After 23 exhibitions featuring 215 local, national, and international artists, Glass Wheel Studio in the NEON quietly closed its doors for the last time in late December.
The 13 studios were home to 22 Studio Incubator Program Artists during the two years the space was open. Glass Wheel was, in many ways, exactly what the NEON, and our Hampton Roads creative community, needed: a serious art space where dedicated professionals could tangibly feel like they’re a part of a culture of aspiring art creators.
“Glass Wheel studio was an incredibly useful space for me, as it functioned as my first non-education related personal studio space,” said Gayle Foreman, one of the incubator artists. “In the first year of the residency, I was able to push through more than four projects or ideas that had been on hold — with both adequate space to make, show, and critique, these ideas were able to come to fruition, or at least their next stage. Glass Wheel also proved that both a dedicated studio space and communal atmosphere are crucial for my own artistic practice to thrive.”
Hannah Kirkpatrick was both an incubator artist and was commissioned to create the giant “Labor of Love” neon piece on the outside of the building — a major opportunity that would not have come this artist’s way if not for Glass Wheel.
“GWS was a place for artists to make, collaborate, engage community through exhibitions and special projects, and share feedback on each other’s work and process,” said Kirkpatrick, whose art I watched blossom to a next level during her time at Glass Wheel.
Glass Wheel, and its executive director, Cheryl White — a good friend of mine — were enthusiastic participants in the NEON. They sponsored the NEON Festival, hosted crowd-pleasing community art projects, provided a space for fringe festivals and international glass art festivals, and worked to time their openings with other events in the NEON, to better create that feeling of energy and cohesion we were all looking for. White served as the public art chair for the NEON District, working overtime to bring us all fun and meaningful new public art that we will be enjoying for years and years to come.
I reached out to the folks behind Glass Wheel, Doug and Pat Perry, but received no response. The stance seems to be to lay low, and wait to make an announcement until they have figured out what will happen next in that space. Which makes sense. The Perry family said going into the project that it would be a two year experiment, and they would take it from there. Could they have pushed harder to adjust the business model? Could they have shifted it from the original (completely unrealistic) vision of GWS being for-profit, and shifted it to a non-profit model? Sure. But in a culture that holds personal property rights above all, there’s nothing any of us can do or say in a situation like this.
As much as I will miss GWS, I try to take the long view. That building had sat vacant (and rotting) for many, many years. The flooding line was up to your chest. After touring the space at the beginning of the NEON movement, I was not hopeful for the property. The Perry family did something very special in preserving that building and turning it into something beautiful. That effort will not be wasted. The story of that property in the heart of the NEON is far from over.
“It is a district where everyone has had the opportunity to test new ideas, whether that is in the public realm or in private properties,” said Mary Miller, president and CEO of the Downtown Norfolk Council. “Our hope is that the next use in the building will be one that also contributes to the vibrancy of the NEON District with arts related activities. The NEON District has such great potential if the private and public sector can continue to work together to curate arts related uses.”
Speaking of that potential…… the rumor out there is that the building’s next life will be as a bustling art education center.
“As has been reported, TCC has decided to relocate its Visual Arts Center from Olde Towne Portsmouth to Norfolk,” said Marian Anderfuren, Vice President for Institutional Advancement for Tidewater Community College. “We are still in discussions with the City of Norfolk about a location near the Norfolk Campus. A number of sites have been under consideration. Although there has been plenty of speculation, no decisions have yet been made.”
According to Anderfuren, of the roughly 700 Visual Arts Center students, 90% live in Norfolk or Virginia Beach, so they feel this move makes sense for their current and future students.
I agree. The NEON would be a wonderful, inspiring place to be an art student. The proximity to the rest of downtown Norfolk offers countless opportunities for professional development and connections that simply do not exist in Portsmouth. My heart goes out to P-town, but this would be good for those students.
The gossip is that TCC is also in talks about taking over the Greyhound station — which is city-owned — and the Greyhound then being a part of new developments on the other side of Brambleton. It’s fun to think about. With the major overhaul of the Granby Brambleton intersection, the parcel becoming brightly activated would make downtown and the NEON feel like one like they never have before. It becomes easy to see the original connecting potential of the NEON coming to full fruition: on a nice summer day, folks being able to walk or bike from the Elizabeth River, through a vibrant downtown Granby, seamlessly into a neighborhood full of art and creative vitality, and then into Ghent and Park Place.
We will have to wait and see how it all plays out. The energy in the NEON has shifted in recent years. Most of the people who gave the NEON its pulsing, genuine early energy have moved on (or gently been pushed out). Among others, Charlie and Careyann from Alchemy and Work Release are doing other things… Charlotte Potter from the Glass Studio moved back home to Vermont… Hannah Serrano is focused on career and family…. now Cheryl White, as powerful of a cheerleader for our local art community who exists, too, will not be bringing her skill, effort, and vision to the neighborhood. That is a massive talent loss for a neighborhood Visit Norfolk exhaustively promotes.
If a new cast of talented, passionate, creative leaders do not appear to take their places, the NEON dream will vacate with them, which would be a terrible missed opportunity. When people visit “America’s favorite city,” excited to feel the energy of the place called NEON they read about….. and they find that it’s more smoke-and-mirrors and corporate marketing than genuine creative energy…. that bubble will burst as if pricked by a safety pin.
Without people like Cheryl and Hannah, Charlie and Careyann, Charlotte and myself going to all the boring committee meetings — fighting for good stuff — all you have left in the room are the kind of well-connected, wealthy property owners who fight against skate parks, and the administrators paid to fulfill the visions of the people in those meetings. That’s when the NEON stops being an arts district, stops being a neighborhood to dream in, and becomes what some feared it would be from the beginning: a callous marketing ploy to drive up value for property developers.
I’m still betting on the NEON being a place I want to take my out-of-town friends. Commonwealth Tattoo just opened, and it is beautiful. Dozens of new housing units will be built in the NEON in the next couple years. The creative tide keeps bringing new energy to our shores. As the song goes, every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.