If the photographer and arts patron Tim Walter is breathing a little easier these days, so is a significant portion of Durham's arts community.
The Durham Fruit & Produce Company—a 22,000-square-foot warehouse at 305 South Dillard Street that Walter renovated into a gallery, performance, and workshop space—is finally legal, following a three-and-a-half-year odyssey of construction delays and red tape as the downtown development craze siphoned off local architects and contractors.
During that time, the Fruit hosted enough underground visual art, dance, and theater to inspire the INDY to call it the "best venue that doesn't exist" in last year's Best of the Triangle issue. But, more than a bid for outlaw cred, these events constituted a series of self-administered tests to determine how the space could accommodate various artists and forms—a long-term effort to study and then meet, rather than dictate, the needs of an arts ecosystem.
The venue's first show, Nicola Bullock's dance-theater-art hybrid Undone, addressed race relations and power dynamics in Durham. It plunged Walter into a vibrant community of grassroots performing artists who took their craft seriously and were hungry for a large, flexible, affordable place to develop and perform their work. He noticed that Bullock's work, as well as performances at the Fruit by the likes of Leah Wilks and Little Green Pig, also provided crucial exposure for a host of affiliated artists in areas including sound, painting, lighting, set design, and costuming.
After visual artist Kai Barrow spent a grueling seventy-two hours at the Fruit creating figures related to Hurricane Katrina and the African diaspora, Walter watched her host an artist talk with a group of young, queer activists of color. As he noted the intense interest the twenty- and thirtysomethings took in what she had to say, Walter couldn't picture the same conversation taking place in a more conventional or formal venue.
"One point of alternative arts spaces is being able to serve a community that doesn't feel at home elsewhere," he says. The experience gave him "a deeper understanding for the variety we would have in our arts scene if more places were available for this."
Walter was also studying how the space and the community would accommodate world-class artists. He hosted residencies and installations by internationally recognized photographers, including France's Georges Rousse and political activist Zanele Muholi, whose work was exhibited at the National Museum of South Africa after its Durham premiere.
Gradually, Walter solidified plans for specific renovations and the principles by which The Fruit would run—so gradually, in fact, that onlookers wondered if it would ever officially open. But Laura Ritchie, director of the Carrack Modern Art, says that patience is key when tailoring a venue for an existing arts community.
"You have to take your time, invite folks in, and listen to what they have to say," she says. "You have to know the artists first to build a model that's going to serve them."
The Fruit passed its biggest prime-time test in its official opening this fall, when Duke Performances tapped it as headquarters for Monk@100, an international ten-day festival devoted to North Carolina-born jazz composer Thelonious Monk. Because of the aesthetics and flexibility of the space, Monk@100 "would not have been nearly as successful if we'd done it on campus or any other venue in town," says Duke Performances director Aaron Greenwald.
The space got a shout-out in The New York Times' festival review—but only after Walter and Greenwald averted disaster one night by keeping a surging stream of rainwater from a botched renovation at bay behind the curtains as Chilean saxophonist Melissa Aldana finished her final set some thirty feet away.
The moment had a certain resonance. Walter, whose arts patronage in the Triangle is widespread, helped bail out The Pinhook, behind the scenes, after a 2015 crisis over unpaid taxes threatened the venue. His long history of mentorship has also benefited the Carrack, where he serves on the board. "He's there to staff the space, be there if the alarm goes off, and help balance the books," Ritchie says.
According to Greenwald, Walter has worked hard to "figure out the flashpoints of the grassroots arts scene" and support organizations doing mission-driven work across the city. But his greatest contribution may be snagging a derelict downtown warehouse building, mere months before the city and real-estate speculators began snatching up its East Durham neighborhood, placing the arts in downtown Durham in a squeeze play. After the 2016 closing of Common Ground Theatre and the scheduled 2018 departure of Manbites Dog Theater, companies like Little Green Pig, whose Lake Placid is about to close at the Fruit, would otherwise face a severe venue drought in Durham.
"It's sort of miraculous that someone like him comes on the scene in a moment of massive gentrification in Durham, where all these warehouse spaces have been transformed so they're no longer usable by artists," Greenwald says. Rehabilitating a 1926 building that was orginally a produce warehouse for local grocers, "yet at the same time keeping it rough, where artists can work, is kind of unbelievable."
If Walter is a visionary, as Bullock and others have called him, he's a decidedly cautious one who checks his figures twice; a dreamer who meticulously studied and rooted himself in the strata of Durham's arts scenes. Small wonder that, after such extended contemplation, his efforts are now bearing real fruit.