It was a cold but clear night on Foster Street last Friday in Durham. The Third Friday gallery circuit was in progress, but in a fitting sign, it was nearly impossible to locate the blue Plensa beam that pierces the sky whenever art is happening at the Durham Performing Arts Center—as it was that night with Willie Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel.
The dimness of the blue beam suited the evening because only two days previously, Foster Street's Branch Gallery had announced its impending closing, after three years in the space adjacent to Piedmont Restaurant.
When even conservative pundits are using words like "depression" and "nationalization," and millions of homeowners are underwater on their mortgages, the closing of a high-end gallery in North Carolina's fifth-largest city may seem to be just a small casualty. But in its half-decade of existence—and the last three in Durham—the gallery mounted an eclectic, challenging and diverse range of shows, ranging from photography and painting to mixed media and installations.
The loss of the Branch is significant to a city that imagines itself to be just a little hipper and smarter than the run of the mill; and the presence of a Chelsea-style gallery with ties to the Nasher Museum and the New York, London, Miami, Barcelona and Cologne art worlds, as well as a focus on artists who often represented non-majority cultures, was an important part of Durham's emerging identity.
If most Durhamites were disinclined or unable to buy the pieces on the Branch Gallery walls—well, hopefully, the gallery would be able to locate those collectors elsewhere.
On Friday night, as I approached the Branch, I first stopped in the Bull City Arts Collaborative, located in the same building on the other side of Piedmont. In a way, I couldn't help it: The place was bustling and convivial, filled with Durham neighbors and artists, as well as movers and shakers. No doubt the free beer was a draw, but it also seemed that everyone was in his or her comfort zone.
Chris Vitiello, a Durham poet, expressed regret at the Branch's closing, but noted that the art on the walls in BCAC's Upfront Gallery was priced within people's budgets. "Prices here are affordable—when things are $200 or less, that brings people in the door," he said. Indeed, the current, Art-Tender Two: The Exquisite Corpse Show, included sketches on beverage napkins by local bartenders Mark Cunningham and Jake Wood. Some pieces were priced at $20, and all proceeds were earmarked for The Women's Center of Durham.
The BCAC, Vitiello added, is also a "production space, which is part of its appeal. The Branch Gallery was more static, like a museum space."
Nursing a glass of beer, Barry Ragin took a philosophical attitude to the closing of the Branch. "It's all part of the organic, natural life cycle of art." Ragin, who is also known by his nom de blog, Dependable Erection, added that "it seems like these guys were prepared to have it for a while and hopefully they'll move on to something else."
I then wandered over to Branch, a 3,000-square-foot space that represents a dozen artists and has had its work featured in Harper's Magazine, ArtForum and Art in America. The gallery began its life in co-owner Chlöe Seymore's SoHo loft apartment, before she relocated to a mill house in Carrboro. In January 2006, Scientific Properties recruited Seymore and her husband, the artist and musician Harrison Haynes, to its newly developed Foster Street space, called 401 Arts. At the time, Seymore acknowledged to the News & Observer's Ellen Sung that the Branch, as a commercial venture, carried some risk. "We're not a nonprofit. [...] We're not a project space. If people don't buy art, we close."
Later that year, Teka Selman, whose résumé includes stints with the prestigious Gagosian Gallery in London and New York, and Sikkema Jenkins & Co. in Chelsea, joined as a partner.
When I walked in, Selman was at the desk in the back, and there was a steady trickle of foot traffic drawn in to see the two small shows on the walls. The atmosphere was quiet and spartan, sleek and modern. (There was no alcohol, free or otherwise.)
While some visitors checked out the installation of three short video pieces, curated by Jerstin Crosby, behind a partition in the space, others perused the art in the main space: Pedro Lasch's LATINO/A AMERICA: Route Guides, New York & North Carolina Suites, 2003-2009, consists of a series of identical, 30 inch by 40 inch maps of the Western Hemisphere, labeled only "Latino/a America." Underneath each of the maps is a fragment of a narrative from such people as "Rosa," "Tomás" and "Tirso." It turns out these people made illegal crossings of the border while carrying Lasch's carefully folded maps with them. Now the maps are unfolded and pinned to the walls of the Branch Gallery, and each was on sale for $5,500.
Lasch's work is an interesting way to conceptualize—and monetize, perhaps—the human traffic across the borders, and it's a startling act of transubstantiation to turn a lonely, dangerous and illegal trek into high art. It's also not necessarily designed for the interior decorating needs of ordinary Durhamites. Instead, it's an example of art for art's sake, a means of encouraging us to see the world in a new way.
In times like these, however, when powerful banks have become wards of the state, when Brandeis University saves money by closing its art museum and, indeed, when Harvard, the world's richest university, has seen so much of its endowment evaporate that it has had to institute austerity measures, art for the sake of art can be a tough sell in a city situated off the beaten paths of the world art trade.
In an earlier phone conversation, Selman, while acknowledging that a commercial art gallery is a tough business proposition, told me that she and Seymore felt satisfied with their run with Branch and decided last summer to close the gallery when the lease with Scientific Properties expired in the fall of 2009. "We felt like [the gallery] was a project that achieved what it needed to achieve."
Selman stressed that the initial decision to close the gallery at the end of its lease term was made last summer, before the present economic collapse. When the pillars of capitalism began to buckle last autumn, Selman said she and her partners were relieved to have made the decision.
However, the closing date accelerated considerably last month when the gallery and Scientific Properties negotiated an early lease termination, and last week, the gallery announced that Saturday, Feb. 28, would be its last day of business on Foster Street. Selman declined to discuss the circumstances that precipitated the change in plans, but expressed gratitude to Scientific Properties. The gallery will exist as a corporation long enough for it to honor its three existing exhibition commitments, Selman said, adding that they hope to find temporary venues in Durham.
Selman said that the work of Branch Gallery will continue in the months ahead, even as the Foster Street space is vacated. There are three shows to hang—somewhere—and then there's finding representation for the gallery's existing roster of artists.
Selman said she and Seymore are staying in the area and will continue to play a vigorous role in its artistic life. Both are planning the next, separate, steps in their careers, but Selman said they're not prepared to divulge details.
I lingered at Branch until closing time and then returned to Bull City Arts Collaborative. I was introduced to Patrick Phelps-McKeown and Julia Gartrell, two conspirators behind a punky group of young artists who call themselves Durty Durham. They cobble together shows in whatever space will have them, with donated materials and volunteer labor. Phelps-McKeown described a show at Monkey Bottom Collaborative, a space in the Watts-Hillandale neighborhood, which involved constructing a castle out of cardboard boxes and blankets, and the importation of children from a day care. The Durty Durhamites are on the ground floor of their careers and clearly enjoying the freedom of no expectations. They told me they'll be doing something or other at the Durham Art Walk scheduled for April 18-19.
When informed of the Branch's closing, their eyes widened in dismay. Gartrell said Branch felt like a "real gallery, a big-time gallery. They had really good shows." But, she added, it "also felt a little inaccessible."
On Monday, Scientific Properties announced its first retail tenant in its most recent development, Golden Belt. It's a new commercial art gallery called, appropriately, LabourLove Gallery. As for the soon-to-be-vacated space on Foster Street, Allison Polish, marketing director of Scientific Properties, said the company was in discussions with possible tenants that are art-related. "We'd love to find another commercial gallery for that space," she said.
Correction (Feb. 25, 2009): The author, who was either drinking too little or too much, originally identified the alcohol served at BCAC as wine, not beer. The article has been corrected.