The Garage

Interview by Thomas Hendricks
Issue 41 • July 2016 • Charlottesville

This shining example of reclaimed urban space demonstrates the transformative power of public art and collective community action—all in a structure no bigger than a carport.

There’s a certain kind of comfort that comes when a round peg finds its round hole. If you’ve ever felt the strange peace of witnessing unrelated objects nestle perfectly inside one another like puzzle pieces, you’re not alone. The Tumblr blog Things Fitting Perfectly Into Other Things features a cornucopia of household objects meshing just so. Whether it’s a pencil in a bullet shell, a laptop in a baking sheet, or a baseball in a butter dish, these unexpected pairings provide cathartic joy in an otherwise all-too-chaotic world.

Thankfully, opportunities for the unexpectedly orderly can exist on a larger scale with correspondingly greater implications for community dynamics. Consider a recent Saturday evening at the edge of Lee Park in downtown Charlottesville. A small crowd sits on a grassy hillside in the waning summer heat, eagerly awaiting the relief of dusk. On the opposite side of 1st Street, The Hello Strangers, a sister-led group from rural Pennsylvania, start their set of indie Americana with the intimacy of a front porch concert. Their venue for the evening is a simple brick garage—but not just any garage. This unfolding scene is standard procedure for one of the curiouser performances spaces in town, aptly named The Garage.

The Hello Strangers

During the day, The Garage is all together unassuming. This small brick structure, no bigger than a standard automobile, sits adjacent to a parking lot between a funeral home and the historic Magruder Sanitorium (Charlottesville’s hospital before it had a genuine hospital). But come nightfall, the block reveals its true colors. Situated with everything you need for an outdoor concert—a stage, a beautiful backdrop, and natural stadium seating—The Garage feels something like a build-you-own-venue kit (if only there were such a thing). This humble setting, host to performances from green locals and nationally recognized acts like The Lumineers alike, is a prime example of strategic urbanism—a creative punctuation mark on the vernacular of the Charlottesville streetscape.

For Director Sam Bush, this friction between in-context and out-of-context is a key factor in The Garage’s success. “It’s a strange split between public and private,” said Bush, “On the one hand, it’s completely open and fully accessible to anyone walking by. At the same time, it feels as intimate as your living room.” For those experiencing their first show at The Garage, this incongruity can provide moments of comic relief as sidewalk pedestrians become accidental audience members. And where else can you witness a minivan casually driving through the middle of a concert?

Sam Bush

The Garage came into existence as a true project of opportunity. The local Christ Episcopal Church owned the adjacent Magruder Sanitorium (including a parking lot with a freestanding garage) and was looking to develop a community art space separate from the church. The primary goal was to provide a public venue to exhibit great up-and-coming art. One day, the priest and a staffer were walking along 1st Street, saying to themselves, “If only we could find a space.” At that moment, their organist backed her car of out the garage. Not more than two weeks later, they began renovations and The Garage hosted its first show under clamp-on lights.

As Bush will tell you, operating rent-free certainly has its advantages when your goal is to provide free art to the community. “We don’t need to worry about making a profit, so we have the freedom to work purely out of a creative mindset. We don’t need to worry about what’s going to draw a crowd. We get to do exactly what we want.” This arrangement affords them the luxury of being highly curatorial regarding the bands that they invite, rather than being primarily market-driven. “We’re building a style. We want people to come to The Garage not knowing who the band is, but trusting that they’re going to be good.” Bush has found that the best bands for The Garage are the ones that can match the intimacy of the space. Garage band jokes aside, Bush and his staff seek acts that are artistically authentic without being artistically aggressive. Word has spread about the project, so much that they now they receive a steady stream of emails from bands both near and far, all hoping to play at this compact creative space.

“We want it to feel not just like a place, but like a community,” explained Bush, adding, “Our hope is for people to go to a concert and feel like they were a part of something.” For Bush and his staff, this is the key difference between art and entertainment. Through careful band selection and the unconventional intimacy of the space, they hope to foster something beyond the typical concert experience. “It’s not just a place where you show up and watch and leave.”

Although it’s known primarily as a concert venue, The Garage is happy to host a range of community happenings. Past events include film screenings, a letter writing day, dance parties, and surprise birthday parties. Recently they hosted a potluck that doubled as a listening party for Radiohead’s new album, A Moon Shaped Pool. In August, they’re inviting people to join them in a three-part workshop that teaches participants to craft their own wooden spoons.

These days, things are easy for The Garage. With an established presence, a well-carved audience niche, and charming Wes Andersonian aesthetics, The Garage has more programming opportunities than it can handle. Things haven’t always been this easy, though. One fateful day in 2013, a renegade car drove straight through the brick wall facing the parking lot, causing damage that nearly collapsed the building. “Let’s just say the driver was a little out of control,” Bush said coyly.

Side view of The Garage after a car crashed into it in 2013. | Photo by Tom Daly

It was a pivotal moment for The Garage. “I had been running The Garage for a few years and was not sure if the community was on board.” Bush worried that collective apathy would spell the end of the space, but supporters rallied around rebuilding efforts. With the help of a Kickstarter campaign, The Garage soon returned not only with reconstructed walls, but also new lights, floors, and a better hanging system for visual art. Bush said proudly, “That’s when The Garage became not just my personal project, but something that belonged to Charlottesville.”

In the years since, The Garage has flourished. Sitting in the audience, it’s easy to see why. Fireflies glimmer across the park as the sky turns from a rose quartz to a deep blue. There’s a shared warmth among the those perched on the hillside, an intangible harmony. As the show smolders on, you know that this is a special place: once an unassuming garage, now a rare locus of creativity, urging the imagination to find opportunities in the similarly overlooked and underestimated.

The Garage is hosting several events this month, including a First Friday art opening with Nina Thomas (July 1) and performances by Logan Vath (July 7), Alexa Rose (July 8), Upstate Rubdown (July 17), Austin Miller (July 24), and Anna Vogelzang (July 30). Free admission to all events, full schedule at thegaragecville.com.

Photography by Ashley Travis

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