Some people talk big about art and engagement, scheduling "public" guest talks in unfindable classrooms in the middle of the week. Others walk the walk, making art engaging across all channels—organizing exhibitions, facilitating public projects, and bringing artists and their work together with corporate, governmental, and academic entities.
Kelly McChesney, who anchored a burgeoning Raleigh art scene with her essential Flanders Gallery before merging it, this month, with Raleigh's experimental mainstay, Lump, is the latter kind of person.
For years, stepping across the Flanders threshold felt like being transported to New York City, as much because of the artwork McChesney showed as the spacious warehouse space she showed it in. Mixing internationally known artists with local ones, McChesney champions difficult work and is often ahead of the curve. She gave Burk Uzzle a solo show five years before the North Carolina Museum of Art, the Nasher, and the Ackland simultaneously featured the photographer's work this year.
But McChesney is much more than a gallerist. Her support of artists is almost legendary. She tirelessly builds relationships with local corporations to develop their collecting programs, teeters atop ladders to hang shows, and trucks artists around the East Coast for deliveries and art fairs. And she often opens her space to experimental, site-specific, non-commercial work. Last month, Flanders closed with a bang—or, perhaps, a squeak—with Alyssa Miserendino's The Peanut Gallery, an installation consisting solely of a massive dune of foam packing peanuts that visitors were welcome to dive into. Nobody wrote McChesney a check for it, but everybody went home with peanuts in their hair.
"I just enjoy knowing artists," McChesney says with a laugh. "The art world has really saved my life. Maybe that's dramatic, but artists opened up my mind. Really, you can explore anything, you can do anything, you can think anything, you can leave everything you've known behind and your mind is a blank slate to create and think."
Ask area artists about McChesney, in turn, and it almost sounds like they got their stories straight the night before.
"My first big solo show was at Flanders," says Damian Stamer, whose May 2014 show, Rummage, came barely a year after he finished the MFA program at UNC-Chapel Hill. "I wanted to do some large-scale pieces and Kelly trusted me to bring everything together.She's not afraid to pick up huge paintings and lift them into a truck. She's just always there, helping hang everything. It's a super hands-on approach that I really appreciate."
"Kelly never pushed me in a commercial direction," says Derek Toomes, whose work has been in many Flanders exhibits, most recently last year in a solo show called Equivalent Experience Necessary. "I never felt pressure to make a certain kind of work so she could sell it. She's always been supportive of my new endeavors and new ideas, and tries to find ways to make those happen."
After directing commercial galleries in Atlanta, McChesney relocated to Raleigh in early 2006, looking to plant roots. "There were some good places in Raleigh then, but it wasn't oversaturated with art," she recalls. "In fact, it needed a lot more, and definitely needed more galleries. I thought it could be the perfect place to begin, so I took a big risk."
She opened Flanders at Seaboard Station before moving to the warehouse space by the railroad tracks at the end of Martin Street three years later. By that time, the recession was in full swing, spelling ruin for a lot of gallerists. But McChesney adapted, finding opportunity instead.
"I had artwork that was much more accessible beforehand, but I was always attracted to work that was more challenging," she says. "The recession made it difficult to sell work of any kind, so it freed me to focus on what I was most passionate about."
"Kelly saw a need in this community for more support for artists who were making work that was more contemporary and experimental," says Visual Art Exchange director Brandon Cordrey, a former gallery manager at Flanders. "She saw value in the work that artists here were making, and she expanded that value in bringing outside artists to the Triangle. Kelly really devoted herself to breaking the mold the South has seen for a long time: the landscapes and still lifes."
Now, as Lump cofounder Bill Thelen steps back from the space he's programmed for twenty years, McChesney, as the new director, plans to expand the gallery into a project space with public art and residency programs. The new Lump, a nonprofit, will double the number of events, programs, and collaborations with Triangle organizations on a wide range of creative initiatives. McChesney wants to enable risk taking, matching artists with resources to realize projects they don't know how to pull off by themselves.
"I think that's necessary to thrive, and to help your community thrive, in the art world now," she says, quickly adding that she doesn't plan to water down the famously quirky, grungy space. "I like that Lump's a little hard to find. There's some effort in coming here, just like the shows. Several artists and people who've been working with Lump for twenty years will serve as a kind of advisory board. They're going to help keep Lump weird."
"It's the final stage of the best merger ever," Cordrey says of McChesney's reinvention of Lump. "While being a nonprofit is a job in and of itself, it affords Kelly more flexibility, a wider network, and more collaboration with nonprofit partners that sometimes worry about working with for-profits. We're going to see an expanded vision of what contemporary art looks like. She's really a driving force in the Triangle in that, and merging Flanders and Lump gives her more opportunity to show it."
"That's what the new gallery model should be more about," Toomes says, echoing Cordrey. "A way that we can think culturally and artistically without the pressure of a selling market. I don't want to see consumerism drive the gallery. You hope for the opposite—culture should be driving it. Kelly believes that, and her actions support it."
This article appeared in print with the headline "The Urge To Merge."