Creating a sense of community and activity

Published 10:00 pm Friday, September 12, 2014


By  Mark Schmerling


“Any town that supports a gallery like this, is a town I want to live in,” announced Tom Madison, director of Upstairs Artspace on 49 S. Trade St. Tryon. Residents are supporting a gallery that is built on inclusion, education and community.

Madison, who hails from San Luis Obispo, California, and who moved from there to Asheville, knows and loves both the visual and performing arts. He was quickly smitten with Tryon which also offers Tryon Fine Arts Center (TFAC), the Lanier Library and other cultural venues.

Madison had visited Tryon, while he was searching for a smaller town in which to live. “I immediately took a liking to it,” Madison recalled. When he walked into Upstairs Artspace, “I was blown away with it.”

It got even better. Madison also learned that the gallery’s manager position was open. He’d already managed an art gallery, and could hardly have timed his visit better. He was hired, and became director early this year. “This area (including Landrum and towns in Polk County),” Madison noted, “is a fertile ground for the kinds of programs we’re trying to implement here. We couldn’t do what we do here (in this area) it wasn’t for the level of volunteerism we see here. (At Upstairs) we have an excellent board of directors, an exceptionally strong exhibits committee. All this is volunteer. We’ve got a great core of volunteers.”

Madison had served as faculty administrative manager of Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. “We were about education,” he noted, “about providing a venue for cutting-edge artists who might not be given opportunities to show in a more commercial venue. What I love about Upstairs Artspace (a non-profit gallery) is that it’s similar in its mission.”

Upstairs Artspace is geared toward educating the public — offering philosophy of art classes; free gallery talks, an art film series, and is building a film library. Anyone interested may come in during regular hours and watch any film, in the classroom and screening room, at no charge.

Upstairs Artspace is open Tuesdays through Saturdays; from 11 to 5.Exhibit openings are 5 to 7:30 on given Saturdays. Learn more at, or call 828-895-2828.

Support from the Polk County Community Foundation allows the venue to offer these public educational services. Madison and Upstairs Artspace are a good combination. “I’m in the right business,” Madison said, “because I enjoy being around artists (visual, writing and other). I like being around people who want to introduce you to a different way of looking at things. I want to share that experience with other people.”

Art, he feels, should not be exclusionary. “I don’t feel that anybody should walk into any gallery or museum, and feel intimidated. We also want people to be involved,” said Madison, who hopes that more individuals will volunteer their time and abilities at Upstairs. Though Upstairs Artspace offers exhibit space to artists who might not be commercially viable, Madison notes that everything on exhibit (with few exceptions) is for sale.

“We certainly want to support the artist,” he emphasized. “It’s about people who are in it (their brand of art) for a strong conviction about the kind of message they’re trying to get across. ”Madison and other gallery officials want to bring diversity to the space. This year’s Art Trek featured artists whose studios are open to the public. Those artists also had work on exhibit at Upstairs Artspace. Part of that exhibit was a silent auction, in which all pieces sold.

This December’s 100-by-100 fundraiser will feature 100 artists who will produce and donate a work within a given physical format. The gallery will offer each piece for sale for $100. Upstairs Artspace will supply the canvas, if needed. “The $100 fee levels the playing field,” Madison noted, “to make original art more accessible.

As part of Black History Month next February, and to help encourage racial healing, visual artist Valeria Watson-Doost will be on the program. In addition, a jazz concert of Nina Simone’s songs will pay tribute to the accomplished Tryon native.

“We want to create a sense of community and activity,” Madison said. Part of that includes the gallery’s literary open stage, allowing local writers ten minutes each to read from their work. This month (September), the event was scheduled for the second Friday, but generally, the sessions are held on the third Friday of every other month.

Each exhibit opening (again, see the website) is preceded by walk-and-talk sessions where the main artists discuss their work and their philosophy. “I don’t want the place t be sterile,” Madison stressed. “I want activity and involvement, a place for the discussion of ideas, primarily around the visual arts, but not exclusively.”