Before Quirk Gallery took it over in 2005, the unassuming building on the western edge of downtown Richmond, Virginia, had had a run of previous uses, including as a hardware store, a stationery wholesaler, beer distributor, and, most recently, an artist-studio “squat.” As is often the case with such a progression, the building had fallen into disrepair – although with an arguably artistic bent, including a tree growing through the skylight.
The tree is long since gone (apparently it didn’t meet code), but the gallery continues the building’s artistic and, dare we say it, quirky legacy, thanks to a mix of fine art, fine craft, DIY, and production pieces from local, regional, national, and international sources, along with a rotating exhibition area and workshops open to the public.
We toured the airy space with gallery director Katie Ukrop, gallery manager Diana Mathews, and exhibitions manager Maggie Smith.
Why did you locate here?
Katie Ukrop: This was an up-and-coming area. The First Fridays art walk started here, and there were already four or five galleries when we moved in. Our mission was to have a gallery that was a little more approachable for all ages.
So that wide-open vision was a primary driver?
Maggie Smith: When I started here, I dug through the files, and the thing that stuck with me most from the mission statement was “art for everyone.” We wanted the whole city to be comfortable around all kinds of art.
And you’ve been able to get that message out?
KU: Well, with Quirk Represents [a collection of art jewelry] it was a little hard at first. There’s definitely an art jewelry group in town that knows and understands the craft, but we’re basically the only venue around that specializes in it.
We had to explain to people outside that group why the techniques and materials made this jewelry any different from what they might find at, say, Forever21 – especially since people can find knockoffs of art jewelry
What’s your relationship with local artists?
KU: Our shop has expanded because there’s such a wealth of local artists; we’re constantly getting submissions. Since VCU [Virginia Commonwealth University] has such an important art school, people start here, but often move on [when they graduate]. That’s been great for us, because they’re always finding new artists for us to feature.
But we also go to craft shows. We met Jillian Moore at Society of North American Goldsmiths years ago; we met Justin Rothshank at the Baltimore American Craft Council show. Diana and I go to the New York gift show and find artists in the handmade section.
I would never skip one of those shows – even though they might be the same people we see every year, you never know what their work will be like. And even though we could always contact the artist through their website, it’s really important to actually meet the artist.
How are you doing financially?
KU: Sales are up about 10 percent from last year; our online business is doing especially well.
You do have some production work in here. What’s the mix, and why do you include it?
KU: We try to stick to handmade and American and fair trade; it’s about 70 percent handmade, 30 percent production pieces. And we’re pretty picky about what we include. One advantage is that this kind of work often has low price points, so if people come in on a First Friday, they can take something home with them that they like – and come back later to look at handmade work.
Obviously, you have a great pipeline from the studio craft world. Do you include any artists from the indie-craft world?
Diana Mathews: We rely more heavily on studio craft, but we have both. We like that Quirk can do both.
Finally, what’s with the name?
KU: Oh, it’s a long story – but we’re happy with it. It lets us be who we want to be.
Judy Arginteanu is a freelance writer and American Craft’s copy editor.