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Co-Op Gallery Embraces Community in Bid To Recover

building facade
Uptown Gallery on W. Main St. (Photo: David Streever/VPM News)

With it’s French-salon style exterior, Uptown Gallery may give the impression of a high-end boutique or pâtisserie.

You may be surprised, or disappointed depending on how hungry you are, to find not croissants, but a vast array of artwork spanning multiple different mediums from an eclectic combination of interesting artists.

Of course, most people won’t be surprised; Uptown Gallery has been a fixture in Richmond’s local arts scene for over 30 years. With its beautiful interior, a revolving door of exhibits and guest artists, and a vast array of works, styles and mediums, it is a showcase unlike any other.

A gallery is only as good as the artists its curators can place. At Uptown, it’s the artists who make those decisions. Uptown Gallery is a co-op: artists pay the rent, do the setup work, greet customers, and even buy supplies for each other.

“We’re all the bosses,” said Solange Brown, one of the two founding members of Uptown Gallery. “It's not one person more than another everybody participates, which is very nice.”

According to David Robatin, another one of the 15 artists who work there, all of them put a great deal of work into challenging themselves and trying new things to make their work stand out.

“Everybody has a different style and everybody goes through their different phases of producing different kinds of art,” Robatin said. “But everybody is always putting themselves out there, which I find pretty amazing.”

There are 15 members whose work currently resides at Uptown. And every day, a different artist sits the gallery. As customers make their way through, they’ll have the opportunity to meet the artist behind the work they’re seeing. No matter what day or time you go, you will always get to meet an artist.

Faye Henderson, the other founding member who has worked at Uptown since its opening, said, “There’s a little bit of something for everyone. There’s ceramics, paintings, all kinds of different mediums, there’s something for everyone interested in art.”

Brown, originally from Quebec, began doing fine art in 1987. But before then, she worked in interior design before immigrating to the United States to do commercial art in Springfield, Virginia.

But she wasn’t satisfied and felt unfulfilled with the work she was doing because she knew her calling was in fine art.

“When I moved down here to Richmond and started to join art groups it finally made me want to do fine art,” she said.

After moving to Richmond, Brown quickly became involved in the local arts scene and then with the gallery where she immediately became an integral member.

‘It’s been a long time and I love the gallery, it's like a family,” she said. “We’re just very close and we help each other, it's very special and it's just a beautiful place.”

Like Brown, Henderson had a background in art that helped her and the founding artists build Uptown Gallery from the ground up.

Though Henderson lives in Colonial Heights now and the two don’t see each other much outside of the gallery, they say their relationship is still built on those same foundations of love, trust and admiration.

“She's really precious to me,” Brown said. “She's like a sister.”

COVID-19 has put a stranglehold on many local galleries and businesses in Richmond, and Uptown is no different. After closing its doors temporarily last year in response to the stay-at-home order issued by the governor, the gallery opened back up in June but the “new normal” was far from normal for everyone at Uptown.

“In the gallery, of course, we don't have as many people come in,” Brown said. “People come in with masks and we have to dispense them, we lock the door and unlock it when they want to come in.”

Brown is afraid that these new conditions could lead to the closure of the gallery.

“I hope it's not gonna be like that for too long. Because it really can kill the gallery,” she said. “That would be really sad that the gallery would have to close due to the pandemic.”

In the year since the start of the pandemic, Robatin feels that the gallery has been disconnected from the community and that their existence has disappeared from conversation in the city.

“It kind of felt like we didn't, we didn't really know the neighborhood anymore,” he said.

But they have a plan to address that. The artists at Uptown Gallery are hosting an event dubbed “Celebrating our Neighborhoods,” designed as a sort of reintroduction to the community.

“It's an opportunity to kind of turn a new page in the history of the gallery,” Robatin said. “We've been there for so long but maybe it's time to turn that page and really start a kind of a fresh reintroduction.”

They want people to know that they live, work and appreciate and value the community space they are in.

“We changed our tagline, now it's art from the heart, and I really think that's what I want people to know when they come into the gallery,” Robatin said.

Robatin says that the purpose of this new tagline is to remind the community that the artists at Uptown aren't just visitors here in Richmond and that they aren't planning on going anywhere. 

“If I wanted to have an impression that I wanted to make for this event, it would be when somebody walks in, they're like, ‘Hey, this place is really cool and the art here is awesome and I want to support this as part of our community,’” he said.