In a lot of ways, Bill Thelen and Kelly McChesney’s stories as gallery directors couldn’t be more different. But they have been subtly bending toward each other for years, which culminates in the merger of the two galleries under one name and director, functionally by the end of this year and officially in February.
Thelen is an artist; you can see one of his pieces in Southern Accent at the Nasher
right now. Twenty years ago, he founded the experimental, collective-spirited project space Lump
, as if bringing a grungy little slice of Bushwick to Blount Street, and never moved. McChesney is an art dealer, curator, and consultant whose Flanders Gallery
is a more polished commercial space, and she has constantly tinkered with its formula. In its ten-year existence, it’s moved three times, from Seaboard Station to the Warehouse District to under Lump’s roof, taking up residence in its former studio space in 2014.
Though Flanders has technically stayed commercial, it has also gradually shifted its model to meet the needs of a scrappy, community-minded local scene in which art is more of a site of communion than of commerce. This is to say it has tacked closer to Lump in practice as well as location. After a period of transition this fall and winter, during which Thelen and McChesney will curate shows together to introduce the concept of the merged space, the Flanders shingle will come down when it finishes its existing schedule in December. Then, in February, McChesney will officially replace Thelen, who announced his departure last April
, as director of Lump. A kick-off party planned for February will bring different exhibits and performances to the space each week.
The upshot is that a pioneering brand in Raleigh’s art scene will live on in name and spirit, restored to its former size, with Thelen in a strong advisory capacity. But it will also blend with McChesney’s increasingly flexible ideas about Flanders and become a nonprofit, a status neither organization had before.
“People [in the Triangle] like to go straight to the artists,” McChesney says at Counting House in Durham, sitting beside Thelen. “There are a lot of artists Bill and I think are worth showing even though we know we’re never going to make anything, or might be putting money into it. I was holding onto whether to stick to the traditional model of representing artists or going full on project-space. Being in the new space, it just made sense to go nonprofit. We see it as a complete experimental space where anything can be proposed, even if they need help finding finances for it, and we will figure out how to make it work.”
Construction in the Warehouse District led McChesney to sacrifice a lot of room and move in with Lump in the first place, as well as a desire for more collaboration. Funding and installing exhibits in the warehouse space was difficult, and she didn't think she would be able to afford premium rates after the construction was finished. Meanwhile, Lump’s studios were being used almost solely by Thelen, who felt that viewership had also declined in recent years as new art and entertainment options proliferated in Raleigh.
“One good thing about moving Flanders in is that it caused me to build a studio in my backyard, and it’s reinvigorated my practice,” Thelen says. “I feel like I’ve spent enough time doing a curatorial thing, and my art has been kind of pushed to the background, even though I’ve constantly been making stuff. I was always thinking in the back of my mind, 'How can this continue?' Kelly was willing to sacrifice her space, and the interaction just felt like a good fit.”
“I knew I would probably lose some viewers,” McChesney says of moving into Lump. “A lot of people loved my old space. They would come in and say, ‘Oh, this space is so beautiful!' and never say anything about the art. But the move has made it so I can do what I want and spend time on associated art projects rather than trying to do weddings and events to fund it. I think [the merger] allows for Bill to still be a part in a big way, even as a curator, but have that distance and freedom from it to be creative. We’re joining together to do something greater than what we’ve been doing alone."
A November residency and subsequent exhibition series by the people behind Chapel Hill's unique, currently transient gallery, L.O.G., is a good indication of what the new Lump will be like, as McChesney strives to break away from strict, First Friday-pegged monthly exhibits and develop a more flexible, artist-centered model in—and outside of—a more flexible space. The dividing wall between Lump and Flanders will stay up, allowing for a variety of display, performance, and curation options.
"L.O.G. lost that space, and we reached out to them about doing a residency at Lump while they’re in transition," Thelen explains. "We said, 'Let's do three shows and you guys can use the space however you want."
"That's something that will continue through 2017," McChesney adds. "We want to change things so when artists come in they don’t say, 'These are the parameters we’re given.' We want to say, 'OK, what do you need, do you need both spaces, do we need to do some construction, does it need to be outside, or not in the space at all?' What can we do to be different from other existing nonprofits and keep the edge that Lump has had for twenty years? One thing so many artists love about Lump is they always felt like it was family, like they owned a part of it, and I think that’s very important to keep.”
McChesney is from South Georgia, where she first started working at a small but financially successful commercial gallery. For her, taking over Lump seems to represent the full fruition of a long process of acclimating to the unique energies of the Triangle. "When I decided I was moving up to North Carolina, they convinced me I should open my own gallery," she says. "I had a handful of artists from there I really loved, and some others I knew. That started my education in being a gallery owner. I thought when I moved here that if you had good art, people would come and buy it, and that’s not the case at all."
Though Flanders will cease to exist as a gallery in 2017, it will continue as an entity for corporate consulting and outside exhibitions, leaving McChesney free to focus all of her gallery ambitions on preserving and building Lump's essential local history. "I love what I've done, but I went through this experiment of having something for everyone when I first opened—decorative arts, landscape shows, a sprinkle of very contemporary shows," McChesney says. "I tried a lot of different models in this area, and I finally learned that if I just show what I really love and believe in, it becomes easier and a little more successful. Through all of that learning, this is where I am now."