Vista Studios / Gallery 80808: a brief history
by Mary Bentz Gilkerson
It was a hot, early fall afternoon in the late 1980s when a group of artists, arts administrators and city leaders in an overgrown lot next to the Confederate Printing Plant on Gervais and Huger in downtown Columbia. They were there to walk through the more than hundred-year-old building to look at the possibility of turning it into a much-needed facility - artists’ studios. Structural problems with the building and funding issues prevented plans for that space from maturing and the project languished. It would be 1990, almost two years later, before Vista Studios, a joint venture of Columbia Development Corporation and the South Carolina Arts Commission, would finally open at 808 Lady Street.
The history of Vista Studios is closely tied to the redevelopment of the old warehouse district of Columbia, the Congaree Vista, and its identification as an arts district that began more than twenty-five years ago. So much has changed in the twenty years since the opening of Vista Studios and Gallery 80808 that it is hard now to remember just how different the Columbia art scene was in the late 1980s and early 90s. Back in those days the Columbia Museum of Art was still on Senate Street in a space that severely limited its ability to feature significant contemporary art. There was no 701 Center for Contemporary Art. City Art was still Dutch Door and doing business in St. Andrews. The only commercial galleries downtown that regularly exhibited contemporary art were Carol Saunders, Lewis & Clark and Havens.
Like most urban areas across the United States, Main Street and the downtown area had been in a decline for at least ten years as many shoppers and merchants moved to the suburbs. Using the arts as an anchor for revitalization was a growing practice, and one that the late mayor, Kirkman Finlay, advocated in pushing for the designation of the Vista as an arts district. One of the keys to the growth of a thriving art community is affordable studio space. A vital step in the redevelopment of waning downtown areas has been the creation of publicly backed multipurpose studio/exhibition spaces for artists. One of the most well known of these spaces that were developed across the country during the 1970s and early 80s is the Torpedo Factory outside of Washington, DC.
There were already a few artists working in renovated warehouse spaces in the area – Clark Ellefson, Eleanor Byrne, and Rosie and Mike Craig – as well as arts organizations like the Columbia Music Festival Association. Despite this, visual artists were still virtually invisible in the city due to a lack of professional workspace, exhibition space and the visible presence of a concentrated, critical mass.
Several different options were discussed and later abandoned in addition to the Confederate Printing Plant before the warehouse behind Molten/Lamar Architects on Lady Street was selected for the studios. Several factors (and people) were key to moving the project forward at this point. Kirkman Finlay, who as mayor and later board chair of the Columbia Development Corporation, had the vision to see the advantages to including the arts in his plans for the city’s revitalization, was a driving force behind the project. After going without a director for almost a year, the CDC hired Robbie McClam. He quickly identified the project as one that would provide focus for the Vista as an arts district, and worked closely with David Houston and Harriett Green of the South Carolina Arts Commission to bring the necessary constituencies together. Richard Molten and Dick Lamar of Molten/Lamar, both with a strong interest in the arts community, were particularly appropriate as developers and future landlords for the space.
Almost twenty artists gathered with Molten and McClam for the walk-through of the raw warehouse space in the summer of 1989. Several months later, thirteen studios, a gallery and common area had been carved out of the area behind Molten/Lamar’s offices. The architectural firm took on most of the renovation costs – around $100,000 to install heat and air, plumbing, and dividing walls – with the CDC contributing $30,000. The state arts commission supported the project for several years with a renewable $10,000 grant. Eventually Vista Studios became self-sustaining with funding being covered by the rents for the studios and community rental of the gallery space. The CDC with its current director, Fred Delk, continues to support the art space. The Cultural Council of Richland & Lexington Counties has also provided funding for specific projects through the years.
Fourteen artists/pioneers moved in initially: Heidi Darr-Hope, Robert Kennedy, Tom Brewer, Barbara Bydalek, Lyn Bell Rose, Mark Bourlakas, Mike Williams, Frances Perkins, Judy Nankin, Arline Murphy, Deborah Sherer, Yvonne Ruff, Margerie Ross and Anne Bjork. The artists were selected by a panel that included USC art history professor Brad Collins, artist Eleanor Byrne along with McClam and several others. A similar internal jurying process for new resident artists continues today. The artists’ first group exhibit in the 1990 spring Artista Vista event was the symbolic culmination of the project.
Since that first exhibit, Vista Studios has continued to play an important role in the ongoing development of the arts community in Columbia. A number of other cooperative artists’ spaces have since been created, scattered across the central part of the city from Rosewood and Five Points to the most recent one in the old Arcade Building on Main Street. A thriving, active visual art community has grown out of what was a relatively small public investment twenty years ago.
Gallery 80808 opened in August 1990 as part of the Vista Studios project, a joint venture of the Columbia Development Corporation and the South Carolina Arts Commission. Since then the facility has matured along with the Vista into a unique venue for Columbia’s visual arts. Situated in the heart of the Vista at 808 Lady Street, Gallery 80808 has become a vital part of the contemporary art scene in the Columbia metropolitan area.
In addition to exhibitions by the resident artists, Gallery 80808 provides much needed gallery space for community artists and groups. The gallery presents up to 25 different exhibitions a year with new shows opening on a regular basis. The calendar of upcoming exhibitions can be found at www.vistastudios80808.com
The space is available for lease as a high quality location for local, regional, or national art shows. For more information and terms for leasing the space follow the link for Gallery Information or contact Ms. Louise Shirley of Molten/Lamar Architects, owners of the building (803-771-7008).
Gallery hours are weekdays 11am to 3pm and weekends 1 to 4pm. Please call the Gallery 80808 at 803-252-6143 to confirm hours. For more information please visit the website at http://www.vistastudios80808.com.