Doors Are Open | Arts and Culture | Style Weekly

As a musician who’d performed countless times on Gallery5’s stage, it broke Prabir Mehta’s heart to be there, masked up, taking apart the stage. But as the chair of Gallery5’s board of directors, he knew it was necessary.

The same stage that had been nonprofit Gallery5’s bread and butter for nearly 16 years was suddenly outdated when the pandemic hit. To deal with the new reality, the stage had to be dismantled and relocated to the center of the performance room. Behind that stage stood two giant bay doors, large enough for a fire truck to drive through in the days when the building was a fire house. Those bay doors would need to open to allow maximum air flow, the best option for enhancing air circulation in a space used to housing crowds for art and music shows. “Open bay doors mean a lot of air circulation to make individuals feel like they’re in a safer place, but it also meant staff would need to work with the doors open,” Mehta says.

Even before the pandemic hit, the opening of 2020 was a huge change for the little gallery in Jackson Ward. They’d signed a lease with a new landlord, securing the non-profit a home there for five years but also raising the rent higher than it had ever been, creating the ultimate challenge of navigating increased financial responsibility. The eight-person board forged ahead, putting fundraising plans into effect, working on donor campaigns, and applying for grants for specific classic programing. As 2020 began, they began booking events for the year ahead, knowing they’d need additional funding. The start of 2020, Mehta recalls, was both very exciting and very stressful.

After their usual First Friday in March, Gallery5’s doors were closed due to the pandemic and nearly all the staff were laid off. All plans for spring and summer were canceled, while the focus turned to, as he puts it, “what the hell do we do now?” conversations. Expecting the worst, Gallery5 instead found the support they needed. Landlord Bruce Vanderbilt worked with the board to defer some rent, while some was forgiven and some due. Support from the public helped cover the final payments for staff who’d been laid off and to close out regular monthly bills that were due.

Much of the spring was spent just waiting to see how the pandemic would play out, with the gallery’s doors totally shut for months at a time. Slowly they began working on some income generation through their Patreon account, which offered monthly content and membership discounts on purchases, launched a virtual gallery, and attempted a few online performances.

“But we’re a brick-and-mortar organization,” Mehta insists. “As much as we love the idea of a virtual everything, at the end of the day we know we’re a place for the community to gather. That reality forced us to start reimagining how Gallery 5 would exist in a pandemic-world and post-pandemic-world.”

That meant maximizing air flow, lowering crowds, and making sure their few remaining employees were scheduled to optimize their time and impact. The board of Gallery 5 took the changes as an opportunity to rework their entire business model. Previously, they’d followed the industry standard, paying bar staff $2.70 an hour plus tips and door crew between $50 – $100 a shift, depending on the show. Realizing this would no longer work, every staff member’s pay was increased up to a minimum of $15 an hour, plus tip sharing.

“These were decisions made to allow us to be operational at a very minimal capacity in early 2021,” he explains. “Those decisions got us to where we are today and hopefully allows us to exist well into the future.”

Mehta says they’re not planning on going back to normal, whatever that was.

“This is the new layout, the new business model and the future of this organization,” he says. Having the bay doors open has allowed Gallery 5 to tap into fresh programming and rental options that wouldn’t have been possible before. “Fresh air won’t go out of style, so we’re looking forward to having our huge historic bay doors open as often as possible, as show volumes and weather allow.” They’ve also switched to a Friday and Saturday-only model since that’s all they could afford to do, with occasional exceptions made for touring or time-sensitive program planning.

click to enlarge

  • Scott Elmquist
  • Mehta stands inside Gallery5, which is housed in the oldest firestation in Virginia (formerly home to Steamer Company Number 5, dating back to 1867).

Gallery 5 reopened on Valentine’s Day 2021 as an art lounge and air flow-friendly art cafe. “We kind of considered it our war-time Covid effort because we had art on our walls, but. no performances,” he says. “Our capacity was a self-imposed 15 individuals max, so this was. obviously not about making profit, but to provide a place for folks to go who just needed to get out of. their homes after being in lockdown mode for almost a year.”

In June 2021, they began regular weekend programming with some very chill concerts, game nights and other low-key events. Finally in September 2021, Gallery 5 increased their capacity to 75, kept the bay doors open, and started seeing some semblance of normalcy. Even so, the non-profit has yet to see a full return to previous income. They braced for the fiscal shortfalls by launching a series of fundraisers to help get through the year. Late in the fall 2021, they finally received their Shuttered Venue Operators Grant (SVOG) funds from the government, which were quickly used to pay back rent and address some costs that had accumulated that year.

Staff, some former and some new, were hired. Mandatory temperature checks upon entry were instituted to protect not only staff, but everyone else in the room. They’re also still operating at a significantly smaller attendance capacity. Pre-2020, it was commonplace to have 200 people in house for a show, but they’re currently still at a 75-person occupancy limit.

“We just don’t feel comfortable as an organization unless everyone in the room feels comfortable,” Mehta says. “The reduced capacity plus open bay doors have allowed us to curate a variety of events without anyone feeling like they can’t find room for themselves to enjoy the event.”

Once vaccinations became available, the entire staff was required to be vaccinated and checks became standard at the door. For those who can’t get the vaccine, they’re also accepting a negative COVID-19 test done within 72 hours of the event. Decisions were made by the board of directors and staff, but also shared with a huge community of makers, artists, performers, and event organizers. “This organization was built on a large community and we’re very grateful for their input and involvement through these ongoing public health changes,” Mehta says.

The new set up has allowed Gallery 5 to expand its horizons, trying new programming ideas they’d never entertained before. A monthly jazz night is notable for no mics, no amps, no monitors, just local talent; the free event allows them to keep the doors open with the stage volume low so not to disrupt neighbors.

Since reopening, Gallery 5 has also begun their journey towards environmental sustainability. The bar has become Virginia-centric, spotlighting liquor, beer and wine made in the Commonwealth as a means of promoting local creators and drastically lowering their fossil fuel footprint. New staff has been hired to curate outdoor programming. In 2021, Gallery 5 organized neighborhood clean-ups and led nature walks through Jackson Ward to connect participants to local flora and hosted monthly plant parties. In a nod to this new world where small and selective audiences are preferred, they’ve also launched a gallery reservation option where the art viewing can be reserved for small groups to ensure their pod of friends are the only ones present.

One thing that’s clear is that Gallery5’s role in Richmond has changed since March 2020. The past two years have found the board of directors asking such questions as why are we doing what we do? Whom does it benefit? Can we do it better? Those questions have allowed them to create deeper ties with the neighborhood, supporters, and the vast landscape of artists in Richmond. The 2022 season of art reflects the many diverse new minds and offerings the community has to share and in turn, they’re seeing more and more interest for the new events and programs. “Gallery 5 has grown so much in the past few years, just like someone does between the ages of fourteen and seventeen,” Mehta says. “Before the pandemic hit, we were operating on 2018 standards and now we’re looking at 2023 and beyond.”

In many ways, the pandemic gave Gallery 5 a break from the inertia of running a venue-gallery-event space and time to think and reflect on its mission. The non-profit has emerged laser-focused on providing new and unique opportunities to engage communities through the arts. Mehta stresses that independently run art spaces are vital because every community needs a hub where new ideas, thought, and expressions are given a chance to be shared.

And while there are plenty of places in central Virginia to consume art, many are out of reach for up-and-coming artists. Gallery 5 has always been a place where first timers and longtime arts veterans can share space. “This melding of ideas, generations, and perspectives has been the backbone to the Gallery 5 story,” Mehta says. “We’ve seen so many artists begin their journey on our walls. Various community organizations have debuted in our space, and we’ve worked with local to international artists, each giving us a little bit of their unique creativity while also adding it to the common experiences we share as a community.”

One of those who benefited is artist, sculptor and muralist Mikael Broth who appreciated the opportunities to show work when he was just getting started.

“They took chances on young artists that none of the other galleries believed in at the time and that’s a really special thing,” Broth says. One of the first shows he was involved in at Gallery 5 involved wheat pasting posters up and painting the walls as part of a big collaborative “battle” with other young artists.

“It was fresh, energetic and completely counter to the feel of the stuffy gallery scene that’s designed to make people feel excluded,” Broth recalls. “Through their combination of art shows, live music, and performances, they provided a space for so many different creative people to feed off each other and be inspired by the work others were putting in.”

Curtis Grimstead began booking bands at Gallery 5 in 2008 and became office manager in 2009. Having to figure out how to do taxes for the gallery revealed his interest in accounting. Grimstead returned to school for a second degree in accounting and has been running his own firm ever since, focusing on musicians and artists.

“The gallery opened doors for me by unlocking that piece of my brain,” he says. “I now have clients that were bands I listened to in high school in the 90s and I’m the CFO of a major music festival in Gainesville, Florida. None of that would have happened had I not been involved with Gallery 5.”

Gallery 5 remains vital to the Richmond art world by providing a bridge between different forms of creative expression.

“Oftentimes, things are so siloed: visual art hangs in galleries, performances happen in a theater, bands play in a club,” Broth points out. “But Gallery 5 brings those things together under one roof, exposing their audience and artists to creative expression they may never encounter otherwise.”

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