On May 20, Raleigh's independent arts community, still reeling from the closing of Kings Barcade, will be dealt another blow with the closing of the Bickett Gallery at Five Points—raising questions about what place will remain for the arts in this rapidly growing city.
"Creatively, the gallery has been very successful," says Molly Miller, Bickett's founder and curator. "But, honestly, I think the gallery was a little bit ahead of Raleigh's time, in terms of people understanding the importance of its being supported and frequented. After doing this for five and a half years it's never really turned the corner, and the overhead still exceeds the revenue."
"If I were independently wealthy, I could keep doing this, and it would be my hobby—but I'm not."
Bickett has certainly been going out in style. Last week alone the gallery hosted a spelling bee, a film screening of They Live!, a variety show, a second film screening, an indie music show and a modern dance performance. This weekend the gallery will close its doors with a final, three-day celebratory festival, beginning at 8 p.m. on Friday, May 18, and featuring dance, poetry, indie music and film. For the rest of this week, at least, you can find all this at 209 Bickett Blvd.
Bickett Gallery was founded in 2001 with some of the proceeds from the 2000 sale of Miller's home. The inspiration was the Black Mountain College movement in Asheville, which brought together many of the most influential musicians, writers and visual artists of the mid-20th century—people like Franz Kline, John Cage, Joseph Fiore, Merce Cunningham and Willem de Kooning. According to Miller, the mission of Black Mountain College was "to have a place where all art forms were represented and given equal importance," and this was the sense of purpose Miller brought to Bickett, a venue where the Raleigh community could have "all these art forms under the same roof."
The struggle for Bickett involved a lot of hard work and a lot of late nights. Meghan Coward, who until last year was the gallery manager at Bickett, remembers her time there well. "Because the vision that Molly had for the space was so vast and all-encompassing, there was really no break from the work. The whole space was a labor of love. Molly Miller literally worked and lived there for five years, and everyone who became involved with the gallery was compelled to do the same."
Brad Farran, who worked at Bickett for a year with Coward and Miller as booking agent, agrees that the enthusiasm for the project never flagged. It was just the money that failed to come through. "It was a great idea that was tragically under-funded," he says. "Sometimes having a great space and a lot of enthusiasm isn't quite enough."
But having "tried everything," Miller could never make the numbers work. She sees a lot of possible reasons why. "I think anybody who's owned a business knows you definitely make mistakes. There are trials and errors—there's things I've done really well and things that I would definitely change, that could have been done differently.
"I think my location has been sort of a blessing and a curse," she says. "I think it's just the mindset of Raleigh—if it's not right in front of them, they think it's too out of the way. They don't want to go four blocks from Five Points. For some people, that's a little off the beaten path.
"And yeah, I am a little off the beaten path, but come here, look at the environment, look at the view of downtown Raleigh. I like being a little under the radar. I think that's what made the space and the gallery truly progressive."
That word, progressive, is very important to Miller, and a central feature of what defined Bickett's aesthetic for the last five years—as well as another possible reason for its eventual close. "Our mission statement was progressive," she says. "In order to be progressive, you have to step outside the box and do things that aren't necessarily considered safe in the art world," even if doing so may be more financially risky than pursuing a more mainstream audience. (Grants, a traditional source of funding for the arts—especially progressive art—are closed off to for-profit operations such as Bickett, and increasingly hard to come by besides.)
Miller worries, too, about the way Raleigh is developing, especially given her experiences with city management and policy. "It's very difficult for a small, independent business owner. You don't get any help or breaks from the city." The city's alcohol permits and other business fees, and even its building codes, she says, favor corporate development and chain venues that cater to a mass audience; smaller venues, like Bickett and Kings, get left behind.
"With all the revitalization and people moving to the area, you would think that community leaders would embrace places like Kings and Bickett Gallery that are not chains, that are trying to bring something fresh.... Unfortunately, the bigger money always wins out."
One definite ray of hope for Miller is the new Contemporary Art Museum (CAM), which has become part of the N.C. State University College of Design and is about to build a new space for art in the city. "Once that gets going, they're going to be doing some amazing, cutting-edge exhibits. And they've had to struggle to get where they are. Art always has to struggle."
Now the hard work continues for other independent galleries in the region. As Coward says, "Anyone who works in the arts can tell you that there is almost always (a) no money and (b) no staff. Regardless, there are projects out there that, thanks to the dedication of their supporters, are moving forward. CAM is finally headed towards breaking ground, thanks to the tireless efforts of Nicole Welch. Tracy Spencer, Lia Newman, all the folks at DesignBox, Branch Gallery, Flanders, Rebus, the SparkCon crew and Wootini ... these are all creative forces who work around the clock to make this arts community thrive."
More than anything, Coward says, the lesson of Bickett is the importance of community support. "My hope is that, as a community, we can learn to appreciate and support them. It is alarmingly clear that without our support, these valuable resources can quickly slip away."
Nicole Welch, the curator of education at CAM, agrees. "It is hard for all the independent galleries to keep their doors open. While I do think we have a strong arts community in Raleigh (and the Triangle), it is certainly something that is growing and as such is experiencing growing pains. We as a community need to support these people, these places. If we take them for granted, we will lose them."
Brad Farran is confident that despite the loss of Kings and Bickett, Raleigh's art scene is alive and well. "It may be a stagnant time, a period of hibernation if you will. This is what happens sometimes. A new place will open up and there'll be a new place to go in three, four, six months. It's part of the ebb and flow. As long as there are talented, motivated people, there will be something else in the future. Things have a way of bouncing back."
Although Bickett is closing down, Miller isn't going anywhere. She'll continue to curate Bickett Gallery at Hudson, a smaller venue for visual art downtown at 319 Fayetteville St. that she was hired to curate last September. And she plans to remain active in the Raleigh arts community, already thinking about new creative ventures and partnerships for the fall.
But after five nonstop years, first she needs a rest. "I'm going to take some time off when the gallery closes, spend some time with my daughter, and regroup," Miller says. "And sleep. I want to sleep without thinking about all the millions of things you have to think about every day when you run a business."
She's looking forward to the break—but it'll just be a break. "Art is so important, and it hasn't always been supported like it should. So I'll always be an advocate. After a little sabbatical, I'll be ready again."
The final weekend of events at Bickett Gallery at Five Points begins Friday, May 20, at 8 p.m. with a dance performance featuring six works from North Carolina dancers and a reading by local poet Eric Amling. Saturday at 7 p.m. the space will open to a night of indie music, with performances by the Summer Hymns and Deleted Scenes as well as local bands The Never and Bowerbirds. And on Sunday, May 20, Bickett's final day of operation will begin at 4 p.m. with a screening of Who Gets to Call It Art?, a documentary about the Metropolitan Museum of Art's first contemporary arts curator, Henry Geldzahler, followed by performances in the evening by local musicians. The gallery is located at 209 Bickett Blvd. in Raleigh. For more information, call 836-5358.