It’s a year of celebration for Baton Rouge Gallery, a BREC facility, as this year marks the 50th anniversary of the gallery’s creation back in 1966.
BRG Executive Director Jason Andreason said it was an extraordinary milestone to reach for the gallery.
“It’s a neat thing when it first started in the context of it,” Andreason said. “It’s really kind of amazing that it’s still around and stronger than when it started.”
It all began as an idea between eight artists, including Jim Jeansonne, Don Thornton, Russell Guirl, Fred Packard, Edward Pramuk, James Burke, Bob Wiggs and John Goodheart, who were looking for a place where they could exhibit their work. At the time, the cooperative gallery was known as Unit 8 Gallery and had the goal of bringing contemporary art into the focus, rather than the traditional art that was housed in other galleries and museums at the time.
“For my colleagues and me there was no place for us to show the work we were doing,” Pramuk said. “We felt we really need to open the door here.”
Pramuk is quoted as saying it was a 50/50 shot their concept would even work, and according to Andreason, when the gallery first started, there were other galleries and similar organizations in the country that had folded up shop and closed over the years.
“Fifty years later, here we are with 50 artist members and cultural programming, so it’s an interesting thing that the gallery survived and grew when others didn’t,” Andreason said.
What contributes to the survival of the gallery are the artist members, according to Andreason.
“Ever since the beginning of the gallery, the artists were really the driving force of it,” Andreason said. “In the early days, they were the ones that set the schedule, they were the ones that opened the door every day, they were the ones who hung the shows. Even over time as the gallery started to have a staff and introduce programming in addition to the exhibitions, it was the artist members who moved things along.”
The gallery is a truly artist-driven organization at every level with even the by-laws including that a third of the board of members must be artists.
In 1984, BRG entered into a cooperative endeavor agreement with BREC, the parks and recreation department of East Baton Rouge Parish, where the gallery would relocate to its current home in City Park. The two organizations have partnered together ever since, intent on bringing quality art to the community.
“The gallery was very lucky to find a partner in BREC that allowed us to have the venue we have called home for the last 30 years. Having that kind of support from the Parks Department and for any kind of public entity means a lot, and having a place you can call home consistently for 30 years that doesn’t hurt your chances not to stick around, but also to grow,” Andreason said.
The building which houses the gallery was originally built in the ‘20s as a pool house, and the area behind the gallery used to be the site for a public pool that eventually closed.
“The pool house had remained largely unused, and the gallery needed a physical venue,” Andreason said. “BREC did some things to fix it up, the gallery did some fundraising, and the gallery has been here ever since, 32 years later.”
The gallery is no stranger to being housed in unique spaces. When the gallery was first formed, it called different venues home, bouncing around in places in downtown Baton Rouge, including an empty doctor’s office where the examination rooms were turned into gallery wall space.
Another element that contributes to the gallery lasting for half a century is its availability as a gathering space, according to Andreason.
“The gallery is here, open to the public six days a week,” Andreason said. “It’s always offering new exhibitions primarily from local artists who live in this area. Sometimes people come in, and people didn’t realize the gallery was here. They were just walking around the park and then come into the building and have a 20-minute experience with the art. It’s a place that’s here for people.”
The BRG has a few special events planned to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the gallery’s creation. Currently, the gallery is putting on a greatest hits version of the popular Movies and Music on the Lawn series by revisiting popular films and bands from the programming’s history.
“Movies and Music on the Lawn has been part of the gallery for 18 years now, so it’s certainly engrained itself in part of what the gallery does and what people experience the gallery as,” Andreason said. “So it made sense to bring in that historical celebration into the program as well.”
Throughout the year, BRG is also hosting special exhibitions in which all the artists work together using the same topic. Some of the topics explored early this year were food and the relationship between visual art and the written word. There will be two more similar shows, including stages of human life in September and different types of media in December.
“It was just a way to infuse something different into a really special year,” Andreason said.
For this month, the gallery will be hosting a special exhibition entitled 50/50, a play on Pramuk’s quote will serve as the big anniversary exhibition. The show will include works from the founders of the gallery, as well as works from current and former artist members, giving a nod to where the gallery is and where it will lead. The opening reception will be held on July 6.
Photo courtesy of Baton Rouge Gallery.