Ennobling Energy Of The Fire House

In the three short years since the Fire House Gallery opened in the old fire house on Berryville’s Main Street, the gallery has already become a vital arts and economic engine that many people can’t imagine life without.

This meteoric rise from neat idea to regionally known craft and art space might surprise some people, but gallery director Kate Petranech isn’t one of them. “Everyone was behind this,” she said recalling how the town and community rallied to get the gallery started when the Town of Berryville, which occupied the space for decades, decided to move into the new county government center.

When Petranech rattles off a list of people who were instrumental in launching the project, it quickly becomes too long for print. Like a lot of successful community endeavors, people stepped up at the right moment to support the idea. Still, it was the enthusiasm and commitment of the Town—council, staff, and others—that proved essential.

The retrofit and renovation quickly received financial support from the town, county, and individual donors. Within months of the idea’s germination, the work was done and the gallery open. “It took less time than it takes to birth a baby—a little less than nine months, from March to November,” said Petranech.

The Fire House Gallery is a project of Berryville Main Street, a nonprofit that promotes economic growth and revitalization while preserving the town’s historic character. Berryville Main Street is one of 21 similar groups in Virginia, and is part of a national network spearheaded by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The gallery consigns the work of some 50 local artists. The consignment approach is more than an affordable business model. It’s a way of growing the local arts community and offering many emerging artists and artisans their first foray into retailing their work. It also enables the gallery to display an incredible variety of work not often seen in a for-profit gallery—from traditional Shenandoah Valley landscape paintings to edgy, uber-contemporary sculpture.

By working on a consignment basis, the gallery can choose artists and their works based on how they fit into the big picture of operating a business.

“We sell more pottery than paintings,” she said, “and more items under $100 than over.” The range of offerings helps.

For example, among the artists featured during this year’s holiday are Samantha Clark Gauldin, a  young jeweler who is also the gallery’s sole paid staff. She majored in drawing and painting in college, but is drawn to working in metal—the unique qualities that enable her to twist and braid it into wearable art. You can pick up handcrafted Christmas gifts from her collection for under $20.

Anne Bowers is a nationally renowned basket artisan, whose heirloom baskets can be found in shops and galleries from Georgia to Maine at prices ranging from about $40 up to a hundred. “One customer came in recently,” said Gauldin, “and left with nine of Anne’s baskets.”

Berryville resident Russ Harrison works in clay, wood, oils, watercolor acrylics and occasionally pastels. His sculptures currently available in the gallery are other worldly abstractions—colorful, playful, bold—that are light years away from traditional Shenandoah Valley craft.

Presenting the works of local artists, says Petranech, is only one part of the gallery’s purpose. The other is growing the audience for art. The gallery, she said, “also helps people of all ages discover what art is.” Other than a gallery that operated briefly in the 1990s, she says, Berryville has never had a “true blue art gallery in its centuries of existence.”

Three years in, locals stop into the gallery just to see what’s new, whether they’re looking for a special gift or greeting cards crafted by a local artist, or whether they just want to look at art.

But true to its intent, the gallery has become a draw for countryside tourists who want to get a sense of the Clarke County scene. The gallery is often the first stop for visitors to Clarke County. “They marvel at the beauty of the space,” says Petranech.

About 25 percent of the visitors who walk into the shop actually buy something, according to gallery records. This is far ahead of a national average of about 5 percent.

After three years, the Fire House Gallery is inching closer to being a self-sustaining operation. “Three years ago I had to raise $10,000 to keep the ship afloat. Last year it was $6,000. This year, fingers crossed, will be $5,000.”

This relatively fast pace toward being in the black is attributable both to the lean operation—Gauldin, who works about half time, is the only paid staff.

The balance, says Petranech, is covered by, “an amazing group of volunteers, including a few of our wonderful artists, who donate one or more 4-hour shifts per month.” Of the gallery volunteers, Petranech says, We could not stay open for even one month without them. That’s how important they are.”

Probably the most remarkable thing about the gallery is that there are Clarke County residents who don’t know about it. People still wander in and say, “We never knew this was here.”

After one visit, say gallery volunteers, most come back.

Petranech has a notion that the spirit of the fire house is alive and well in the gallery. “Think about it. A space that housed men who volunteered to risk their lives to save others. That’s ennobling—and humbling—energy,” she said. “I feel it whenever I walk through the door.”