Like many local institutions in recent years, Chapel Hill's FRANK Gallery is transforming. The eight-year-old arts collective and gallery, previously located on Franklin Street, starts 2018 in a new location with a new manager and a redefined mission. But layers of historical continuity lie under all the bright new paint.
FRANK's new home—where it has a grand reopening party on Friday night, with live music by Chapel Hill's Red Nucleus and an exhibit by FRANK's member artists—was known as University Mall for decades until it was rebranded University Place in 2015. This repositioned it as a destination for food, fitness, fashion, film, and art, keeping with a national trend as plentiful headlines report the "death" of traditional malls around the country.
FRANK's move from Franklin Street to University Place reflects a local drift in that direction; it follows former Franklin tenants such as the Kidzu Children's Museum and the Peacock Alley boutique. FRANK moved into a unit previously occupied by Tyndall Galleries, an art gallery that closed its retail space last November and moved online.
Natalie Knox is FRANK's new gallery manager. Her voice bubbles with excitement when she talks about the perks of FRANK's new home. Heavy foot traffic is a key benefit, with the steady stream of moviegoers at Silverspot Cinema and the routine long waits for tables at Bartaco. The woes of parking on Franklin Street are no more, and Knox hopes University Place's cultural programs, such as concert series and makers markets, will attract an arts-friendly crowd.
"It's slightly smaller than the last space but much more conducive to a gallery," Knox says. "The mall itself is going through a revitalization and there are so many new restaurants. People can pop in the gallery while they wait for a table or a movie."
FRANK's relocation was already underway when Knox was hired as gallery manager, a role for which her background is not entirely standard. She minored in art history and majored in European studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She also has a fashion merchandising degree from the Fashion Institute of Technology. FRANK is the first art gallery she has managed. She formerly worked in management at Anthropologie and Nordstrom. While it's not a traditional gallery manager's background, perhaps it's ideal for running a gallery in an evolving mall.
"It's one thing to sell things, but it's another to sell things you're passionate about," Knox says. A variety of works at a range of prices will be represented in the gallery: painting, mixed media, ceramics, jewelry, and more. But FRANK's new spot is not just a space to sell art. As a nonprofit arts collective with twenty-four members and frequent guest artists, it also focuses on arts advocacy and an expanded outreach program. For example, FRANK member artist Nerys Levy spearheaded a project with the Karen Youth Group. The five-year-old program is a platform for self-expression through art for Karen and Burmese refugee students in the Chapel Hill area. In 2016, they wrote, illustrated, and self-published a children's book called Transplanting Traditions.
In addition to the main gallery across from Planet Fitness, a separate gallery near Southern Season, the Michael and Laura Brader-Araje Community Outreach Gallery, is dedicated to FRANK's outreach programs. At the grand reopening, it hosts Reflections, which features the top selections of student art from a North Carolina PTA competition; a partnership with fellow University Place tenant Kidzu is also in the works.
If there's a downside to FRANK's move, it's seeing Franklin Street continue to turn into a strip of frozen yogurt shops and national chains. "I feel as though Franklin Street would be a finer place for the post-grad crowd were there more places like FRANK," says one longtime Carrboro resident who held two events at FRANK's former space and attended many others. "Their move to University Place makes me a little sad. I hope it benefits them and permits them to maintain their base while acquiring new souls—they deserve as much success as might come their way."