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Future for Macon gallery uncertain, help sought

art frAll is not well at the Uptown Gallery in Franklin.

“It’s pretty bad,” said Sue Weathers. “We’re losing money, and keeping the gallery open is getting pretty hard.”

Co-director of the gallery and a member of the Macon County Art Association, which runs the gallery, Weathers is putting an open call out to the local residents, visitors and greater Western North Carolina that help is needed to ensure the longevity and survival of the 52-year-old nonprofit business.

“We are very worried we won’t be able to continue,” Weathers said. “We’re hoping that something will materialize and people will come to help. We need volunteers and we need to get the word out. It’s important for the community to have an arts presence, especially for the kids, and the community itself is enriched as a whole by artists.”


Downtown Centerpiece

Founded in 1952, the association and gallery came about due to the common interest of painting held between a group of women in the area. A lot of them were summer visitors and second homeowners, who were looking for a place to meet and paint together. 

“They started in someone’s home, then needed more room and were in the old jail,” MCAA Membership Director Carol Rollick told The Smoky Mountain News last year. “They eventually came to the current spot on Main Street and soon made it into a nonprofit organization.”

With dozens of members filling up the vast walls of the gallery, pieces of art are constantly rotated and mixed with other mediums. It’s all in an effort to hold the viewers attention and be able to properly showcase the diversity of talent in Macon County.

“There is a need for this art here, and a remarkable job has been done of bringing it to the public,” Rollick said. “I’m very proud of Franklin for having it and I certainly wish we would develop it even more.”

But, with the economic downturn of 2008, the disposable income of many folks simply dried up. Art is considered a luxury expense, and can be considered low-hanging fruit when tightening up budgets.

“In terms of sales, we don’t get as much community support,” said Jim Smythe, an artist member and president of the MCAA. “Most of the sales comes from visitors and tourists, and that’s kind of sad. We’re trying very hard to promote ourselves as best we can to the local community.”

The financial difficulties of the gallery have been going on for a few years now, with their rainy-day savings being used to pay off the more than $1,000 per month overhead of the facility, which includes rent, utilities, upkeep and miscellaneous items. In past years, those costs were paid for with funds earned by the gallery from art classes and programs they put on, commission from pieces sold and from member dues. But, in recent years, the association has dipped into savings, which are quickly drying up, and they expect to drain their purse within a year and a half.

“When the economy went flat, people stopped buying art,” said Ruth Goodier, an artist member and co-director of the gallery. “We used to have grants from the county and city, but the past few years they haven’t been as generous as they used to.”


Finding A Solution

In order to change the fate of the gallery and avoid closure, the MCAA has put forth their latest endeavor: the First Saturday Art on Main celebration. Taking place the first Saturday of each month through October, the gallery will open its doors to downtown Franklin with a sidewalk art sale amid artist demonstrations, community activities and the nearby farmer’s market that runs simultaneously. 

“More outdoor sales, with the Art on Main and with our shows in Highlands will make our presence known more,” Smythe said. “I think the community will really rally behind us. [This gallery] is an important part of the community, it’s important for the diversity of downtown.”

“If this gallery closed, 40 to 50 artists wouldn’t have a place to sell or place their works and there would be no place for community and children’s programs,” Goodier added.

The Uptown Gallery isn’t the only nonprofit art organization that has gone through a rough financial path. After the recession hit, and up until late 2012, the future of the Haywood County Art Council’s Gallery 86 was murky. The gallery found itself on the ropes.

“We were financially in trouble and we needed to become transparent and figure out how we were going to make it,” said Libby Irwin, former president of the HCAC board. 

Irwin said the HCAC transition committee came into play with the departure of their executive director in December 2012. The committee and its volunteers went around the community and met with anyone and everyone who’d listen to them. Some donated funds, some donated their time, while others vowed their support to do whatever they could to keep Gallery 86 afloat.

“You’ve just got to make sure you have a mission you feel strongly about and that you get out there, publicize it and let people know you’re there,” Irwin said. “It’s about helping artists in Western North Carolina, it’s about promoting art, because without it, communities here don’t have a chance — art is why people are coming here.”

The Uptown Gallery and MCAA are optimistic about the future. But their ultimate fate will come at the hands of those who wander through the door for a workshop or around the showcases in search of that special piece to take home.

“I would not be in Franklin if it wasn’t for the gallery and the association,” Weathers said. “The gallery has been such a big part of my life, and I couldn’t contemplate it closing down — it would be devastating. Having been here for over 50 years, the gallery is something the community should be proud of. I hope everyone comes and sees all the wonderful talent here, because there’s a lot of it.”

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