Picture a downtown empty and desolate, with mostly boarded-up businesses. Asheville Gallery of Art President Sue Dolamore isn’t referring to the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic — she’s describing the area as it looked in 1988, the year the gallery opened.
But over the intervening years, AGA — noted as the city’s longest-established fine-art gallery — has played an integral role in Asheville’s emergence as a national arts destination. “As Asheville’s tourism business increased year by year, so have our gallery sales,” she says. “Last year was our biggest year ever.”
For the gallery’s first few decades, it was located at 16 College Street; in 2015, it moved a short distance to a more spacious site at 82 Patton Avenue. It’s structured as a cooperative: Each artist member is required to work in the gallery one day a month, serve on two or more committees, and help with maintaining the website.
“There is a great sense of camaraderie,” says Dolamore. “It’s heartwarming for me to see how we take care of each other … it’s an added value to have a true sense of community within a group of artists.”
All gallery work is two dimensional, a mix of representational and abstract: watercolor, oil, acrylic, encaustic, ink, pastel, mixed media, and collage. The venue doesn’t sell photography or prints. “All work is original,” notes Dolamore.
The number of pieces displayed by any one artist can vary, constrained only by the approximately eight feet of wall space allotted to each member. The average is six or seven pieces per maker, plus a bin of smaller matted works, for a gallery total of around 500 pieces.
Canvases are rotated every quarter, so members get the opportunity to move to more prominent walls. At least once a year, the gallery puts out a call for new members; the process involves a jury committee and interview. And it’s not just artistic quality that Dolamore and her crew are seeking. “We also look for what skills [potential members] can bring to the gallery business,” she says.
Because of the on-site work requirement, artists must live within an hour’s drive of Asheville.
A gallery member since 2016, Dolamore alternates showing her plein air work in oil with her watercolors, which include wildlife studies (e.g. her charming “Little Bird” series) and urban sketches. “I might also add in a few abstract watercolors, which are playful studio pieces.”
She emphasizes the freedom of the cooperative model. With no gallery owner to answer to, “our artists are free to present whatever they are most excited to share,” she explains.
It’s not all been easy, of course. Like any arts venue in a tourist town, Asheville Gallery of Art has faced many challenges, perhaps none so great as the current crisis. The gallery has had no sales from the time it closed, on March 15. In late June, though, it qualified for relief money from Buncombe County’s Tourism Development Authority. “The grant was a godsend,” says Dolamore.
“It will help us cover a couple of months of rent and pay for some supplies that will be needed for our safe reopening.”
Plans are for AGA to open for just a couple of days a week at first, with private appointments also available. If phased reopening continues to move forward, the gallery will present an August show, “AVL Vistas, Vibes & Visitors.”
At the moment, however, downtown Asheville is, once again, relatively empty and desolate. Boarded-up businesses remain. But Dolamore says the folks at AGA are eager to meet the challenge head-on.
“[The pandemic has] caused us to reassess who we are as a business and why we are here. … This fresh energy is being applied to reform our gallery. We have brainstormed new ways of operating, and I can see that we will truly be … more vibrant on the other side.”
Asheville Gallery of Art, 82 Patton Ave., downtown Asheville. Open Saturdays and Sundays, 12-5pm, in August, for the show “AVL Vistas, Vibes & Visitors,” featuring 20 member artists. For more information, call 828-251-5796 or see ashevillegallery-of-art.com.