Wake County Treasure: A space for art

Artspace makes its footprint in downtown Raleigh and beyond

by Ann Davis


In recent years, downtown Raleigh has become a vibrant and thriving city center, home to businesses and cultural institutions alike. One particular cultural institution, Artspace, has led this revitalization. Located in the former home of the Sanders Ford Car Dealership, it’s appropriate that the organization has helped to drive the renaissance of the City Market area.


While Artspace officially opened its doors in 1986, its story began more than half a decade earlier, in 1980, when a group of community leaders approached the city with a plan to create an arts center downtown as a place where artists could rent studio space and share in a collaborative environment with each other and with the public.


Mary Poole, who has served as executive director of Artspace for the past 11 years, says one reason the organization has not just survived but thrived into its fourth decade is the role that it played in revitalizing the downtown area. It basically helped to bring the arts and artists back into a space of urban decay and made people excited about the city again.


With other groups, Artspace helped to create First Fridays, and it currently averages 2,500 visitors during these events. Its other numbers are just as impressive, with more than 100,000 visitors annually — including 2,000 children on field trips and 3,000 children and adults participating in workshops — and at least 30 separate exhibitions each year.


Growing arts appreciation

These exhibitions come from the core component of Artspace: its more than 30 artists in residence. Some artists rent out space, while others are sponsored by Artspace through its Regional Emerging Artist and Summer Artist programs. These sponsored artists have an opportunity to receive free studio space and the chance to show their work to a captive audience, growing their portfolios in a supportive and nurturing environment.


Artspace recently implemented term limits on its residents, which allows the organization to serve more artists as the local and statewide art community movement grows. It currently is looking into ways to expand these programs and support more artists each year as well. Additionally, it is looking toward embarking on a new strategic planning initiative.


“We’re looking to see down the road for a bigger vision for what’s next in Raleigh and how we can play a part,” Poole says.


In particular, the center is focusing on the art world outside of its 30,000 square feet of space, or “how to extend our reach beyond our walls,” as Poole puts it. One of its community collaborations this summer is with Raleigh Little Theatre in which its Teens on Stage will perform a theatrical adaption of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.” Artspace will have students in ninth through 12th grades create protest-themed artwork to be displayed in the lobby during performances.


Both Poole and Linda O’Day Young, Raleigh Little Theatre’s youth theater and education director, are excited about the collaboration.


“We want to encourage the young people in the audience, as well as the cast and crew, to share their views on issues that affect their lives,” O’Day Young says. “It seemed a natural progression to reach out to Artspace as a way to involve more emerging teen artists.”


Other recent outreach efforts include Artspace’s first pop-up studio in North Hills. During spring, in a previously empty storefront, the organization held demonstrations by area artists and other educational programming like make-and-take events, where students of all ages were able to take their own art home with them.


“Some people are not really aware of the breadth of education and outreach that we offer,” Poole says. “Many people just think of us as a building with artists’ studios, but we truly are a partner with artists, making art available for all people, including underserved areas and at-risk youth.”


Emerging creativity

As Artspace continues to solidify its space in downtown Raleigh and reach out to Wake County as a whole, it encourages more and more budding artists — even if not in a formal studio setting.


“As people are exposed to Artspace, they are tapping into their inner creativity, and how it manifests in each person is different,” Poole says.


In other words, we might not each be the next Van Gogh or Pollock, but we each can find a way to express ourselves creatively. For instance, Poole — whose background is stronger in arts administration, grant writing and volunteer management than in the fine arts themselves — has dabbled in jewelry making and metal work since joining the organization.


Another secret to Artspace’s longevity is its availability to all people. Most artists in residence are happy to engage in conversation about their work with guests, for instance.


“We are a resource for the entire arts community: artists and art lovers,” Poole says.


Ann Davis is a freelance writer based in Raleigh.