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Alan Gratias is at home at Arts on Main

Photography by Daniel Vaughan

The invitation came when Joanie and I had just settled in Charleston, South Carolina, our ABF (Anywhere but Florida) winter escape destination for the past few years. Judy Kent, the Chairman of Arts on Main (AoM), asked me to a members’ luncheon to plan for the 10th anniversary of the gallery. I accepted pronto because AoM has been close to my heart since its launch in May 2007. For one thing, I knew it to be a thriving co-op with 25 members (and a waiting list) practicing all manner of the visual arts. For another I was the landlord of their premises at 223 Main Street.

It all started with a derelict building. A fire in the 1950s destroyed the third level and disfigured the run of roof lines at the corner of Main and Ross. What had once been a classic three-storey structure that bookended the main commercial block of Picton was now a two-storey rump. Without ornamentation on top, that rump sat deformed against the common wall of its neighbour to the west. But I liked the way the building – previously home to Roblin Motors – asserted its disfigurement so I bought the ugly duckling which had been shuttered for years in September 2005. I had an idea of occupation.

Before moving to the County, I had lived for several years in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, where there were half a dozen galleries in a town smaller than Picton. Lunenburg and Picton share many characteristics, both shire capitals surrounded by water, settled by United Empire Loyalists, both remote peninsulas with a good supply of heritage houses to be rehabilitated. Despite all their parallel attractions to artists and wayfinders, there was a striking difference in their towns’ commerce. There were no galleries in Picton.

In those days, there were three of us who set out to launch an arts co-op. Terry Williams was an carver of whimsical animations who with his wife Joy had recently pulled up stakes in Toronto for a quieter life in the County. Terry was a folk artist in temperament and in practice. Not only did he march to a different drummer, he was that drummer. The third member of our incubation group was Ann Wood who had also recently relocated to the County after a career in advertising in the Big Smoke. Together, Ann and Terry developed a business plan and a constitution, secured a grant from Prince Edward Lennox and Addington Community Futures Development Corporation, and trickiest of all, won over a skeptical community of artists. As Ann observed, “Co-op galleries are the shooting stars of the art world, bright and hopeful at the outset, but fading quickly.” With the endorsement of the local arts council, and heaps of charm and arm twisting, Ann and Terry persuaded a core group of artists to join the new space in the cultural heart of gritty Picton.

My job was to deliver a worthy auditorium for the new venture. I removed the interior pillars, upgraded the electricity and plumbing, installed new windows and a maple and birch floor. When the entire space was painted in pearl button white, the old Chrysler showroom was transformed to Manhattan chic.

AoM officially opened on May 18, 2007. Terry, Ann, and I along with Mayor Leo Finnegan cut the ribbon under the banner, “Once a showroom, always a showroom.” A diverse group of 27 artists made a commitment to support the gallery with their membership and staffing ’year-round and not just during the tourist-rich summer months. Their media included many forms, from blown glass to jewellery and painting, to photography and fibre to sculpture, porcelain, and folk art. A hundred guests, artists, family, and friends raised a champagne toast to the sparkling transformation of Roblin Motors. Twelve pieces sold the opening night.

Now, a decade later, I was on my way to the gallery for a members’ luncheon to plan for the 10th anniversary celebration. That downtown corner proudly facing the Monarchs of Main Street, the Regent Theatre, the Carnegie library, and the Armoury, is about to welcome a reborn Royal Hotel down the street. AoM has flourished since that first spring and summer of 2007. It has become a destination for the expanding arts scene in the County with salons, art classes, and new shows every few months. Sales have increased as the word spread about the quality of work available under the green and red awning. Gross sales have exceeded all expectations with 80 per cent going back to the artists, validating the original business model of low commissions and monthly membership fees. Terry’s mantra was, “The essence of a co-operative gallery is when you are just as happy to sell others’ work as your own.”

I arrived at the gallery at noon on the last day in February with the temperature at 10 degrees. Arriving members were stacking art work for the spring show ‘March into May,’ opening the next day. The hardwood floors glistened in new coats of urethane and the walls shone in fresh paint. Members David Drown, a potter, Pat Hayes, a woodworker, and Ron Pickering, a painter were busy doing touch-ups to the walls and dozens of new plinths and dividers to mount the new show. Judy Kent called the meeting to order as we sat in a semi-circle munching cut sandwiches and brownies. There was a camaraderie and joviality around the discussions for the 10th anniversary in May linked to Canada’s sesquicentennial a few months later in July.

After 10 years of building its reputation and strutting its talent on the corner of Ross and Main, AoM has become a landmark and anchor in the flourishing art scene that is Prince Edward County.