A Gallery co-op in Madison

I Remember Center Gallery: Waxing Nostalgic

by Eleanore Tollman

Center Gallery will always occupy a special place close to my heart, even though I never was fortunate enough to have a show there. I was, instead, one of the many artists who helped run and manage it. At that tine, in the early eighties, when I was involved in volunteering there, I was a budding, new, young, naive, albeit enthusiastic artist with dreams of becoming a professional Wisconsin fine artist. And while today, much older and wiser, I consider myself to be a much more talented writer than artist, I will always value the many and varied volunteer experiences I received at Center Gallery as they helped me to better clarify my artistic goals, having had a direct impact on where I am as an artist to this day.
The reason for this is because volunteering at Center Gallery allowed me to “rub elbows” with artists from all walks of life, ranging from crass beginners to artists who used the gallery to launch very successful professional artistic careers. For example, I can still remember knowing a local woman artist who drew, in pencil, only starkly realistic drawings of fallen autumn leaves, even though I do not recall her name. I also was delighted to meet and know another local artist who went on to become quite well known ,and her name I do recall, Peggy Zalucha.
It was the very informal nature of the Center Gallery co-op which offered such diverse and friendly camaraderie with all kinds and levels of artists, from all parts of Wisconsin. In this way I learned not only what it took to become a successful artist but also what it meant to be an artist.
For those of you too young to remember our beloved Center Gallery let me elucidate and elaborate. Center Gallery was a very modest affair back then, as art galleries went; located on Gilman street right next door to Amy’s Cafe. Although centrally located in the down- town area it had more of a Miflin or Willy street, neighborhood, co-op type feeling to it.
Being an artist co-op meant that we as volunteers were offered a wide variety of opportunities ranging from the more traditional gallery activities of selecting, hanging, and jurying shows to more humble pursuits such as mopping floors and cleaning toilets.
Set into a predominantly blue collar and poor student neighborhood the services the gallery provided were likewise just as varied, reflecting the special artistic needs of that particular community. Activities such as; poetry readings, book reviews and discussions, or individual musical performances, all took place amidst whatever exhibition was currently showing. I distinctly recall once having attended a solo artist’s piccolo performance. It was like a miniature, Overture Center, but much more modest, and without the “frills”, as often , for example, during the hot months of summer we would suffer through the sweltering heat with only one tiny fan going.
The building itself, although old, was a solid and sturdy red brick. The large, one inside room was well suited for exhibition, being long and narrow, with slated wooden floors and having plenty of expansive white washed wall space to accommodate even the most prodigious graduate student’s art work.
For me, as an amateur artist, the gallery provided the entry level types of art experiences so necessary for my artistic career, for I would have felt too intimidated approaching a more traditional art gallery. I always believed that I would never be allowed to exhibit my work at such a place for two reasons; one because I was an amateur, and two because the level of show presentation required was too high, and was way beyond my capability at that time. To my mind, my art would have had to have been perfect to even be considered in the typical art gallery. In the Center Gallery, on the other hand, there existed no such exacting standards or expectations. I can still remember one show in particular, which had especially delighted my children, where the sculptural artist’s work consisted of nothing more than tiny Christmas lights and a handful of penlight batteries. But when the overhead lights were all turned off and the exhibit viewed in the dark, so cunningly and skillfully well constructed was the show that one would never have suspected that the presentation was composed of such humble materials. In other words, the artistic effect desired was the artistic expression achieved. No more, no less.
This did not mean, however, that exhibits were limited to beginner artists alone, for besides offering space to U.W. graduate art students, we also had some wonderfully amazing professional artist’s shows which would have equalled or surpassed any of those found in the Overture Center’s Gallery today. The point is that the shows were not limited only to those types of shows alone, but that all artists were treated as equals, no matter what level they were at “professionally”.
Finally, to demonstrate just what a modest, unpretentious facility we ran I would like to recollect an experience I had one fall afternoon as I was volunteering there. As I had mentioned the shape of our gallery room itself was long and narrow, running lengthwise from the street. On that particular afternoon I was seated in the back, volunteering as a receptionist. I was sitting near the back door which we never opened probably for fear of what we would find there, given that the neighborhood we were in could be quite “colorful” at times. Suddenly, I heard a loud, furtive banging on the back door. Sensing that it was an emergency I reluctantly opened the door only to find a man tottering on the threshold who then fell face first into the room, having been stabbed in the shoulder by an assailant who had thoughtfully removed the knife before escaping down the alley behind the gallery, with the bloodied knife still in hand.
As luck would have it, the victim who now was lying unconscious and bleeding all over the floor, had been accompanied by an hysterical woman who claimed to have witnessed the whole event. She said the two men had been fighting at a nearby bar. She was kind enough to call the police and ambulance (there was no 911 back then) while I administered first aid to the victim. All turned out well in the end, however, as the victim was not mortally wounded and the assailant was duly captured.
When it finally came time to close the gallery we all felt more than a twinge of remorse, for we knew how unique it was, and what a valuable contribution it had made to the community itself. Co-op art galleries, an idea whose time had apparently come and gone, having given way to what I view as the “ivory tower” art galleries of today; grand, beautiful, pristine perfect and intimidating in their unapproachability. That’s progress, I guess. But we artists of Center Gallery knew, however, deep in our hearts that we would never see it’s like again. Yes, I remember the Center Gallery, what it’s purpose was and what we had all accomplished together there which was so worth while, and I love to wax nostalgic about it.

Editor’s note: It seems quite a few artists have a show at Center Gallery listed near the bottom of their resume. If you have a story to share about your experience with Center Gallery send an email