5 Questions With…. Annah Lee

The creative director of Artspace talks about the nonprofit’s evolution and how fundraising supports its mission.

As told to Ayn-Monique Klahre | photos courtesy Artspace

Annah Lee has been the creative director of Artspace, a nonprofit visual arts center in downtown Raleigh, since December 2014. She’s responsible for its exhibition programs, gallery spaces, studio artists and residency programs. Each of these programs has evolved since Artspace was founded in 1986, and especially in the last few years. We talked with her about how that’s happened, and a major event coming up that celebrates it all.

Can you tell me a little more about what you do?

So as the creative director, I’m responsible for everything you see when you walk into the building, it’s pretty much all the fun stuff! I manage our exhibition programs for our three dedicated gallery spaces, as well as the art through the corridors, the community gallery and Studio 206. I’m also the point of contact for all the studio artists, as well as our residency program. We do several different programs but they fall into two camps. Our emerging artists programs include a North Carolina Emerging Artist in Residence and an HBCU Emerging Artist in Residence. Those are full-year programs where they have space in the building and an opportunity to forge meaningful relationships at this emergent stage. Then we have visiting artists, we have a Summer Artist in Residence and a Universal Access Artist in Residence, which is for someone who’s part of the disability community. Those two are more project-based residencies, where we invite an artist into the gallery space for a month and it culminates in a solo exhibition. But we’re able to create all these wonderful interconnected relationships between exhibiting artists and residents. 

Annah Lee (center) with Jeff Bell and Carly Jones.

And how have those programs evolved since you’ve worked there?

Well a number of things have changed. First of all, when Artspace was founded in 1986, there was not a lot happening in downtown Raleigh — I grew up here, so I can attest to that! So in the beginning, it really existed to draw people downtown. Now, the growth has been exponential in every possible sector. So one thing that’s changed recently is that now we have term limits on the studio spaces. It reflects our obligation to serve as many artists as possible, and to make sure we’re inviting artists into the space with equity and diversity in mind — not just in cultural background, but also in process and media. We want the artists to use Artspace as an opportunity to connect, more as a jumping-off point.

The other thing that’s happening city-wide, but in the arts industry in particular, is more of a focus on diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility issues. We’ve really taken that to heart and integrated it into every program that we do. So things like our Universal Access and HBCU artist residencies are modeled after our longstanding residencies, but represent this shift in mission, this call for social justice and the social role that art plays. We’ve seen support for these efforts in funding, too, both on the corporate and foundation level, but also in support from individuals. Since Carly [Jones] came on board two years ago, we’ve also been proud to be a Black-led organization, with a majority BIPOC-led staff. So this programming is also authentic to the people who work here. 

I understand you have a big event coming up. Tell me about it!

Art Bash is our big fundraising gala, but it’s an event that we haven’t had since 2018! And, for those who went to that, it will be a little different. It will still be a fantastic night on the town and a chance to celebrate all night long, but reimagined to better reflect our values and how we’ve changed the last few years. So what makes this different from some other gala-type events is that we’re putting much more energy into celebrating North Carolina artists, and the many artists we’ve touched through Artspace.

Can you explain how you’re doing that?

At every level, we’ll be representing artists from across the state. In the corridors, we’ll have our 12×12 exhibit, which will have work for sale from our 100-plus artist membership at the $100, $250 and $500 level. Then we’ll have a live auction, curated by our event co-chairs Liza Roberts and Linda Shropshire Eudy. They’ve put together a highly curated selection of work that’s representative of some of the most exciting artists across the state. People like Peter Glenn Oakley — a stone sculptor in Banner Elk — or Damian Stamer, or Maya Freelon, or Mark Hewitt — he donated a beautiful ceramic piece. And this all happens within the context of our Carolina Roots exhibition, which is currently going on. That’s an exhibit of artists from more rural areas, where they don’t have as much institutional support as we do here in urban areas. And, of course, our studio artists will be there! We’ll really see our full membership represented. 

What element of Art Bash are you most excited about, personally?

I’m just extremely excited about the energy. When you get artists and enthusiasts and collectors and all these creative people in the room for a night, it’s amazing. I’m excited to celebrate the work we do and the changes that Carly has made as a leader. And it’s really a unique opportunity to see some of the best artists in North Carolina, all in one room. Yes, you can go to Soco Gallery in Charlotte to see Damiann’s work, or to Linda’s Ella West Gallery to see Clarence Heyward’s work, or you can go visit Mark Hewitt in Pittsboro, but on this night, you can see it all in one room — and you can purchase that work, with supports the artists directly, as well as what we do. I’m just excited about all of this coming together, all these incredible things happening in one room.

Visit artspacenc.org to learn more about their work and find tickets to Art Bash.

This article was originally published on October 19, 2023.