The artists of River District Arts — some 18 potters, printmakers, painters and photographers who rent studio and gallery space from RDA itself, plus the 22 members of the decades-old nonprofit Middle Street Gallery artists’ cooperative — are about to be homeless.
Tenants of the building this weekend received updates from the Sperryville building owner and former Rappahannock resident Jerome Niessen, via email from Cape Town, South Africa, which said the potential sale of the converted apple-packing shed had fallen through, and that the RDA artists needed to be out by June 1, their furniture and equipment moved out by July 1, after which the building would be closed.
“I know you and the other artists are disappointed that we will be closing and so are we,” Niessen said in the email to artists. “We are very disappointed. We had hoped that Rappahannock would have stepped up to the plate and would have taken over the baton to keep RDA open.
“Accepting an offer for less than half [of what] we put in the building and less than what the building was sold for some eight years ago (prior to any renovations, when it was still an antiques market), was simply not an option,” he wrote.
Niessen bought it in September 2009 for $475,000, according to county land records.
Washington real estate broker Butch Zindel said Tuesday that he had assembled a group of investors to purchase the building. With a financing agreement from Union Bank & Trust, he said, the partners had made a firm offer of $1 million for the building and grounds.
The asking price was $1.4 million, Zindel said, reduced in February from $1.8 million. (Niessen has estimated, with the substantial renovations he made since 2010, the property was worth $2.8 million.)
Zindel said the partners declined to make a counter offer. “It’s possible this is a negotiating tactic,” he said of the owner’s imminent-closure email blast. “But it really did not feel like we were being negotiated with.”
“Effectively, we’ll be closed at the end of June,” said Middle Street photographer Gary Anthes on Tuesday, speaking for the cooperative, of which he recently served as president. “We have a current exhibit that runs through the end of June, and then . . . we have a lot of ideas at this point, but no actual plan.”
Anthes said Niessen offered to allow Middle Street to remain in the building through Sept. 1 (the gallery occupies its own wing, with Living Sky Foundation, to which Niessen extended the same Sept. 1 deadline). “But with RDA closed, he said, “we’re not sure we’d have water, or electricity, or restrooms.”
He said Andrew Haley had “kindly offered to host, at his gallery [Andrew Haley Gallery is on Sperryville’s Main Street] a big exhibit we have this summer with Shenandoah National Park and the Shenandoah National Park Trust. We are very grateful about that.”
“We’ve been in business 35 years,” said Anthes, speaking of Middle Street Gallery, which moved in 2011 to RDA from its namesake street in Washington. “And if RDA and Middle Street both close, and don’t reopen, that’s like two-thirds of the retail gallery space in the county gone — a major chunk of the arts trade.”
“We’re trying to keep a positive attitude about it,” said potter Sara Adams, a member of RDA’s four-woman Rappahannock Pottery Collective and unofficial representative of other artists at the center, including more than a dozen artists renting studio space and the Old Rag Photography group, which rents space for a gallery at RDA. “I think we all wish to continue, even as a group, but we don’t seem to know where that will happen.”
“It’s a shame that long-time artists in our community will be forced to find new locations, if in fact, that’s possible,” said Matthew Black, president of the Rappahannock Association for Arts and Community (RAAC), the decades-old support organization for theater, film, visual arts, music and other ongoing arts programs in Rappahannock. “And even if that does happen, we’ll lose the advantages gained from clustering talent and enterprises in one location….
He looks at the potential sale of the River District center as “a fairly rare opportunity to treat this as a social investment — where it’s fairly attractive real estate, a potentially good location, a lot of space, it’s already renovated, and it really could continue to be an arts center, or even a more important arts center that could add a lot of vitality to tourism.
“But it’s a social investment,” Black said, “which means: Don’t expect a big return. It’s a risk, but the potential value to the Rappahannock community is high.”