“It’s been the best thing I could have done for myself, honestly.” So said Suzanne Scherr, one of the newest members of Art First Gallery, when explaining just how transformative her first year has been. ”I’ve been so surprised at how easy it was to find kindred spirits in the art world.” Suzanne is one of a couple dozen artists that make up this gallery cooperative, the oldest of its kind in the area. Founded in 1992, Art First is celebrating 25 years of continuous operation by reflecting on how far they have come and recommitting themselves to their mission of serving artists in Fredericksburg.
Jane Woodworth was the original founder of Art First. As a painter working out of her home studio in King George, she was frustrated by how disconnected she felt from other artists. Jane envisioned a space that artists could share—the expenses, the responsibilities, and the opportunity to find an audience for their work. After assembling the first group of 25 members and sourcing a location, they started renovating. In a month’s time, they had turned a greasy, forgotten bar into a fresh, new gallery.
Of the original founding group, two members still remain, Linda Warshaw and Cathy Herndon. Remembering how it all began, Cathy said, “We just put our gloves on and dug in.” Though she was referring to the actual building renovations, her statement also speaks to the sense of camaraderie and dedication that is so evident in Art First’s membership. Being entirely member-operated, the artists of Art First also serve as the organization’s docents, bookkeepers, event staff, public relations team, and installation crew. The jobs are divided among the members and all share the expenses through regular dues. “It is pretty amazing to have something perpetuate when there’s a total democracy,” Suzanne observed. “This is not a thing where there is one person that own the gallery and enlists the artists. We all own this equally.”
Casey Alan Shaw spoke of a kind of creative magic—an artistic “cross pollination” as he put it—that happens in an environment like Art First. Along with sharing responsibilities, members have found that they share in each other’s inspiration as well. “You’ll just come in and be floored at the creativity someone is putting into something,” Casey explained. “It’s like, all of a sudden you need to up your game a little bit.” Diversity in representation has been a fundamental value of the gallery, one that undoubtedly contributes to this creative interchange. Art First members span five decades in age and offer a wide spectrum of mediums including painting, jewelry, sculpture, and photography. For folks like Cathy, this eclectic environment is one of the best parts of membership. “I gain momentum and broader ideas just from being around our group of artists,” she said. ”I feel rejuvenated every time we have a new show.” Linda described her time at the gallery as being almost revelatory. “Being in a gallery has taught me is how to ask myself if I am serious and genuine about my work. The answer has really always been yes, but it has pushed me to look at myself more honestly.”
Art First will celebrate its 25th anniversary with an all-member group show entitled “This Is Us.” The opening reception will be held on Friday, February 3 for the First Friday art walk. Each gallery member will be featuring a new 12-by-12-inch piece, along with other new and recently completed work. In the spirit of community support that is foundational to Art First, selected pieces will be sold via a month-long silent auction. Proceeds from auction sales will go towards the Fredericksburg Center for the Creative Arts’s Youth Art Program, an initiative that provides free art classes and supplies to underserved children in the area.
It’s that type of generosity and sense of commitment to each other that sustains Art First through the years. Adam DeSio, a member since 2004, explained that he first joined to connect with other artists and establish himself in the art community. “Art First provided me with all of those things. I remain here in the hope that I can give a little of that back to someone else.” Longevity is not always common in volunteer-based organizations, but the members of this gallery have demonstrated a refreshing sense of collective responsibility that can be felt not only within the gallery walls, but throughout the community around them.
Art First Gallery will host an opening reception for the all-member group show “This Is Us” on Friday, February 3 from 6-9 PM. To learn more, visit artfirstgallery.com.