Submitted by Melissa Howsam — Correspondent
Opening an art gallery in the middle of an economic downturn risky? Try brilliant. At least if you're John Pelphrey and Kelly Dew, the dynamic husband-and-wife duo behind the Bull City's burgeoning LabourLove Gallery in Golden Belt, set to celebrate its three-year anniversary in May.
A labor of love, indeed, the art-smart art house is housed in the storied 155,000-square-foot former home to Golden Belt Manufacturing Company on a 7-acre LEED-registered campus, listed on the National Register of Historic Places amongst a cast of creative neighbors.
Now a power-player in the city's long revitalizing art scene, the arguable-gamble still begs the question: Why would a young couple with a 2-year-old (Porter) risk their economic future on an art gallery in downtown Durham's still-deep-in-renaissance East side? Well, literally, it's a labor of love: "Why?" says Pelphrey. "Because we wanted to do something we believed in, something we could do together and something that could contribute to our community."
And they have. After a lifelong dream by Dew and a dozen years of discussion with Pelphrey (who, too, adopted the dream), that vision finally came to fruition with a lease at Golden Belt in 2009. Then, after 15 'laborious' months and some tinkering with the original business model, they made a transition from a more traditional art gallery to a collaborative-concept art collective (where the gallery's income is garnered from artist rent, and artists reap reward in revenue).
"We like selling things that are handmade and local. Jewelers are artists, and so are clothing designers. It's just a different medium, and we think there should be a place for them in galleries like ours," says Pelphrey. Smart move. By renting wall, shelf and clothing-rack space to local crafters, LabourLove's turn to an off-the-rack concept took them to off-the-hook status.
"A city without art is boring," says Pelphrey. "We wanted to be part of changing that [in Durham]." And they have. In essence, the pioneers have taken their brushstroke and cast a permanent, yet ever-evolving, new color on the city's cultural scene. "Nearly three years ago we staked our claim on the East side of downtown, which was a significant risk, he says. But Golden Belt is becoming an amazing place with all kinds of creative businesses.
"Back then, we were the only retail store in the complex, and we remained the only retail for quite a while. We hope that people remember us in the future, that they'll think of us as the people who proved that East Durham could be a great place for the creative community to thrive and grow. We believe that LabourLove has been an asset to the rebirth of downtown Durham, and we hope others agree."
But their "one-stop-shop" view of the local art scene is by no means complete, and doesn't stop with still life. Innovative in its own right, LabourLove is becoming an all-encompassing house of creation. With the August addition of after-hours Third Friday jazz shows, a partnership with the Art of Cool Project, the go-to gallery is still breaking ground and pushing the scene, adding performances to its happening art-house offerings.
The gallery may be small in scale, but its communal presence is no-doubt "Goliath." And with the ground they've gained, it's impossible to even fathom what ground they may break in the future. But their vision is sure. "[We want] more music, more art and [more] change," says Pelphrey. "We're always changing things. You can't stay the same in this day and age. We have to evolve constantly. I have no idea what we'll be doing in a year, and I kinda like it like that. Six months ago I had no idea we'd be doing jazz in here."
So what might their MO be going forward? Maybe we can credit them with making the Pottery Barn-era passé:
"I really just want people to realize that we have a vibrant art scene in the Triangle, one that should be supported with dollars more than pats on the back," Pelphrey says. "When people are thinking of decorating their homes, I hope they will buy local instead of buying some mass-produced piece of junk from a big-box store. We've seen a real revolution when it comes to buying local food in the Triangle over the last few years. I hope that change starts to take place in art and design, too. The talent pool is there; we just need people to change their buying habits."
Considering that the 'loco-for-loca' movement doesn't appear to be a fad that is fading anytime soon, Pelphrey and Dew just might see that vision realized, too.