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Goodbye to burlap walls, bad lighting and never-changing exhibitions: The Triangle arts scene is moving forward

This is my last regular column for The Independent. Whew. It was hard getting that out. I've written about visual art for this paper week in and week out for more than a decade, and while I'll continue to be an occasional contributor, this is goodbye to that weekly regimen. Next month, new writers with different tastes and ideas will begin to appear in these pages. So, indulge me while I cast my mind back over the past years, and speculate about the future.

Anyone who has lived in the Triangle area for more than a month or two knows that the pace of change here is dizzying. Since the mid-1980s, the region has morphed in ways undreamed of just a few years earlier. The universities and colleges, along with the Research Triangle Park, have driven explosive intellectual and economic growth, and--in addition to traffic and smog--with that has come cultural growth and, in fact, a cultural shift of the most profound nature.

We now expect a full smorgasbord of artistic offerings at all times. We now take it for granted that there are more exhibitions and performances than one could possibly attend--that we have real choices. Whether you prefer art from ancient cultures or recent Russian conceptualism; modern painting, installation, figurative sculpture or ceramics; works by the world-renowned or the local unknown--you can see it here any day of the week.

We now think it perfectly normal to run into famous writers in the grocery store or the lap pool. You could read nothing else all year and still be hard pressed to keep up with our writers, the local publications and the output of the academic presses. Used to be, going to live theater was a special treat, and you saw the same small group of people at the same theater again and again. Now, who can keep up with the theater groups, let alone attend all the productions? Musical offerings are even more prodigious in number and genre. And why should anyone be surprised that Durham is home to five record labels and a major music distribution house? Of course, people come from all over the country for the American Dance Festival and the Bull Durham Blues Festival and the Doubletake Documentary Film Festival. Naturally, we have opera, and ballet. We're no provincial backwater here. We are the center of our own universe in a way we couldn't imagine 25 years ago.

Perhaps no indicator of this cultural shift is so telling as the existence of the Carolina Ballet. Who'd a thunk it--as we might've said before we were such a sophisticated, well-heeled bunch. To be able to support such an expensive delight as a ballet company says that we as a community have reached a certain plateau of population, wealth and social expectations. The company's existence also points up the immense value of the N.C. School of the Arts. Founded in 1963, and now a mature institution, the NCSA provides a flow of trained talent for the Carolina Ballet and other arts organizations, as well as the state's filmmaking industry. And the Carolina Ballet--in a fine example of the oft-touted economic force of the arts--is generating new businesses by its very presence. Open The News & Observer and count the ads for ballet schools and dancewear shops. And of course, those schools in turn train new dance artists. To put this cultural phenomenon in industrial terms: We no longer have to export our cheap raw goods and import the expensive finished products--we have the whole production cycle working right here. From that there is no going back.

As significant as the ballet is, perhaps even more important is the proliferation of an astonishing diversity of arts. No one can say now that art is just for white people, or just for rich people. For me, this fantastic journey into true cultural diversity started with the British-American Festival on Duke's campus in 1976. That festival was part of the national bicentennial celebrations--and it didn't leave out the Native and African parts of American. There were all sorts of displays and performances, but what I remember best was watching, sequentially, a Cherokee hoop dance, Etta Baker buck dancing with her guitar, and a band of Morris dancers. Wow. Currently we enjoy a range of local cultural expression as a regular thing, only now the range is much, much wider. On top of that, there's the tremendous number of artists brought in from around the world to perform at all sorts of venues. In dance, theater and music, we are now spectacularly rich.

We are not quite so rich in the visual arts, although we are immeasurably better off than we were 25 years ago, or even 10 years ago. Twenty-five years ago, the N.C. Museum of Art was a slight institution--not podunk because of the marvelous Kress collection pictures, but a very small operation in an awkwardly converted state government building downtown. Now the NCMA is curating first-rate exhibitions and bringing in important shows and performances. It is relentlessly self-aggrandizing, but it truly is becoming a better museum all the time. The Ackland was as quiet as the tomb of the man for whom it is named, and only a small fraction of the size it is today. Although at times I'd give anything to go back to that blessed silence in the galleries, I wouldn't want to return to the days of burlap walls, bad lighting and never-changing exhibitions. The Duke University Museum of Art hardly merited the name and was so obscure that even people at Duke didn't know it existed. (Since at least 1987, DUMA has been claiming that it is about to build a wonderful new building; now the staff says ground will be broken for it this winter.) N.C. Central University's gallery had just been started; N.C. State didn't have a gallery at all. In the mid-'70s there weren't but two commercial galleries in the whole area, and most of the nonprofit spaces so active today hadn't yet come into being.

Obviously, we have come far--but 10 years ago there was more in some ways than there is now. Then, we had a state-funded public arts program, which put some strong works in state buildings. Unfortunately, a lot of absurdly inappropriate art was also commissioned by that program, which led to its demise. What we have now instead of real public art is a marketing project dressed in wolf's clothing--The Red Wolf Ramble, during which Raleigh will be littered with identical Fiberglas forms decorated by various people. McArt for the anxious consumer age.

Then, Raleigh Contemporary Gallery was on Hargett Street, and was showing daring work by some of this area's best artists. Next door was Gilliam and Peden, with equally strong shows. Around the corner was City Gallery of Contemporary Art, and a block away, Artspace. It's still there, and going fairly strong, but Raleigh Contemporary has retrenched (and blunted its edge, for survival's sake) to City Market, and all iterations of Gilliam and Peden are long gone. City Gallery is dead, and its next incarnation has not quite struggled forth: The Contemporary Art Museum's building remains unrenovated as yet, and CAM's next major exhibition will not be held until spring, 2002--a year from the last one.

What we do have now that we've never had until recently, are all the co-op studios and studio/galleries that have sprung up in the last few years, especially in Raleigh. These are the folks who are working without a net, and some of them are very good. Go visit them. They are the future. Or they can be, if people will buy their work.

During the years I've had the pleasure of looking at so much art, and the privilege of talking with and corresponding with so many artists, I've watched a number of people develop in extraordinary ways. Some of them are still here, still making it. But too many have had to go to other cities or other jobs to make a living. That's not right, not in a place with its own ballet company. EndBlock

  • The Triangle's visual arts scene keeps moving forward.

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