Thirty-four years and two months, that’s how long I’ve been writing a visual arts column for the Journal.
This is the last one, so it invites us to come back to the ground covered.
When I moved to Winston-Salem from Atlanta in 1984, it was to lead a three-year research project for the nonprofit Jargon Society. The focus was on visionary folk art – or what is now called art brut.
In 1988, with this effort behind me, I was recruited by Joe Goodman, then editor of the Journal, to write a weekly column, taking a critical view of the art shown in and around Winston-Salem.
A pivotal time
In the late 1980s, it was North Carolina’s “city of the arts,” widely regarded as an enlightened cultural oasis in an area HL Mencken amusingly referred to as the “Sahara of the Bozarts.”
Reynolda House had a thriving collection of American art, and Wake Forest University operated a thriving contemporary art gallery in its new fine arts center (from 1976). The Winston-Salem State University campus featured an impressive array of site-specific contemporary sculpture, and plans were underway for a new gallery at the school.
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Local artists had begun to pioneer the area now known as the Arts District, and several local visual arts organizations operated bustling downtown galleries. Also based downtown, the Arts Council enjoyed iconic status as the first organization of its kind in the country (founded in 1949) and by the late 1980s had the largest operating budget. important to all local arts councils in the state.
And then there was the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (SECCA), in the former home of textile magnate James G. Hanes, with its state-of-the-art gallery wing added in the late 1970s.
Founded in the late 1950s, this independent, nonprofit arts center had become a phenomenon by the time I arrived in Winston-Salem. It was one of North Carolina’s cultural gems. Director Ted Potter – an artist and curator imported from San Francisco – oversaw a large team, including three full-time curators who organized a complicated schedule of overlapping group and solo exhibitions. SECCA also administered its own regional and national artist grant programs.
The city’s visual arts scene was thriving when I began writing my Journal column, but major changes in the local business environment were soon to have a deleterious impact on local culture, including the infrastructure of visual arts.
Beginning in the late 1980s, many of the local corporations that had built Winston-Salem and its reputation were bought out, merged with outside entities, relocated, rebranded and/or otherwise transformed in ways that disengaged them from the local community. .
Among its other effects, the flight of corporate jobs has resulted in lower local revenues for the visual arts. The base of local contemporary art collectors that had emerged over the past 30 years began to erode as affluent citizens and art buyers moved away or began to “age” from the market and reduce their collections.
Meanwhile, the culture wars were just beginning to escalate, following which contemporary art became a political pawn.
The SECCA found itself in the eye of the storm. One of his traveling exhibits included a photograph that offended conservative politicians and self-appointed guardians of “family values”. Because the show was partly funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, critics have used this image (the now-iconic “Piss Christ” by Andres Serrano) to bolster calls for agency funding.
SECCA was about to open its new wing – an expensive expansion of its gallery space next to a newly built theater – so the timing of these developments was unfortunate. The traveling exhibits controversy led to funding cuts for the center and ultimately Potter’s resignation.
This all happened in my first five years as a visual arts columnist.
New blood, new places
Despite SECCA’s declining fortunes and other damage from corporate evacuations and the culture wars, Winston-Salem retained some of the unique artistic reputation it had built in the post-war years. . During the 1990s, it attracted young artists from the wider area and beyond, and it retained a number of artists trained at local institutions, including Wake Forest, WSSU, UNC-Greensboro and the NC School of the Arts.
The Arts District emerged during these years as a viable showcase and commercial outlet for local and regional art. The downtown gallery scene began to grow and diversify, even as some of the city’s nonprofit visual art venues struggled.
It was also a pivotal decade for two local institutions that had historically carried the torch for African-American art – WSSU, which made a big impact with its new Diggs Gallery, and Delta Fine Arts, whose Delta Arts Center relocated. into a larger, more visible corporate headquarters on New Walkertown Road.
The art is, of course, influenced and inspired by events around the world – a trend evident in much of the art I’ve written about here over the past three decades. The first two decades of the new millennium saw increasing topicality in contemporary art, as artists responded to a host of socially charged national and global issues. It’s a trend that has continued and expanded into the 2020s with the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic, catastrophic global warming, the Ukraine crisis, reproductive rights, and growing concern over the state of our democracy. .
These are national and international issues that concern artists and other citizens, no matter where they live.
Always the big story
When it comes to specific developments on the local visual arts front, previous reflections necessarily leave out a lot, such as the effects of the 2008 recession.
Through it all, the ever-evolving big story has been the previously referenced SECCA saga. This story is far too convoluted to condense into a few paragraphs, but I tried to summarize some of it in a recent column (March 27) about the firing of SECCA exhibition curator Wendy Earle.
SECCA had been an independent art center for more than 50 years when the state art museum took it over in December 2007. The center’s board asked the state to intervene after it failed to raise several million dollars for much-needed repairs to the building. Unsurprisingly, the takeover had major implications for the future of SECCA and the future of visual arts in the region.
SECCA has undergone a cascade of personnel changes in the 15 years since it became a branch of the North Carolina Museum of Art. It can no longer claim to be the state’s premier contemporary art institution, just as Winston-Salem has lost its unrivaled status as North Carolina’s city of the arts.
Come out and thank you
None of this has any direct bearing on the Journal’s decision to cancel this column.
So no grudges. I’ve been at this for a ridiculously long time.
Thirty-four years. It seemed to pass in a flash.
To past and present readers and editors of the Journal: Thank you for making me happy.