By Rebecca Rafferty
When a historic building in Clifton Springs went up for sale in 2013, Marjorie Morris bought it, seizing an opportunity she had dreamed about: opening an art gallery in her hometown. The longtime village resident and visionary took another chance by hiring three young artists to manage the space. Her instincts were spot-on – as Main Street Arts enters its third year of showcasing contemporary art and fine crafts, the staff is gearing up to expand its creative offerings.
Melissa Huang, gallery assistant, is a Chicago native who migrated to Rochester to earn a BFA at RIT. She interned with the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the American Art Museum, both in Washington, DC. Huang creates naturalistic, figurative oil paintings that are often intimate and emotional. They focus on themes of gender and childhood.
Maria Galens, also a gallery assistant, earned her BFA from Pratt Institute and a master’s in art education from Nazareth College. She works storytelling and narrative themes into her folk-flavored paintings.
Bradley Butler, gallery director, grew up nearby in Manchester. At 31 years old, he exudes pleasant professionalism. This isn’t his first rodeo – while earning his MFA at Rochester Institute of Technology, he served as executive director at Gallery r in Rochester. Amid stints as an adjunct professor at SUNY Brockport and RIT, he landed a job in the Firehouse Gallery at the Rochester Art Center (formerly Genesee Pottery). “A combination of working in those two galleries and hanging my own work in a variety of gallery spaces gave me a sense that I needed to work in a gallery setting,” he says.
Butler creates dark and dreamy abstract paintings that are about journey and process. They embody a range of emotions, putting the viewer in an eerie limbo between serene and anxious. His work has been featured in solo and group exhibitions on both coasts.
When Dr. Henry Foster developed the Clifton Springs Water Cure in the 1850s, the village became a popular vacation destination. Visitors traveled there from around the world to stay in the spa and soak in its sulfur springs, reported to have curative powers. Today, the Clifton Springs Sanitarium Historic District is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Across the street, the block that houses the gallery was also built in the 19th century. Over the years, it has been a cigar store, a barber shop, a beauty salon and an insurance agency.
The space was transformed into a two-story gallery by gutting the storefronts and adding six pillars at the street level to support a cast-iron balcony off the second floor. The original red-brick building was painted a warm yellow with green accents. Inside, the spacious 3,675 square feet is all high-polished wood floors and airy light bouncing off white walls. The overall effect is bright and sophisticated.
Two large exhibition rooms are in the front of the lower level with a retail shop in the back. The second floor, accessible via elevator and stairs, features smaller consignment galleries plus a classroom and kiln room.
Since its opening in June of 2013, Main Street Arts has offered more than a dozen shows featuring work by hundreds of artists in the main space, as well as many small group and solo shows in the upstairs galleries. It embraces a wide versatility in theme and media: past shows have showcased a full range of painting, photography, printmaking, drawing, fiber work, jewelry, ceramics and sculpture in metal, wood, ceramic and glass. Butler says they are working towards showing video and multimedia work in the future.
“The gallery has a regional focus, highlighting a variety of artists from the Rochester and Finger Lakes areas, plus Buffalo, Syracuse and Ithaca,” notes Butler. “We consciously make an effort to showcase artists from across the Upstate area.”
In addition, Main Street Arts organizes two national juried shows each year, which expose local audiences to national talent. “Structurally Speaking,” for instance, an exhibition on view from May through June this year, featured 30 artists from 16 different states who focused on both natural and man-made structure. The range in artwork juxtaposed meandering geometric abstractions with crisp architectural studies and a delicately and realistically rendered bird’s nest by local artist Jean Stephens.
“In general, I am excited about curating invitational exhibitions around a central theme, aesthetic or approach to making art,” Butler explains. “I try to show a variety of contemporary art and craft, and enjoy including artists who share a common color palette or aesthetic across different media in the same exhibition.”
He tries to pair mid-career or late-career artists with emerging artists in the same exhibition. “I find it to be a wonderful way to make the art world feel smaller, giving young artists access to artists who have been making art for longer than they have been alive, and letting more established artists see what the younger generation is capable of.”
In addition to organizing six exhibitions a year, Main Street Arts offers classes in drawing, painting, bookbinding and ceramics, and a monthly film-screening series that showcases art documentaries and arts-related films. Using his skill in graphic design, Butler creates all of the gallery’s promotional material, including its preliminary website. His art education background helps, too, particularly with Main Street Arts’ emphasis on education.
What’s coming up?
In March of 2016, Main Street Arts will embark on an Artist in Residency Program, hosting two artists at a time for up to three months. In addition to creating art, residents will also teach workshops. Room needed for the program’s studio and workshop will be carved out of the exhibition space upstairs. As a result, future plans include shifting the schedule from six bimonthly shows per year on the main floor to eight six-week shows. “This will add two more large-scale exhibitions to the main exhibition calendar and will streamline the exhibition schedule upstairs,” he says.
“Above all else, I want to show contemporary art,” Butler concludes. “I want to let the world know that the artists of the Finger Lakes region can be a resource for cutting-edge contemporary work – you don’t have to look to Brooklyn to see great contemporary art. I am consistently surprised and impressed with the artistic talent and range in vision that is represented in our region. There is nothing that we can’t offer.”