Visual Arts Exchange (VAE) celebrates 40 years with a gala

The VAE celebrates 40 years with an art-centered party

by Ilina Ewen | photography courtesy VAE 

You might know VAE as the mother of Raleigh’s largest creativity festival, SPARKcon. VAE is a lot of things, but it might be easier to tell you what it isn’t: It is not a typical gallery, studio, or museum. VAE, the oldest visual arts organization in Raleigh, offers a platform to artists traditionally excluded from participating in the creative space. It’s an arts community with a conscience and a drive to do good in the world. VAE blends art and activism in what some call “artivism.” The organization takes a stand on issues that arc toward progress.

VAE has prioritized diversity, equity and inclusion long before they were modern day buzzwords. “We help tell stories that aren’t being told and highlight voices of those who have been disenfranchised,” says Brandon Cordrey, executive director of VAE, when asked what differentiates this arts incubator. Call it radical, provocative and sometimes irreverent, VAE produces some of our community’s most innovative exhibitions. The organization is flexible in its programming to respond to community issues that are points of both conversation and conflict in our world. Recent exhibits have covered topics like the disability rights movement, the concept of a queer home and inmate stories interpreted through art.

“It says a lot that Raleigh can sustain an organization like VAE for 40 years,” says Cordrey, a noteworthy artist himself. With its unique artist- focused model to provide a place to have an earnest, candid dialog about art and community issues, VAE has been a place to show art, try something new, fail and try again. VAE has deep roots in our community as a place for artists and art lovers alike. It flexes its creative muscle to be an advocate for artists and wants to cast a larger, wider net to reach even more people to engage in art, all while putting more money in artists’ pockets. For instance, VAE artists receive 40 per- cent commission on all artwork sold at its annual gala.

The VAE Gala, started in 1985, is the foundation of the work to support more than 60 exhibitions, 40 programs and events, and over $100,000 in funding is provided to the creative community each year. Gala chair and VAE board member Erica Porter reflects on the importance of giving space to artists. “I love seeing artists at the gala who have donated their work for the first time. For many, this is the first opportunity to show their art in public. The joy on their faces when their art is sold is so pure. It’s one of my favorite moments each year.” This year’s honorary chair of the gala, Nancy McFarlane, says, “The arts are what define a commu- nity. Most people immediately think of the classical arts, but it is the local arts organizations and their artists who really define a community.”

In its next 40 years, Cordrey hopes to establish live/ work space for artists and more artist-in-residence programs to make art a viable, financially stable profession. This year’s milestone 40th anniversary is all about building momentum to grow to be even bigger and more intentional in the topics it spans. VAE is positioned to leverage art as a tool for com- munity building, civic engagement and social justice. Sum- ming up the sense of community that is the DNA of VAE, Cordrey says, “There’s no ‘them’ in the arts world; there is only ‘us.’”

The VAE gala will be held March 7; 6:30 – 11:00 p.m.; Dorton Arena, 1025 Blue Ridge Road: