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A downtown Durham art event makes a second coming

Nine years ago, a group of enthusiastic artists collaborated to turn an unused space in the heart of downtown Durham into a community art event. The idea was to attract crowds of art lovers and provide exposure for dozens of little-known artists. Everything for the show from the use of the space to the posters and refreshments was provided free by the artists and their supporters. It was a true grassroots effort, and no one really knew what to expect in terms of participation or attendance.

"We were only open a day and a half," says Juliet Jensen, one of the coordinators of the first show, "but over 400 people came." It was a success beyond all expectations, an opening that put a spotlight on the interest in the arts and in revitalizing the dilapidated downtown. Jensen and her colleagues were thrilled with the response and were tempted to make it a regular event. Still, it was a big project, requiring city approval and lots of hard work, and many felt that the uniqueness of the show, the "happening" quality, was a large part of its appeal. Buoyed by the enthusiastic response, some of the participants formed the co-op Artomatic, which rented a gallery space downtown and provided monthly events in the ensuing years, but the daily demands of the business eventually took a toll on its members.

"I think most people just got burned out after a while from the daily grind," says artist and show participant Jacob Cooley. "Once the novelty of the shows wore off, and they were happening every month, people didn't get as excited about them." Although the co-op eventually closed its space, the members continued to work in the area and keep in touch. "The show we had nine years ago really brought out the fact that we have this great, vital arts community that most people don't even know about. There are literally hundreds of artists who don't show in local galleries, who may be 18 years old and [are] just discovering painting, or a talented amateur who never really tried to show. We always talked about doing it again," says Cooley, "and there's a lot of support for the idea of doing it more regularly in the future."

That decision may hinge on the outcome of this week's event. "Part of the excitement of this type of show is that until the hanging, we really don't know how many artists will come to show or what the work will be," says Cooley. "This show will be interesting in that some of the artists from the original show who have gone on to achieve national success will be back to show their work along with everyone else. No one is being paid for their efforts, there are no sales commissions, and everyone gets an equal amount of space. The point is to welcome all types of artists, to be wide open."

Inspired by that philosophy, DIY art groups such as Artomatic, Durham Arts Intitiative (DAI) and upstART gallery have worked to fill empty spaces, provide performance and studio space and encourage participation by any and all willing to call themselves artists. Dave Rogers at DAI sponsors an open hanging on the last Saturday of each month in his building at 122 W. Main St., and will open his space for the Meanwhile event as well. DAI is thus far one of a few new spaces used for theater, visual arts, music and filmmaking.

The success and visibility of these projects have sparked a new interest in recreating the downtown art show on a grander scale, this time involving multiple venues, participatory events and poetry and music performances. The show will coincide with the third Friday "culture crawl," Durham's answer to the popular monthly artwalks, and includes indoor and outdoor settings. Most of the music and spoken word performances will occur at DAI and The Not Park, where there will also be a voter registration booth and tarot readings. Saturday night, music will include bands Wigg Report and Dom Casual among other surprises. In addition to the art on display, visitors may participate in a "Paint the Bus" project by making their mark on a bus provided by the G. F. Fulton Foundation, also sponsored in part by the Scrap Exchange.

Ann Woodward, an artist who also runs the Scrap Exchange, will bring her "New York Cockroach Co." to the park--a free event for participants to make cockroaches out of shells. As an artist, sculptor and veteran recycler, Woodward sees great potential in the downtown area. "When we did the first show, we took a run-down, dirty space and made it beautiful. It was a great art show. We hope that this new show will catch people's attention and imagination--we want to bring people into places they've never been before." EndBlock

  • A downtown Durham art event makes a second coming

More by Bronwyn Merritt

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