Longtime Richmond artists celebrate the 40th anniversary of 1708 Gallery this month. Over the decades, the non-profit art space has showcased visual and performing art that “redefined traditional boundaries.” For Virginia Currents, Metta Bastet looks at the organization’s history and influence.
It was 1978. Richmond was on the flipside of the raucous '60s and emerging from the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal. Local artists were responding to the political and social climate, but there weren’t many options to show their work.
Joe Seipel: I think everybody in Richmond was just ready for something new and exciting.
Sculptors Joe Seipel and Tom Chenoweth are co-founders of 1708 Gallery.
Seipel: There had been some censorship issues in the city. And we really wanted to have a place where freedom of expression would go on unchecked, and also a place where the newest and the most exciting art could be shown.
Tom Chenoweth: I think that's certainly the impetus of it. We also wanted to have a space to show our own work and see things we never seen before. Joe and I were the - we were the hound dogs looking around for a different space to call our home
They found a space in Shockoe Bottom, 1708 East Main. The artists recall it was about $25 a month and had survived a recent flood.
Seipel: You could actually see on the walls, you could see the water level from that big flood down in Shockoe Bottom.
Seipel: There was a lot of avant-garde stuff going on, and street performances and fun, exciting, kind of eclectic naughty things happening.
The time was right for art spaces to proliferate, says current 1708 Executive Director Emily Smith.
Emily Smith: When you look at a history of alternative art spaces, 1708 happened at a moment when a lot of artists were coming together.
The intent of 1708 Gallery was to be on the cutting edge, to embrace the outrageous, and give emerging artists a place to test their ever growing wingspan. Chenoweth recalls a giant installation of tree saplings woven together by Patrick Dougherty.
Chenoweth: This kind of tornado shaped thing that started in the gallery and went out over the transom. It was really wonderful. And pretty much object oriented.
In 1990, the Gallery faced police and almost being shut down by then-City Attorney Joe Morrissey for a painting of three nude men in honor of friends who died of AIDS by New York artist Carlos Gutierrez-Solana
Fast forward to 2018, 40 years later. The Gallery is now located on Broad Street and it’s marking the anniversary with an exhibit honoring co-founder Gerald Donato. It’s curated by his former student, Bruce Wilhelm.
Bruce Wilhelm: He just had a jolly attitude about art work, his critical also the playful qualities of it make you comfortable enough to make interesting work.
Artist, bookmaker and wife Joan Gaustad talks warmly about her late husband.
Joan Gaustad: Gerry was a professor of painting for 38 years and this show Yo Bruce, Bruce was his most beloved student. There was such an amazing chemistry between them and their art.
Bruce Wilhelm went through nearly 300 of Gerald Donato’s renderings to curate the exhibit. Donato was a self taught painter whose style was described as fearless, playful and fun. Wilhelm’s works are displayed alongside his teacher and friend.
Gaustad: When I’ve been going through Gerry’s work with my young studio assistants, they just say this work is so fresh it could’ve even been made today. When work is timeless that’s really special.
When Donato and the others started 1708, they didn’t envision longevity or realize the role they’d play in building Richmond’s art scene. At the time, says Joe Siepel, they were just hoping to pay the next month’s rent.
Seipel: If you can imagine putting seventeen rambunctious, uh, sort of artists who had varying amounts of love for each other in a room and ideas of what something should be and coming up with some kind of conclusive notion of how this thing should be. It - it was pretty much fun.
Chenoweth: I think we had a good idea when we started, which is why we were able to keep it going this long. 1708 has naturally evolved over the years. I guess maybe grown up, is the word. So, I guess maybe say, "It's good to see you've matured in your forty years.
Smith: One of the things that we try to pay attention to that I think speaks to the vibrancy of the Richmond arts community is how many students are choosing to stick around Richmond and call it home, or move here. And I feel like that number increases every year. And that to me is a real sign that the arts community is exploding, and that Richmond's a viable place to make serious art and be experimental and adventurous and find the support to do that. And that's exciting to see that continue to develop and thrive.