Downtown Raleigh’s edgy twist
Arts in N.C.
By Bryan Mims
Photography by Christer Berg
If you stood on the southwest corner of Raleigh’s Harrington and Martin streets a decade ago, you would have shared the space with a produce warehouse well past its expiration date. It stood dark and lifeless, except for the rodents and spiders taking up residence. Even with a few spiffy restaurants nearby and the skyline as backdrop, the city’s warehouse district had the air of a hollowed-out Rust Belt town.
Stand on this corner now, and it pulsates with the avant-garde and an urban cool. When the Contemporary Art Museum, known as CAM Raleigh, opened in 2011, it was the first broad brushstroke that began changing the complexion of the district.
Since the museum opened, the district has flowered with some dynamic digs. In 2012, Citrix Systems moved its local operations to the neighborhood, and its payroll keeps growing: The Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based software company plans to add 400 jobs by 2021. Across Martin Street from the museum, Raleigh developer John Kane is transforming the Dillon Supply Co. warehouse into a 17-story, $150 million complex of apartments and offices. Nearby, the city is building an $80 million transit hub, called Union Station. The three-story Amtrak station is expected to open in early 2018, with other rail and bus services planned.
CAM Raleigh may not have directly spurred these projects, but Mayor Nancy McFarlane says the arts sector often plays the role of pioneer in unsung areas of the city. In 2015, McFarlane said she wants Raleigh to be the “capital of the arts” for the Southeast, helping to craft a 10-year plan to capitalize on the economic benefits of a thriving arts scene. “Artists go to the places where they can afford to go,” she says. “They start to add vitality, and all of a sudden there are people in an area where there weren’t people before.”
But there’s a risk those artists could become victims of their own success as Raleigh property values soar. Several small businesses have closed shop in downtown in the last two years because of high rental rates. Last year, the city passed a 2% property-tax increase to, in part, provide more affordable housing in Raleigh, which has become populated by luxury apartments and condos.
The Devon Seven12 apartments downtown recently sold for nearly $38 million. The Sir Walter Apartments on Fayetteville Street had a listing price of more than $16 million and is under contract with a new owner; the current ownership paid about $850,000 for the building in 1978.
About a mile away, the rough-around-the-edges industrial building on South Bloodworth Street doesn’t look like much. But inside, the creative juices — and beer — are flowing. Anchorlight opened this year with artist studios, gallery space and, yes, Brewery Bhavana, a few blocks from its restaurant and taproom. It stems from the Pink Building Project started by developer James A. Goodnight, son of Cary-based SAS Institute’s co-founder. He bought a Pepto Bismol-colored house (formerly a dentist’s office on Davie Street) in 2014, rented it to several artists and challenged them to make as much art as possible in a year. It was so successful, Goodnight bought the warehouse at the corner of South Bloodworth and Hoke streets to give the artists, including musicians, a permanent 8,000-square-foot venue. “It is our hope that Anchorlight will add to the rich culture of South Raleigh by becoming a gathering place for our neighbors and artists alike,” creative director Shelley Smith wrote in an email.
Among the 20 or so artists who have set up shop at Anchorlight is Alia El-Bermani, who enlivens her studio with classical figurative paintings. She moved to Raleigh from Los Angeles in 2008. “I think [Raleigh] has grown up a lot in the years that I’ve been here, both in the quality of the art that’s being made and, also, there is just an influx now of more artists from all over.”
Hard numbers illustrate how much of a splash the arts have made on North Carolina’s capital. McFarlane says the nonprofit arts sector injected $143 million into the city’s economy in 2010; in 2015, that figure mushroomed to $531.7 million.
On the first Friday evening of every month, the museum and art galleries open their doors to the public. Food trucks serving creative fare set up outside CAM Raleigh where couples on a date night, families with kids, and 20-somethings with flip-flops and tattooed arms meander in and out. “It’s very cool, it’s very alive, it’s a youngish crowd,” says Raleigh attorney Mark Gunter, who’s here with his wife, Laura.
The warehouse district is roughly bounded by Morgan Street on the north and Cabarrus Street on the south. It’s a short walk to the Artspace gallery on the east side of downtown, which is packed on a Friday night. Caitlyn Cary, who sings, writes songs and plays violin, sits in a studio surrounded by fabric collages she has sewn — they’re dubbed “needle print” art — many of them depicting familiar scenes in Raleigh.
“As for the impact arts have on the economy of a place, I think you can see that on a night like tonight,” she says as art gazers stream through her shop. “I think people coalesce around art. It’s gonna feed the economy — even if it doesn’t feed the artist.”
Featured image of Raleigh’s first contemporary art museum, CAM, by Christer Berg
For more stories from our Arts in N.C. issue, please click the links below.