House Rules: Changing the Gallery Game
These house galleries are changing the gallery game.
Move the couch. Hang some lighting. Paint everything white. Bam — instant art gallery. At least that’s the mentality of a handful of enterprising artists and entrepreneurs in Savannah, where traditional studio and gallery space can be hard to find. It’s not quite as simple as that, of course, but for these community-minded connectors, filling the need for art space on their own terms is worth skipping a Netflix binge or two.
Taavo Roos, local realtor and part-owner of the Cedar House Gallery, looked at the market and found it wanting. “There were big waiting lists for studio spaces. We knew if we could create art spaces in a grand, old home like this, it would really take off,” he says.
The Cedar House and its sister gallery-slash-studio space, The Lodge and Drawing Room, sit at the high end of a spectrum of alternative gallery spaces in the city. They are renovated, historic homes fully dedicated to the endeavor. Some artists have taken the concept a step further, running pop-up galleries out of converted studios and even opening their private residences to host shows. For them, it’s about more than just filling a need.
Celia Dunn and Taavo Roos with dog, Toby sitting in her childhood home now converted into an art gallery.
Morgan Adler of The Space Between decided to open her Starland apartment to host shows when she noticed her friends scrambling to find spaces for their thesis exhibitions. She was able to meet the need for space, but also realized how having a show in her home changed the atmosphere. “It broke down barriers that a white cube wouldn’t break down,” she says. “People stayed late and asked questions because it was less intimidating. It fostered more conversation than I’ve seen at other shows.”
For Sharon Norwood who runs Park Ave Studio out of her east Savannah home, hosting exhibitions in her living room is a way to open doors for local artists and allow them to step outside of their comfort zone. “I like to think of it as an experimental space for artists to do something they normally wouldn’t do in their practice,” Norwood says. “For the larger shows, my concept is to pair a local artist with an international artist and have them do a show together. My only rule is you can’t mess up the floor. That pine floor is one of the nicest things in here.” Artist Brittany Watkins took Sharon at her word, painting the whole front room pink in a recent show.
At The Hen House, a pop-up gallery located in an old haberdashery on 39th and Paulsen, running the space means subverting the traditional gallery model altogether. “It’s not just about the lack of galleries or the cost,” says co-proprietor Kevin Clancy. “People are making work that’s not necessarily about selling. As artists, we’re supposed to make work that’s sellable. I don’t agree with that. In a space like this, we can do whatever we want. There are no rules. We write the rules.”
Alternative gallery spaces are not new — a recent New York Times article traced the trend back to Leo Castelli in 1957 showing early works by Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg in his eastside apartment — but the trend is taking root in Savannah at an opportune time. Adler noted, “There’s something special about Savannah in this particular moment where the affordability and community have created a nice incubator for this to happen.” With community support, the house gallery becomes a place for the game-changers and rule-breakers to call home.
Cedar House Gallery
When development goes right, it creates places like The Cedar House Gallery — preserving a historic home, filling demand for artists’ studios, providing much-needed gallery space, all while meeting the bottom line.
Investor Taavo Roos recognized the convergence of those forces. “Originally, we were interested in buying the lot next door,” he says. “The owner of the house, Celia Dunn, would only sell the lot to us if we bought the house as well. We started thinking of creative uses. We didn’t want to just convert it into 12 condos and ruin the historic fabric of the home and the city.”
Roos returned to Savannah from New York City last year, and it hasn’t taken him long to make his mark. “It’s an awesome time to be here in terms of development, especially in the Starland area,” Roos says. “It felt like an art gallery would fit perfectly in the neighborhood.” He purchased the home with contractor Anthony Koncul who already had proof of concept in The Lodge and Drawing Room Gallery, home to the Starland Studios on 42nd street. The rented studios sustain the space, allowing the gallery and showroom to operate on the first floor.
Roos and Koncul enlisted Sam Williams, a Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) graduate, to help with the build out. “I always had a vision for the gallery I wanted. I told Anthony and Taavo my plans, and they let me run with it,” says Williams. The investors gave her full reign over a construction team and the direction for the gallery. Cedarhousegallerysav.com
“My goal is to be a home for the arts, artists and the community,” Williams explains. “We’re not just for local artists or SCAD. If you come to Savannah and you’re looking for the art scene, you have a home here.”