Open the door by the window that says "Loaf" on West Parrish Street in Durham and enter the foyer. Past the ground-level bakery, a steep, narrow wooden staircase climbs between close ranks of flyers and seems to terminate in a wall.
But there's a secret. Ascend, and you'll find yourself on a riser where the steps hook around into a bright loft gallery with large casement windows, one exposed brick wall and a floor like the deck of a ship—apropos of the gallery's namesake, a vessel from the dawn of the nautical age.
"Its design was very innovative, so in that metaphor we were a platform for artistic exploration," says Laura Ritchie, the 26-year-old director of the Carrack Modern Art. "It's really supposed to be car-RACK, but we like CAR-rack." Which is good, because that's what everybody calls it.
The Carrack was cofounded with sculptor John Wendelbo in 2011 and runs on a dedicated volunteer staff, but Ritchie has always been its captain. A former painter who realized while studying in Italy that being a gallerist was her calling, she undertook experiences upon returning to the Triangle that taught her about the unique needs of this area.
Indeed, the Carrack is tailor-made for young, cash-strapped local artists. It's a zero-commission gallery—artists keep every cent of sales, and they have more say than usual in how their work is priced and displayed. The gallery also opens a new show every two weeks, and this rapid turnover makes room for more artists, including less experienced ones with smaller bodies of work. This breeds a critical mass of community.
"Because the Carrack hosts so many artists, Laura faces two or three times the usual amount of marketing effort," says arts promoter and Carrack board member Tim Walter. "That may be one of the secrets to the sauce—there's so much going on that she can't micromanage it all, thus the Carrack becomes so much more than just one person's vision. Her leadership instincts are uncanny for someone of her age and experience level."
Every new show offers the chance for multiple receptions and events, the medium through which many engage with the art scene—especially on Third Fridays. "People come for the party," Ritchie says. "We said, 'Well, let's have as many of those as we possibly can.'" Add in the space's status as a thriving multi-use performance venue for dance, poetry and music, and you can guess that it stays enviably full.
"If there's one thing that really happened for the Carrack in 2014, it's the performance-art piece," Ritchie says. Justin Tornow's Prompts series brings in dancers and more every month, and notable indie music acts such as Juliana Barwick and Deerhunter have performed there.
"Not many galleries host such a variety of events," Walter says. "There's a freshness to the Carrack, which is making it a Durham hub for people involved with creative endeavors to connect with peers and patrons. I'm sure other cities will study the Carrack's model, and I'd predict we'll be seeing it referenced nationally and beyond."
All of this community-focused activity gives the Carrack a vibrant atmosphere; it also means the gallery has to get creative to sustain itself. This is the story of how a bullet point in a plan for a public sculpture project grew into one of the Triangle's most vital, accessible galleries, always with Ritchie's hand on the tiller.
Ritchie grew up in Salisbury, where her great-great-grandfather invented Cheerwine, still the family business. She wanted to be an artist from a young age, making it her first self-selected Halloween costume—smock, beret, curly French mustache. In 2006, she went to UNC, where she would earn a BFA in studio art and art history. In that time, she took a pivotal trip abroad as a part of SACI, a program for college art students to study in Florence.
"That was my first real exposure to how powerful art spaces are for the presentation of work," she says. "I became more serious about my studio practice and interested in the curatorial side of things in Florence. When I got back, I decided I needed to make my last three semesters at UNC more like what I experienced at SACI."
Ritchie got an internship in the Ackland's educational department, creating training programs on the museum's collection for docents, and she started volunteering at the ArtsCenter as a curatorial assistant in its galleries. When the ArtsCenter gallery coordinator quit, Ritchie took the position while still a junior at UNC. There, she met John Wendelbo, who would email her about his idea for the Durham Sculpture Project several years later.
"The Carrack was in there—not with that name and this space and what it is now—but as one little bullet point in the plan: a fast-paced, artist-centered, zero-commission gallery," Ritchie says. "That was the part I got excited about."
By then, Ritchie had graduated. She was coordinating Chapel Hill's Second Friday Art Walk and teaching classes around the Triangle. She had also moved to Durham to be closer to her curatorial internship at NCMA. The sculpture project never came to fruition, in part because of resistance from the city and patrons. But the gallery that was meant to be its headquarters did.
Ritchie had realized that connecting other people and their art was more satisfying than making her own. "My voice was stronger as an artist-supporter than an artist-maker, and that that was OK with me, fulfilling in a different way," she says.
Wendelbo's experience and Ritchie's gallery work shaped what the Carrack would be. "I had witnessed artists go through the frustration John was reacting to, all these obstacles that keep them from doing their work the way they want to do it, and the way we as viewers want to see it," she says. "I was really excited about doing it another way."
Wendelbo found the space for rent at 111 W. Parrish Street and the gallery opened in 2011, initially funded by donations to the Durham Sculpture Project. There was little foot traffic on Parrish; Ritchie and Wendelbo had to flag people down at the intersection with Main and project videos on the facing buildings like beacons. Still, the Carrack caught on.
"Artists responded very quickly, wanting to do shows," Ritchie says. "I think they were finding something they weren't finding anywhere else: freedom to do it their way, and keep all the money." In fall of 2011, a Kickstarter campaign raised $12,000 to pay the rent for all of 2012. The gallery officially separated from the sculpture project, with Ritchie and Wendelbo as business partners, though Wendelbo's involved waned until he officially stepped out in 2013.
Ritchie isn't paid, and works part time as an education and outreach coordinator for the Durham Art Guild. The gallery is funded in three ways, all geared toward community pooling rather than large private donors—an annual gala auction to raise the rent money (the only time the Carrack takes any money from artists), an NPR-like sustainer program and a clear plastic cube for walk-in donations. But Ritchie will take her first (small) paycheck from the Carrack next year, and also plans to institute a curatorial residency program—signs of the gallery's financial maturation, even as it retains its openness.
"Laura is, above all, an entrepreneur," says artist Libby Lynn, a board member. "It's incredible that The Carrack has maintained sustainability through the loyalty of the Triangle's art communities for more than three years." Though Ritchie's duties still include everything from "taking out the trash to making the big ask to a donor," shows are now juried by a panel of prior Carrack artists, and major decisions are made with an advisory board.
"This time and place has been so beneficial for us," Ritchie says. "The Carrack really reflects Durham in a way that people feel connected to, and it's important to us to keep it that way. My first impression of Durham was that there was so much space and this buzzing excitement in the air. What are we going to be today? Tomorrow? The Carrack makes room for that. And watching a visitor's face when they recognize the story behind a piece or the connection between two pieces—that has turned out to be better than making my own work."Correction: Laura Ritchie works at the Durham Art Guild part time.