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After the Deluge

One of Eastgate's galleries moves to higher ground

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Stepping through the doorway, into the smell of new paint, into the cheerful light slanting through high windows, you know immediately that this is a brand-new art gallery. There's art on the walls, but the baseboard's not down yet; countertops aren't quite finished; a staff member looks perplexedly from manual to computer. While the gallery is new, it is also 10 years old. After a decade in Eastgate shopping center, Steinway Gallery has moved. But not far: just over the highway and about 12 feet in elevation.

Bill and Pat Steinway started their gallery with high hopes and nerves of steel, settling into a small space near A Southern Season. Although they were in close proximity to the Triangle's oldest and best-established gallery, Somerhill, the Steinways carved out a niche for themselves, doing framing and showing a limited number of artists, mostly painters, whose work they liked. Although they never got the kind of foot traffic they had expected from the location, they gradually built up a solid reputation and a steady clientele.

Then came Hurricane Fran. The gallery flooded--but so did everything, and not just in notoriously flood-prone Eastgate. Losses were bad, and the work of recovering was exhausting, but since everybody was suffering, and from a big hurricane after all, it didn't seem completely devastating. The Steinways, like many others, cleaned up, tightened the old belt and reopened. For Hurricane Floyd, they were prepared, and moved everything out of water's way.

But no one was prepared this summer when a freak storm stalled over Chapel Hill, dumping several inches of rain in just a few hours. Eastgate become a lake. Booker Creek, which runs in a culvert beneath the parking lot there, couldn't be accomodated in a silty pipe, and reclaimed its floodplain. Every business in the center was affected. Millions of dollars in property and income were lost. Both art galleries were hard hit, and for the Steinway Gallery, the blow at first seemed fatal.

"It was worse than Hurricane Fran: We had three feet of water, rather than one and a half," says Bill Steinway. Things on the wall were fine, he says--but they still had to remove all the frames from the art to prevent mildewing. That's a lot of work, and it became almost impossible to do when everything else had been ruined. "We lost all our furniture, all our computers, virtually all our matting and framing inventory," says Steinway.

"But the killer was not that stuff which is replaceable, but the consigned artwork and the things that customers had left for framing--stuff that just happened to be on a shelf or in a flat file less than three feet from the floor. The vast majority of people were understanding, but on the other hand, their diplomas or whatever were ruined. The tragedy radiates out."

The Steinways at first didn't think they had the strength or fortitude to rebuild. "You put a lot of yourself into a business like this," Steinway points out. "It's not just inventory." They were sick at heart, and they knew the physical, emotional and financial resources that would be required to start again. In the days following the flood, they didn't think they'd reopen.

But fortunately, as Bill Steinway says, "human beings are so resilient." And sometimes bad luck makes an abrupt U-turn. Friends and customers were encouraging. A suitable space with lots of parking--owned by a local human, rather than a distant corporation--became available right across 15-501 from Eastgate. They decided to go for it, and the new space has opened the way for new opportunities.

"Before, we did framing and 2-D art," says Steinway. "That was all we did. But now with a bigger and more interesting space, we can branch out a little." He pauses a moment, then says carefully, "It's important for a gallery to have a coherent aesthetic. I don't want to turn into a variety store for art. If we're going to show glass or pottery, I want them to help, not hinder, what we've got." They are also considering showing sculpture, perhaps on the pleasant patio.

We have been talking at a table in a sunny window, watching the light change on the glowing Carol Henry cibachrome flower portraits that comprise the first show in this new space. When I comment to Steinway on how comfortable and homey the gallery seems, he smiles, the lines of exhaustion and worry receding from his face.

Yes, he says. "It feels like one of those Zen things, where you just settle in and say 'ahhhh.'" EndBlock

Steinway Gallery is located at 1289 N. Fordham Blvd., Chapel Hill. Entrance is from the northbound lanes of 15-501, just before the Holiday Inn at Ephesus Rd. Parking is in the rear. 942-8780.

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