In 1977, 21 artists formed 1708 Gallery, a members-run institution on East Main Street that would open a year later. Within the tight-knit group, many either taught at Virginia Commonwealth University or rented studios at the now-defunct Masonic Temple at West Broad and Adams streets.
The target of their rebellion? "Myopic priggishness," as Sandy Adams wrote in The Richmond Times-Dispatch at the time. He was specifically targeting the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and more generally, a lack of exhibition spaces to show "alternative or cutting-edge work," as Joe Seipel, the first president of 1708, would later describe it.
"There was an incident at the VMFA," says current Executive Director Emily Smith. "The VMFA censored an exhibition and [Gerald Donato] was furious about it and pulled his work from a show that had been planned [there]. … So there was a little bit of this punk spirit that really started it."
In an anniversary catalog from 1998 that lists the founding members, the recently-deceased Richard Kevorkian recalled: "It was over at Morris Yarowsky's apartment on Stuart Avenue, there was a general consensus that, other than the Anderson Gallery, there were no significant spaces for artists to show their work. … There was a general concern that serious artists needed a serious gallery … that set the wheels into motion."
With the help of a $10,000 grant for alternative art spaces from the National Endowment for the Arts, the group of mostly men and a few women found and renovated a flood-damaged building in Shockoe Slip. The team planned an initial exhibition schedule and gallery openings as well as organizing finances.
Sharon Lawless, an artist now based in New York who was active with the gallery for the first several years, recalls that "pretty much everyone contributed something according to their abilities." Over four decades, that early story of men and women working together has been partially forgotten.
"Honestly, until this past winter when [founding member Tom Chenoweth] really sat down and made the list, it was these six guys," Smith says. "Knowing that there were women in the room is a much more interesting story."
Archival documents, press clippings and oral histories corroborate this inclusive narrative: On 1708's opening day, Sept. 8, 1978, the Times-Dispatch reported that following the inaugural group exhibition, the gallery would hold a two-member show of Lawless' paintings alongside Willie Hall's sculptures and then a Women's Invitational Exhibition curated by Lawless; other early clippings highlight Nancy Gunn as the first gallery coordinator.
"Being a woman in a group made up mostly of men was not that unusual at the time, especially among artists," Lawless says.
Brooklyn-based Heather Holden, another 1708 founder who also initiated a Richmond chapter of the Women's Caucus for Art until, agrees.
"In the early '70s, there were very few women in higher education," Holden says. "The few of us that were there were because Title IX forced the issue. So I was happy to be there. Although sometimes I felt they didn't quite know how to deal with us, the atmosphere was very open to participation and leadership."
Since then, women artists have come a long way, but a re-examination of the history of 1708 provides an early example of how a shared community of male and female artists collaborated and created a space that ensured lasting results.
Fast-forward four decades. The gallery moved first to 103 E. Broad St. from 1993 to 2001 and then to its current home at 319 W. Broad St., where it spearheaded efforts to revitalize downtown by instituting the First Fridays Art Walk and an arts district.
The still-members-run gallery sidestepped a few dramatic turns, like the censorship of Carlos Gutierrez-Solano's nude paintings initiated by then-Commonwealth's Attorney Joe Morrisey in 1990 or the economic downturn in 2008 and 2009.
As a pioneer, 1708 has found a niche by balancing innovative, intellectually stimulating exhibitions of art — including dance, performances, sculpture, painting and installation — with popular programs that bring art to the masses. In 2001 there was Go Fish, a public art project; and beginning in 2008, InLight, a popular annual one-night public exhibition. In 2016, it helped initiate Current art fair. Smith sayss that she's excited about Current 2019: "We're looking at models around the country to determine the best organizational structure to run the event and programs." This summer, 1708 hired its first full-time curator, and though Smith is evasive about other initiatives for the 40th anniversary, she admits the likelihood of publishing a catalog.
Holden points out that when she and her contemporaries opened the gallery in 1978, they wanted to expand the reputation of VCU and Richmond and to connect with the "'real art world, which I don't think we really felt a part of at that time."
Both came to fruition. Here's to the next 40 years. S
1708 will hold a 40th anniversary party on Thursday, Sept. 27. To purchase tickets, visit 1708gallery.org.