Three expansive plate glass windows front the 100-year-old brick building that is home to Momentum Gallery on the busy Broadway-Biltmore artery that moves vehicles and pedestrians through downtown Asheville. Each frames an arrangement of mediums — paint, ceramic, glass, textile, wood — an invitation to pause and ponder, or perhaps step inside.
“We have collections that celebrate the main disciplines of material-based work with a rich history in this area,” says Jordan Ahlers, who owns Momentum with his wife Shifra Ahlers. “We also have paintings, prints, and sculptural objects. I don’t see a delineation. We seek harmony between exquisite works in all these different materials and mediums.”
There’s plenty of space for every medium to play well with others. On March 15, Momentum celebrated the opening of its 15,000-square-foot building with five solo shows in five distinct galleries. Visitors also meandered smaller rooms, viewing work from the 70-80 artists currently represented by the gallery.
Four of the five solo artists — Ron Isaacs, Lisa Clague, Crystal Gregory, and Samantha Bates — have been with Momentum since the gallery’s founding. Samantha Keely Smith has been represented by Momentum since 2019. The opening exhibition “was a way of honoring them for being with us since the beginning,” Jordan explains.
The beginning was October 2017, when the Ahlerses opened in a much smaller space on Lexington Avenue. Previously, Jordan was director of Blue Spiral 1 on Biltmore Avenue for 18 years. The word Momentum, he says, describes positive movement, a reflection not only of his professional path, but also the nature of a gallery. “We are fostering art until it finds a permanent home, so there’s a lot of flux. We put a painting on a wall, it sells and goes out, and a new one comes in. That positive movement is symbolic of what we do.”
The couple always intended to grow the business and hoped to do so by taking over the second floor of their first location. When negotiations to do so faltered, the 52 Broadway site was purchased in March 2018. Their own momentum was significantly slowed by existing tenant leases, extensive renovations, and COVID-related delays, so they operated on Lexington Avenue through the end of 2020.
The pandemic also put a different spin on the official opening of the new Momentum Gallery, not necessarily a negative. “The nature of most openings is that they are so crowded, the art is the last thing you see,” Jordan says with a laugh. In lieu of a big public event, Momentum instead invited those on its mailing list to book appointments. “Basically, Shifra and I gave private tours to groups from two to 12 or so.”
A highlight for many — and point of pride for the Ahlerses — is the recent partnership with Dale Chihuly, one of the world’s most famous glass artists. This resulted in a display of glass pieces and serigraphs on Momentum’s second floor. Before 2020 eliminated most travel, the Ahlerses spent several days in Seattle at Chihuly Studio, the Chihuly Garden and Glass museum, and private glassblowing studio The Boathouse.
“It was an incredible experience,” Jordan recalls.
Not nearly so well-known, he notes, is the significance of Western North Carolina as a glass mecca, the number of world-class glass artists who live in the area (largely due to Penland School of Craft’s 56-year-old glass program), and Chihuly’s local connection. “Harvey Littleton — considered the father of the studio glass movement in America — was the head of what was then the only glass program in the country at the University of Wisconsin,” Jordan notes. In the 1960s, Chihuly studied under Littleton.
When Littleton moved to Spruce Pine, NC, in the 1970s, he developed a printmaking process called vitreography, using glass plates, and Chihuly often came to WNC to work with him. Momentum has vitreographs from the late Harvey Littleton and represents John Littleton, Harvey’s son, and John’s wife/collaborator Kate Vogel.
Jordan Ahlers says that while Momentum has a number of regional artists — the middle section of the gallery is all local — it is not a criteria. “We have a dual mission,” he explains. “One is to represent the best artists of the region, many of whom are internationally acclaimed. The other is to offer the community access to artists they might otherwise have to go outside of the region to find.”
Standing at the top of the floating staircase connecting both floors, Jordan says it’s his favorite view. “It’s been such a pleasure to see this space go from lines on a page to a construction zone to a gallery,” he says. “We wanted to do it right and provide the best home for our artists and their work.”
Momentum Gallery, 52 Broadway, Asheville, momentumgallery.com. Open to the public daily 10am-6pm, and Sundays noon-5pm, with private tours available.