Life in Our Foothills – January 2024 – Tryon’s Upstairs Artspace

Published 12:39 pm Friday, January 5, 2024

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For 45 years, Upstairs Artspace has been bringing the kind of cutting-edge art you might only see in big cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles to little ole Tryon. The gallery’s name is a clue to its humble beginning when artist Craig Pleasants graduated with a sculpture degree from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and decided to move to Tryon. He took jobs as a carpenter and later as an art teacher in Polk County Schools, while continuing to work on his own art.

“I was making artwork that was in a more experimental vein,” says Pleasants. “A bunch of my classmates were also working this way and artists all over the country were, but there wasn’t really a venue that showed that sort of work in North Carolina.”

Pleasants knew there were galleries in New York showing the kind of work he and his friends were producing. 

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“I just decided to declare the upstairs of the house that I was living in on Markham Road as the Upstairs Artspace and I invited some of the artists that I knew who were working in those ways to bring work or send work and I had the first exhibition in June of 1978,” he says.

Pleasants continued to host exhibitions there for about six months until he and the woman who would later become his wife decided to move to France for a year, leaving his Upstairs Artspace in the care of close friends. When Pleasants returned from France he and his friends moved Upstairs Artspace to downtown Tryon.

“We had an entrance on the street that led directly to a stairway that went up to this beautiful old loft space which was above Tryon Toymakers,” says Pleasants.

In 1979 Upstairs Artspace became a non-profit organization, formed a Board of Directors, hired an executive director and started raising money. The organization got its first grant from the North Carolina Arts Council and started getting small grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. Upstairs Artspace occupied two different spaces in downtown Tryon until an anonymous donor gave the organization the building at 49 South Trade Street it now calls home. A capital campaign involving philanthropic organizations and private individuals raised $550,000 to renovate the building and the new Upstairs Artspace opened in April 2004. Pleasants, who had moved to New York City in 1984, clearly left his Upstairs Artspace in good hands. 

“I have been told by various artists in the area that it’s very important,” says Pleasants. “In fact, I’ve been told by artists and other art appreciators that they literally moved to Tryon because of the Upstairs Artspace.”

The 3,000 square foot facility has three gallery spaces exhibiting fine art and craft in mediums that include painting, sculpture, photography, print, film, video, glass, ceramics, wood-turning and fiber. It’s all created by leading artists primarily in the Southeast but also across the US. Many of them are well-established in their careers but they also include emerging artists making innovative and provocative art. The exhibits are developed by an exhibit committee and guest curators and change every six to eight weeks, focusing on a different theme each time. 

There’s an education component to most exhibits including, lectures, workshops and artist “walk and talks” often led by the artists themselves. There are opening receptions for adults and gallery tours for school children. 

“We try to reach out to the community as much as we can to sort of interact with the community in a way that focuses back on whatever kind of exhibit we have at that moment,” says Patti Trobaugh, who joined the Upstairs Artspace board in 2017 and later took over as president. 

Trobaugh says Upstairs Artspace does sell some of the art on display but that’s not the organization’s primary mission.

“The art is available for sale but it’s also available to the community for free, to come in and view that kind of art,” says Trobaugh. “Our mission is not to sell and it’s one of the reasons we have difficulties financially sometimes. It’s not that we don’t sell anything, but that’s not going to make us sustainable.”

Financial support for Upstairs Artspace comes mostly from the Polk County Community Foundation and is supplemented by grants from the North Carolina Arts Council and private donations.

Upstairs Artspace suffered a major setback, both financially and logistically, in August 2021 when a rusty water heater in the attic above the first floor began leaking. 

“We closed on a Saturday night after we had a wonderful opening reception and it started leaking heavily during that weekend. We’re closed on Monday so nobody was in there until Tuesday and Tuesday morning somebody went in and said we’ve got a big problem,” says Trobaugh. “We were literally trying to get in and save things and we had sheetrock falling on our heads.”

In addition to the sheetrock most of the upstairs flooring was damaged and the gallery was forced to close. Trobaugh says the organization lost board members and was in general disarray, but all the artwork was saved. She says drying out the gallery cost about $75,000, but insurance covered damage to the structure and contents. The rebuild started four months later and the gallery reopened in August 2022.

Upstairs Artspace remains a central thread in the community’s rich tapestry of arts organizations.

“It’s a tremendously important facet of Tryon,” Trobaugh says. “I think the fact that we have so many organizations in town that are arts-focused makes Tryon so special because there are many towns this size that have none of those activities that to me are so enriching to our lives.”