At 32 years of age, the Visual Art Exchange (VAE) is one of Raleigh's oldest arts groups. Which explains why people use the word amazing so much when they're describing its youthful vigor and executive director, Sarah Powers.
The story they tell: VAE has reinvented itself as a home for artists and a catalyst for downtown Raleigh's burgeoning arts scene, starting with the day Powers answered a blind newspaper ad in 2006.
A nonprofit created "for artists by artists," the VAE consisted of a small gallery in City Market back then, with some good programs and 250 member-artists. But it had higher hopes and was searching for a leader. Six years later, the organization is soaring, and Powers is one of Raleigh's foremost leaders, a passionate champion of the arts as food for the soul of the city.
The clearest manifestation of VAE's growth is the new VAE gallery on West Martin Street, a marvelous showcase that, with its vaulted ceiling and 4,000 square feet of floor space, dwarfs the old City Market gallery. With more space, the group can show more works by more artists—a total of 1,325 member and non-member artists in the past year, up 54 percent according to Powers. Membership has more than doubled to the current 569.
The new gallery puts VAE in the center of the Warehouse District and a few doors away from the 15-month-old Contemporary Art Museum, which anchors the district as Raleigh's downtown arts hub. As important as the much larger CAM is for its physical presence, however, the VAE rivals it as a creative force. In a word, it's the way it nurtures local artists, particularly new ones, helping them expand Raleigh's artistic realm.
It nurtures them, moreover, in whatever way they need to be successful. The artists we interviewed told us in glowing terms about the VAE's affordable and to-the-point programs on art as a business: how to sell, how to deal with gallery owners, how to have a bang-up website, how to use social media and so on. They told us about the plethora of networking events at which established artists mix with new talent.
Above all, they told us about a staff that always finds time to listen, offer advice and connect an artist with others who can help her or him. Fabric artist Michelle Lyon, for example, calls the VAE instrumental in her ability to launch Peculiar Pets—stuffed animals made from vintage bedspreads—in stores across the country. "I could bounce anything off them, and they were always there with constructive feedback. Their help was invaluable," Lyon says. "An amazing resource for every artist," Raleigh sculptor Megan Sullivan agrees.
The staff includes the trio of women who work with Powers: Erika Corey, who's in charge of finances and membership; Meredith Burgess, the exhibitions director; and Sarah Corpron, who coordinates programs. All are artists in their own right. It also includes interns and a host of members who pitch in as volunteers.
And then there's Powers herself. "I would say that she's a superwoman," Raleigh photographer Mary Kay Kennedy exclaims.
Did we forget to mention that Powers and the VAE are now in charge of SparkCon, the kaleidoscopic outburst of creative juices that unfolds in downtown Raleigh each September and which last year encompassed 175 distinct events, engaged 1,700 artists of all kinds and drew 25,000 spectators to Fayetteville Street?
Powers didn't invent SparkCon. But she was there when Aly and Beth Khalifa and others in the Designbox collective launched the first one back in 2006, and she's been as responsible as anyone for how it's grown up since. Last year, she and the VAE took over the day-to-day management. Says Aly Khalifa: "Sarah Powers is my personal hero."
The great thing about her job, Powers says, is "I get to look at a big picture of people doing what they're good at, and see what's getting done and what needs work." A Rhode Island School of Design graduate, Powers is a painter who loves the focus and solitude of time in her studio. She's also an extrovert who's kidding when she says she needs attention—that really isn't the case at all—but lights up when she talks about how much fun she has helping artists get things done.
Take a deep breath. Here's what Powers accomplished over the past year, as related by the vice chairman of VAE's board, architect Jon Zellweger. Working closely with Zellweger, she found, planned and opened the new gallery, with its three exhibit rooms (calling for the organization of three different shows at a time) and a new artists' retail space. She led a strategic planning process for what comes next, including possible expansion of the VAE's programs to other cities.
SparkCon had its biggest year ever in 2011. Not content to rest on any laurels, it will move in 2012 to the Warehouse District, where it should send off even more sparks—if also creating more work for its managers. She had a baby, Max, who's 6 months old. She finished her first year as chairwoman of the Raleigh Arts Commission and started her second. The commission is the city's fulcrum for the arts and recommends grants from a $1.8 million-a-year arts fund.
"Sarah just makes things happen," says Beth Yerxa, a former VAE board member and now head of the nonprofit Triangle Art Works. Yerxa recalls that early in Powers' tenure, the VAE was skewing old, and few younger artists were coming to its door. The board set a goal: more young artists. Immediately, Powers and her staff turned the old City Market gallery over to graffiti artists, and when it opened for its next First Friday show, it was alive with music, break dancers and a new vibe. "Within a year, VAE's demographic was transformed," Yerxa says.
"She knows everyone," she says, "and she's the type of person who gives as much as she gets, so everyone is willing to do what she asks. It would be impossible to calculate the impact that Sarah Powers and the VAE have had on Raleigh."