by Larry Wheeler
I love artists, always have. It goes way back, long before I had the privilege of directing an art museum. Many of the artists were great characters whose voices resounded beyond the canvas, the Mauds and Claudes, for example: I remember evenings spent on my front porch as Maud Gatewood expounded her radical theories of art historicism through swills of vodka and ubiquitous puffs of smoke from her Marlboro Lights. And the night at a Durham disco that inspired her painting The Dance. I recall with a chuckle Claude Howell theatrically proclaiming as “Philistines” the Raleigh “dowagers” who dismissed his modern paintings of the coast.
All artists are curious and exciting in their own individual ways. Eccentricity, wicked humor, a bold sense of self, unabashed outspokenness – all feed the excitement of knowing artists. Artists can shake you up, propel you beyond the humdrum.
So what about our artists, the ones we know and love? To varying degrees our artists are finding success and exposure in the tough, complex art world. This has not always been the case, however. For too long, Southern artists, including Maud and Claude, found access to the national art stage, including New York galleries and museums in the North and West, closed to them. International collectors were largely unaware of our exceptional regional voices. As a result, a lot of great art was isolated and has yet to enter the canon of art history.
So how is the art world different now? Of great importance is that an emerging support structure, particularly in the Triangle, is connecting the region to the national and international art scenes. The NCMA, CAM, the Nasher, the Ackland, and now the 21c Hotel, all showcase work by regional artists within a national context. These programs have boosted recognition and reputation. Flanders, the Carrack, Artspace, and Lump, among several other Triangle art galleries, regularly show risk-taking, innovative artists on a par with those shown in New York galleries. And the work can be bought.
An enthusiastic corps of collectors has emerged in the Triangle, so critical in raising the profile of artists they collect and care about. As these collectors bring local artists into an international context, they make a powerful statement that extends to the galleries they deal with in New York, Los Angeles, Miami, and around the world. It is not unusual now to find artists such as Jeff Whetstone, Peter Oakley, Beverly McIver, Damian Stamer, Stacy Lynn Waddell, Bill Sullivan, Lucas Blalock, David Molesky, Alex Harris, Jason Craighead, Carolyn Janssen, Burk Uzzle, Taj Forer, Michael Itkoff, André Leon Gray, Rob Matthews, Harrison Haynes, Anne Lemanski, Cristina Cordova, Shaun Richards, and Matthew Curran popping up in the world’s notable galleries and at the big art fairs.
Each year, for several years running, a North Carolina group of collectors and artists has hosted a party at Raleigh Denim’s flagship store in Manhattan for New York’s Armory Show in March. There is always a North Carolina party at Art Basel Miami in December. Molly McNairy and her husband PJ Deschenes host a party featuring a North Carolina artist at their home during the Frieze Art Fair in New York in May. These soirées bring together collectors, gallerists, and artists from all over. The result is that the art world is taking serious notice of the talent connected to and coming out of North Carolina.
It all begins with us – and the artist. It’s a dance, a partnership, abetted by the ubiquitous invitation. I have been so impressed with the entrepreneurial zeal of my artist friends: Tim Lytvinenko hosts supper parties or drinks in a gallery to show off his latest creations to collectors. Damian Stamer welcomes interested collectors to his studio in Hillsborough, often offering a few glasses of wine. Stacy Lynn Waddell is happy to organize a studio visit in Durham, as is Beverly McIver. Most artists are delighted to involve you in their work. Dinner after is a treat, too, as we get to know these energetic minds in a lively social setting.
The artist is a player and a brand. Successful artists are professionals, most with college degrees, and well-trained. Artists are trying to make a living in what may seem to us an unconventional way. Getting the attention of the collector, the gallery, the critic, the museum certainly requires self-assurance, imagination, new ideas, talent, and just plain hard work.
What can we give back to the artist in return for all this fun? Buying work is the essential first step, of course. But so is honest criticism and showing your artist’s work to your friends. Attending art exhibition openings featuring your artists is extremely important, whether they are local, in New York, or in neighboring cities. Get a group together – the NCMA and CAM are often happy to organize – and show the love. It means a lot to the artist and to growing the importance of North Carolina’s art scene.
The artist’s voice is a force that shapes our minds and our society. It is an extraordinary time to listen to the intriguing, compelling, and relevant ideas of our artists – and to find a few to love.