developer Jason Queen in January. Construction on both begins in 2016, in what will be one of Raleigh's major areas of redevelopment over the next two years. But thanks to a forward-thinking agreement between artists and a landlord, The Pink Building will serve as a studio and gallery for a year instead of lying dormant.

Goodnight didn't have immediate plans for The Pink Building after buying it earlier this year. Fixing up an old building takes time, he says, with plans, codes and designs to consider before construction can begin. It often takes months, if not years. In an evolving downtown, that means a lot of property just sits empty, awaiting redevelopment.

This fact caught the eye of textile artist Shelley Smith, a graduate student at the N.C. State School of Design, who approached Goodnight with a proposition.

"I asked him if he would be willing to let me stage an exhibition in one of his buildings that he wasn't using at the moment," she says, "and he was like, 'I'm not doing anything with this building for a year. If you think you can do something cool with it, you should take it over.'"

So she did.

In August, Smith signed a one-year, low-cost lease on The Pink Building. She then offered affordable studio space to four other artists in a residency program. With its examination rooms and waiting area, The Pink Building is a plug-and-play mix of private space for producing work and open space for displaying it. The gallery opened to the public Sept. 5—you can visit on First Fridays and by appointment at other times—and the lack of modification made it feel like the office of a general practitioner with intriguing taste in art. In a borrowed building and with limited time, glitz isn't the goal. Instead, Smith hopes to show how artists can take a low-impact approach and still make a big difference.

Artists Shelley Smith and Kelly Kye inspect a piece of fabric while working at The Pink Building, an art space and gallery in Raleigh. - PHOTO BY ALEX BOERNER
  • Photo by Alex Boerner
  • Artists Shelley Smith and Kelly Kye inspect a piece of fabric while working at The Pink Building, an art space and gallery in Raleigh.

"There are so many things that can be done in a space that aren't permanent. People can set up, be there for a week or even a night, and then leave it exactly the same as it was before," she says. "As artists, we not only have to produce the work, but we also have to sell it and explain why it's valuable. A lot of people don't know that, because it isn't visible in their everyday lives. But if more people can see how art brings people together and starts conversation, the value becomes more obvious."

Two of the artists who have already signed on are Kelly Kye, who makes contemporary handmade quilts under the moniker Kye + Hardy, and Mackenzie Buller, a weaver currently studying how to use plants to create natural textile dyes at N.C. State. The Pink Building provides them with an inexpensive, dedicated space to create and display their work as they start new businesses.

"If you're trying to make a living, it's very difficult to sell enough to support yourself while paying a 60 percent commission fee," Smith explains. "Since we're not trying to make a profit, we have the opportunity to charge artists only a little bit to support our overhead. They need places to show their work that don't cost a ton to get in."

It's a win-win situation for both the artists and the landlord. Because Smith is approaching her lease as a "yearlong intervention," she's aggressively working to bring attention, and people, to the space.

"I'm basically a giant advertisement for the building," she says with a laugh.

Goodnight agrees. "In parts of town that are seeing some blight, bringing in low-cost art space and then bringing people to it drives other businesses. It's the same thing we've seen in the Warehouse District and on Person Street, a lot of these districts downtown," he says.

Artist Sally Van Gordon prepares to re-hang her pieces in the front gallery of The Pink Building so she can photograph them. - PHOTO BY ALEX BOERNER
  • Photo by Alex Boerner
  • Artist Sally Van Gordon prepares to re-hang her pieces in the front gallery of The Pink Building so she can photograph them.

The next exhibit at The Pink Building, featuring Raleigh artists David Eichenberger and Casey Porn, opens Oct. 16. Over the next 11 months, Smith and her team want to document the process of converting the empty space into a community arts hub as proof-of-concept for other developers and property owners. She hopes it will encourage them to consider creatively using their vacant spaces in downtown Raleigh.

Symbiosis with artists isn't completely new for Goodnight, who also renovated the old Nehi building on Hillsborough Street. Artist Luke Buchanan, who painted a mural on the Nehi, introduced Smith and Goodnight. As developers go, he may be the exception to the rule, but Smith thinks that can change.

"Not everyone is connected with artists like the Goodnights are, so I think it takes vision from a landlord," Smith says. "There's this preconception that artists aren't the most responsible people. The fact is, any artist that makes a living from their art is essentially an entrepreneur. There are other people in Raleigh who are capable of looking at it that way, but haven't been shown that artists can be a safe investment yet. This is an opportunity."

Artists Sally Van Gordon, left, Shelley Smith, center and Kelly Kye work together in the back area of The Pink Building. - PHOTO BY ALEX BOERNER
  • Photo by Alex Boerner
  • Artists Sally Van Gordon, left, Shelley Smith, center and Kelly Kye work together in the back area of The Pink Building.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Gritty in pink"

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