First-of-them-all Middle Street Gallery celebrates 35 years

‘There were no art galleries in Rappahannock . . . but I knew a few local artists, and so I decided to start one’

By Gary Anthes
Special to the Rappahannock News

“Art Preserves Vanishing Rural Scene,” reads the ominous headline in the Rappahannock News more than three decades ago. In the article — a review of an art exhibit at the Middle Street Gallery — Washington, D.C. art critic Daniel Barbiero says that the gallery’s third annual “Gallery Artists and Friends” show “seems to reflect an awareness of the rapidly vanishing rural ecology, and of art’s role in its preservation.”

Drawing by Dan Lewis, 1985

Happily the rural ecology and way of life have not disappeared from Rappahannock County, and neither has Washington’s Middle Street Gallery. The gallery, a 24-member not-for-profit artists’ cooperative, is celebrating its 35th anniversary this month with a special reception this Saturday, Dec. 15 from 2 p.m. until 5 p.m. The public is invited to come and celebrate with gallery artists.

The show will celebrate rural life and art, the gallery’s anniversary, and the works of member artists Kathleen Willingham and Phyllis Magrab. Willingham is showing a series of “abstracted landscapes” — the outdoors at the intersection of dreams and reality. Her oil paintings show “the celebration of the joy I find in painting from my memory and imagination to express a sense of place and time in the environment,” she says. Magrab will show her trademark large abstract oil paintings. “The theme for our show, Celebration, was a chance for me to work more boldly, using stronger, more vibrant colors and brush strokes that embody deliberate movement and energy,” Magrab says.

Local artist Dan Lewis founded the gallery in the basement of Clopton House as a for-profit gallery in December 1981.

“I looked around and there were no art galleries in Rappahannock County,” Lewis says. “But I knew a few local artists, and so I decided to start one.”

By 1983 he had added picture-framing and massage therapy to his business activities, and he moved everything across the street to its present location next to The Inn at Little Washington. Lewis made money making frames and doing massages, but the art operation was not profitable, he says, so he converted it to a non-profit co-op in 1987.

“I’m surprised the gallery has kept going this long,” Lewis said in a recent interview. “It’s economical, because you don’t have to hire a director. Everybody shares responsibility and works together to handle the load.”

Long-timer Magrab recalls, “In my 30 years with the gallery, I have witnessed many changes, but the thing that strikes me most is our resiliency. Over the years I have looked forward to the collaborative spirit the gallery always has had, the warm and constructive feedback from my fellow artists, and our enduring role in the community.”

The cooperative has maintained its non-profit status though a variety of community activities. It often opens its doors to non-member artists, giving some of them their first opportunity to exhibit in a gallery. It has given talks and workshops on the arts to local schools.

Three decades ago art critic Barbiero observed that the Middle Street Gallery often focused on rustic scenes in Rappahannock County, Piedmont Virginia, and the Blue Ridge Mountains. That’s still true, but the gallery’s reach has always been broader. In the show reviewed in 1987, for example, the gallery featured the works of the Russian Edik Gladkov, the official photographer of the late writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. And just this year the gallery has welcomed new members, and their works, from Germany and England.

The gallery foregoes profits, but it is compensated in other ways, Magrab says. “I remember fondly the day we gathered at one of our member’s homes and created a common painting, a wonderful bonding and learning experience. And I especially have been proud of our community events — showing the works of our talented high school artists, inviting the community to paint a joint canvas, offering lectures and learning opportunities. The gallery is a family of artists who have always supported and promoted each other. It is something our town should be very proud of – one of the few businesses that has lasted 35 years!”

Visit Middle Street Gallery this month, and help preserve the rural arts scene. Washington Mayor John Fox Sullivan will speak at the gallery at 3 p.m. on Dec. 15, and there will be door prizes that day. The gallery is located at 325a Middle Street. Hours are Friday-Sunday, 10 to 5. Please call (540) 675-1313 or visit www.middlestreetgallery.org for more information.

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