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New art center to open with big plans, big hopes

For a few years in the 1990s, the building at 701 Whaley St. was an arts center. Art will soon have a place in the building again.

The new 701 Center for Contemporary Art plans to mount its first show this fall, followed by four more. Resident artists also will live and work in the building.

The group has filed as a not-for-profit with the Secretary of State’s Office, received nearly $100,000 in funding and formed a well-connected board that includes a former city council member and a former president of the Columbia Museum of Art board.

“We’re making a leap of faith here,” said if ART Gallery owner Wim Roefs, the center’s unpaid executive director and one of its eight volunteer board members. “We feel we can really fill a niche here.”

The building was constructed in 1909 as the Olympia Mill Village community center. There was a ballroom for dances, a bowling alley and a swimming pool in the back. The gallery space — about the size of one of the large downstairs galleries at the Columbia Museum of Art — is in what once was a basketball court.

Starting in 1996, the building housed Gallery 701, which had artists’ studios and hosted concerts and art shows. The roof collapsed in 2000, and the building was vacant until Richard Burts and Robert Lewis purchased it and began renovations last year.

“I always felt creative people would be drawn to the building,” Burts said. “I didn’t want it just to be office space; the goal has been to have access for the public. The building cries out for something like this.”

The 701 Center for Contemporary Art will fill a need in the arts community, several board members said.

“I see this as a great addition to the ecosystem of art here,” said Ken May, deputy director of the S.C. Arts Commission.

“It sounds like the people involved will ensure high-quality shows, and that can only be a good thing,” said Todd Herman, chief curator of the Columbia Museum of Art.

Contemporary art centers with galleries and studios can be found in Greenville (Art Bomb), Spartanburg (Hub-Bub) and Charleston (Redux), but none has a residency program. The 701 Contemporary Art Center would have three or four artists in residence each year.

“There’s nothing quite like it in the state,” May said.

In keeping with its history as part of the mill village, all the first-year exhibitions will be connected to textiles and the textile industry. These will include photographs by Phil Moody, of Rock Hill, whose work incorporates images of mill employees; an installation by Ellen Kochansky, of Pickens, who often works in fabric; and Scotty Peek, of Columbia, who does drawings and paintings based on old photographs.

All the artists showing in the first year are from South Carolina, but that won’t always be the case. To avoid conflicts of interest, no artists Roefs represents at his gallery are being shown in the coming year. And the two artists on the board, Anna Redwine and Mary Robinson, will not be eligible to show at the center.

After the first year of textile-related shows, the center probably will hire independent curators to organize shows. The long-term goal is to have a paid director and staff.

Among the high-profile board members are attorney Steve Morrison, former president of the art museum board, and Anne Sinclair, a former city council member.

“This saves the building, and at the same time it’s filling a niche in the arts community,” Sinclair said.

The art center has received $25,000 from BlueCross BlueShield to help cover the $40,000 annual rent (the developers are donating the difference) and $45,000 from city accommodations and hospitality taxes. An additional $70,000 to $75,000 will be needed for the first year’s operations, Roefs said.

“Now we really need help, need money and need people to become members,” Roefs said. The group continues to look for major funding. There are no plans to charge admission, but the center may offer memberships that would provide certain privileges.

May and Herman agreed that ongoing funding will probably be the biggest issue.

“The tough part is they’re going to have to get money every year to keep it going,” May said.

Reach Day at (803) 771-8518.

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