It all began in a bedroom. It was 1978 when Craig Pleasants, an artist and art lover living in Tryon, decided the town needed a place to show contemporary art. To get things rolling, Pleasants created a gallery in the upstairs bedroom of his apartment. “And this was the birth of Upstairs Artspace,” says Merry-Beth Noble, who’s been the gallery’s director for the past nine months. “We kept the name because it carries with it the history of his original vision.”
The gallery eventually found its way to 49 South Trade St. in Tryon. “A devoted, anonymous donor purchased the building,” says Noble, “and the board obtained a mortgage to make the extensive repairs before opening the gallery in 2002.”
Organized as a nonprofit, Upstairs Artspace adopted a mission statement that underscores the need to develop an understanding of and appreciation for contemporary art and craft forms, and to advance these through exhibits, programs, and educational activities. Being a nonprofit, says Noble, allows the venue to shift the emphasis away from commercial success to be free to exhibit provocative contemporary artwork that may not be marketable (though almost all pieces are listed for sale): “This way, we can show all types of work.”
The 3,000-square-foot space covers two floors and is divided into three galleries: the main gallery, featuring the current headlining artist/exhibit; a “small works gallery” displaying works that are physically small and often made by first-time exhibitors; and another large display space on the downstairs level.
Upstairs Artspace runs about six shows a year for six weeks each. Many exhibitors are local, others regional, from Asheville, Charlotte, and beyond. “Because we are at the border [of South Carolina], we also show work from Greenville, Spartanburg, and other towns in the area,” says Noble.
Over the years, the gallery has developed a well-earned reputation for debuting contemporary, avant-garde works. Explains Noble, “We may show work that is traditional in content, such as figure painting, but the content is nontraditional, where the figure is depicting something moody, absurd, or otherwise atypical of figure paintings.
“This means that while we may exhibit art and craft, such as paintings and functional ceramics, we may curate these exhibits with layers of complexity and meaning that take some time to uncover.” She adds, “We would rather have visitors pose questions than find answers when they visit our space.”
While the sale of displayed works is important, it’s not as crucial as the show’s effectiveness for those involved: artist and viewer. In addition to visual art, past exhibits have also featured performance poetry, mixed-media installations, and works incorporating video and sound pieces.
Sometimes concurrent shows are designed to coordinate. “Other times,” Noble says, “the whole gallery is one large show, such as [December’s display] ‘Handmade: Crafts for Home & Holiday.’” Curated by Sherry Masters, who leads regional art tours, the seasonal event runs through the end of the year.
Because of COVID restrictions, most of the gallery’s educational programs have gone online. Some are offered through the website, and the gallery is also introducing a “Kits for Kids” program in 2021 to provide free art supplies to children.
“I thought that, because of the pandemic, job losses, and family stress, likely the last thing families would be purchasing was art supplies,” says Noble. Arranged in a colorful cloth bag, the kits come with coordinating art-project instructions.
“The only requirement is that the family member[s] come to visit the gallery to pick up the kits, and take some time to view the artwork on display,” says Noble. “We hope this outreach will help facilitate youth learning about art.”
Another online program, “Happy Hour with the Artists,” invites Zoomers to visit with the gallery artists in a Q&A setting.
“We are a safe space,” says Noble. “People can visit us like they do a public library, even if they know nothing about art. We are here for everyone. We belong to the community.”
Upstairs Artspace is located at 49 South Trade St. in downtown Tryon. Regular hours are 12-5pm Tuesday through Saturday (the gallery will be open until 7pm Fridays in December for holiday shopping). “Handmade: Crafts for Home & Holiday” runs through Thursday, Dec. 31. For more information, call 828-859-2828, e-mail email@example.com, or visit upstairsartspace.org.