Liberty Arts turns Durham into a sculpture gallery

jwise@newsobserver.comApril 28, 2014 

  • The show

    Twelve sculptures are going on public view this week, in outdoor spaces from the Durham County Courthouse north past Durham Central Park.

    Exhibit maps are available at the Durham Convention and Visitors Bureau, 101 E. Morgan St., the Marriott City Center at Foster and Chapel Hill streets, and online at bit.ly/1flqhU9, and Liberty Arts is holding several events this weekend to open the show:

    •  Friday, 6:30-10 p.m. – Public party honoring the artists at Durham Central Park.

    •  Saturday, 10 a.m.-noon – Bronze pour for sculptures at the Hill Pavilion, adjoining Liberty Warehouse in Durham Central Park

    •  Saturday, 1-3 p.m. – Walking tours of the exhibit with the artists.

  • A space divided

    Liberty Arts Inc. was spun off of Durham Central Park, Inc. 14 years ago.

    The public party opening the Bull City Sculpture Show is at Durham Central Park.

    And Liberty Arts’s metal-casting facility – the Hill Pavilion – is in Durham Central Park.

    For its first 11 years, Liberty Arts’ home was right across Foster Street from park, in the Liberty Warehouse, along with several more artists and nonprofits who rented at low cost from then-owner Walker Stone. Ownership changed in 2006, the roof collapsed in 2011, and Liberty Arts found a new home at the Cordoba Center for the Arts next to the Golden Belt complex. But that left the studio and the casting facility, or foundry, almost a mile apart.

    “It’s working out,” said sculptor Michael Waller. “Is it ideal? No. But it works.”

    Liberty Arts President Jackie MacLeod said the group wants one day to own its own building. In the meantime, Cordoba has enough room for large studio and gallery.

    “It’s a lovely space,” MacLeod said. It would be better to have studio and casting adjoining but the present arrangement will have to do, since there is no going back to Liberty Warehouse. The Liberty’s current owner, East-West Partners of Chapel Hill, plans to demolish most of the building and rebuild it into apartments, shops and nightlife space. No more low-rent space for artists.

    “I do understand,” MacLeod said. “It’s their investment, they want to make the most they can. ... but it’s just such a shame for us. There’s so much history.

    “If the artists hadn’t gone inte the old Liberty Warehouse when they went in, all that down there wouldn’t have been developed in the way it was,” MacLeod said. “It’s always the same. History repeating itself.”

    The Pavilion will remain, and its casting gear continue operations, East-West CEO Roger Perry said. But the Pavilion and the land it stands on are public property, anyway.

    According to Jack Preiss, one of Liberty Arts’s founders in 2000, the nonprofit was a spinoff from Durham Central Park Inc. Its initial purpose was administering a $300,000 grant Central Carolina Bank (since merged with SunTrust) made for a bronze bull statue and a metal-sculpture casting facility in honor of former bank President George Watts Hill.

    Once the Pavilion was done in 2003, Liberty Arts donated it to the city, which leases it back to the group for $1 a year. The current lease expires in March 2016, MacLeod said.

— If you were coming to the Durham County Courthouse Monday morning, you might have noticed something new out front.

Same thing if you were going past the corner of Foster and Corporation streets.

The somethings new are sculptures, and two more big, perhaps perplexing installations are going up today, at American Tobacco and CCB Plaza.

Eight more, across downtown, on Thursday. And on Friday night a party open to all to celebrate and open the six-month Bull City Sculpture Show.

“It’s really kind of a gift to Durham,” said Denise Schreiner, who is on the board of the nonprofit Liberty Arts, which is sponsoring the city’s first-of-its-kind exhibition.

Liberty Arts, created in 2000 as a spinoff of Durham Central Park, had its roof cave in, literally, at the Liberty Warehouse three years ago. Re-established in East Durham, it has organized and found funding to make itself “national players in the arts scene,” said Durham sculptor Michael Waller, whom Schreiner credits with proposing the project.

“We’re turning the city into a gallery,” he said.

For the show, Liberty Arts is bringing in a dozen sculptures from as close as Carrboro and as far as Florida, Maine and Michigan and putting them on display for six months – mostly along the Blackwell-Foster Street corridor from American Tobacco past Durham Central Park.

“We were looking for something that would put our stamp on something big in the city,” Waller said.

Liberty Arts spread word of the show through the international magazine Sculptor, through informal artists’ networks and directly to “all the arts councils we could possibly get hold of,” said Liberty Arts President Jackie MacLeod.

Durham architect Phil Freelon picked the 12 sculptures from the sculptors’ applications, which Liberty Arts encouraged with $2,500 stipends.

Liberty Arts wanted to put “a Durham spin” on typical sculpture-show, which if they have stipends at all, average $1,000, Waller said. Artists in the Durham show are also having their cost to come to Durham covered, plus food and lodging and a reception and public party to honor them and what they do.

“They’re excited about being treated really well,” MacLeod said.

Waller and his wife, sculptor Leah Foushee Waller, created Major, the bronze bull that stands at CCB Plaza. Major was cast in the Hill Pavilion from molds they fashioned in Liberty Arts’s former studio adjoining the pavilion in the Liberty Warehouse.

They developed the idea for a major exhibition to show off the sculptor’s art and promote public art. Others liked the idea and began raising money. They had about $20,000, Waller said, when the Liberty Warehouse roof collapsed in May 2011.

Liberty Arts and the other artists and nonprofits that rented there were forced to pack up and move out in a hurry. At the time, it appeared disastrous; with time, not so bad.

“The phone calls started coming,” MacLeod said. Liberty Arts’ plight, and that of the others displaced, attracted assistance and raised their proiles. In May 2012, when the group reopened with studio space at the Cordoba Center, on Franklin Street beside the Golden Belt complex, 800 people turned up, she said.

“We never had that many people come to anything we did,” MacLeod said. “They knew what we had gone through.”

Setting up the new studio took all the money raised for the sculpture show. Still, when Waller re-raised the idea to the Liberty Arts board, “We all wanted to do this,” she said.

Once an online campaign brought in $25,000, businesses and the city chipped in, raising the total to $65,000, MacLeod said; and Waller said the board and staff and others have put in “tens of thousands of thousands of hours” gratis.

“We’re not making a dime,” he said. “It’s a gift.”

Wise: 919-641-5895

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