Durham development news comes hard and fast these days, but the developments usually concern capital-intensive projects like restaurants, hotels and condos.
So perhaps it's coincidence, a confluence of the availability of space and interest and demand aligning just so, that Durham's substantial supply of industrial space has recently seen renovation and renewal. In a matter of months, a trio of new art spaces and performance venues has opened.
There's Supergraphic, a printing facility and gallery that's also serving as private studios for several local artists. There's the Shadowbox, a one-time garage that's reinventing itself as a performance site for experimental theater.
And having its grand opening this Friday, May 17, is SPECTRE Arts, a new studio and gallery/performance space occupying a recently renovated church across from Golden Belt.
Jeff Whetstone, a photographer who also serves as director of graduate studies for UNC's art department, doesn't believe this sudden abundance of new Durham art spaces is entirely chance.
"There are a lot more artists in Durham," Whetstone says. "There's raw space here, and financially it's a reasonable space."
"It used to be that everybody moved to New York or Los Angeles to work, but there's beginning to be enough room for people to do work here," he adds. "If you're not afraid of an improvisational art life, you can make it here."
In November, Whetstone took over the lease of the 6,000-square-foot building that is now Supergraphic, alongside artists Bill Fick and Harrison Haynes. Fick and Whetstone had been scouting for a new climate-controlled workspace, one with light and room to spread out. When Fick noticed that a former auto shop on Ramseur Street was available for rent, he jumped at the opportunity and recruited Whetstone and Haynes to join him.
After a process of extensive renovation—when they moved in, the 1950s-era brick building had no interior walls—the space has been transformed into an airy art studio-cum-gallery, with private workrooms for each of the three permanent artists, as well as a large digital printing facility and laboratory at its center. Currently, 75 newsprint images of skulls and zombies line one wall of Supergraphic, left over from the venue's opening night party.
Artists, photographers, designers and students can pay hourly rates to use Supergraphic's printing equipment and space, with the aid of a number of studio assistants.
"We're trying to fill a niche for people who want to do this kind of work," Fick says.
But the trio also wants to use Supergraphic as a gallery and host to public screenings of multimedia and video work, following the workshop-exhibit model of studios like Space 1026 in Philadelphia and the Lower East Side Printshop in New York.
Alicia Lange has a similar plan for Durham's newest artistic venue. SPECTRE will offer rotating exhibitions, two artist studios and space for event and workshop rentals. Currently, Lange is reviewing portfolios of artists interested in renting out SPECTRE's studios, and she is accepting applications for any future public exhibitions, events and workshops to be held in the space.
"We talk about art being a vital form of communication and engagement, and it is that for me," she says. "So being able to provide a space for other people to do a theater show or an art show or a gallery show or a sculpture exhibition or a performance piece—we want to facilitate that sort of dream."
At SPECTRE's grand opening on Third Friday this month, INDY Week photographer Jeremy M. Lange, who is Lange's husband, will show prints from his in-progress documentary film Farmer Veteran, while local band Loamlands provides music. Pie Pushers, Ponysaurus Brewery and Wine Authorities provide food and drink. (Disclosure: D.L. Anderson, another INDY Week photographer, is also involved in producing Farmer Veteran.)
These types of community events seem to be increasingly successful in Durham, as local demand and appreciation for the arts swells. Whetstone describes how Supergraphic's first public event, an exhibition of older work by Whetstone, Fick and Haynes held at the end of March, was jampacked with people.
"There's a hunger in this town," he says. "There's an audience for the arts."
And there seems to be a particularly large appetite for art and performance that is edgy, different and—just maybe—a little bit weird.
"Durham is a place for people who are comfortable thinking outside of the box," says Alex Maness, a videographer/photographer who is one of four artists, along with filmmaker Jim Haverkamp, sculptor/urban planner Tom Dawson and poet-impresario and INDY contributor Chris Vitiello, behind the Shadowbox. The space's utilitarian origins are still visible: The 1960s-era signs that decorate the Shadowbox—"20 minute oil change $14.95," "Sorry, we do not loan tools," "Not responsible for fire, theft or vandalism"—are remnants from the space's garage days.
"Quite frankly, this is the kind of shit people love about Durham," Maness says. "Durham's fucking cool. It's not just a bunch of condos, and people recognize that."
After a period of using the Washington Street space informally, the partners rebranded it as the Shadowbox. They've hired an architectural firm to assist them with planning and renovation, and the space will be suitable for experimental theater, dance and cinema—or, you know, whatever.
Such "whatevers" include the strange, wonderful, deconstructive show called The Wooster Group's "Diary of Anne Frank," a Little Green Pig production that has very little to do with Anne Frank. Jay O'Berski, Little Green Pig's artistic director, says that Shadowbox has the perfect amount of rawness for his preferred aesthetic.
"I think the ideal space for us would be a cross between CBGB and MOMA—really punk-rock," O'Berski says. The Shadowbox, with its concrete floors and paint-splattered walls, fits the bill.
And it seems Durham property owners have recognized the value of art and experimentation, as well. Both Maness and Whetstone describe how their landlords grasped their respective creative visions for these spaces and helped with the renovation and restoration processes.
"Landlords have realized that if you rent to artists, they'll clean it up and paint it and make it look fantastic," Whetstone says. "They're learning. SoHo sucked until the artists came in and made it great."
Of course, hardly anyone can afford to live in SoHo these days. But Lange doesn't believe Durham will face the downsides of gentrification anytime soon.
"Enough people are savvy about that here. They've tried to negotiate longer leases and be more forward about how they've contributed to the value of a space," she says.
"There's something certainly to be said for too rapid of a change, but I think people are trying to be conscious of that and meter that [change] with care."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Zoned for art."