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Satellite Gallery, A Beacon Of Street Art, Closing After 13 Years In Downtown Asheville

Matt Peiken | BPR News

It’s just before noon on a Wednesday, and Bill Thompson is behind his desk inside an otherwise empty Satellite Gallery. He had just scrolled through the hundreds of comments and likes on his Facebook post from the day before, announcing he’s about to close his gallery after 13 years in downtown Asheville.

“The outpouring of love and support comes through when you close the doors, and you’re almost like, where was everybody when we were open?” Thompson said. “If you’re going to be supportive of the arts and the local community, itr doesn’t mean liking their stuff in social media. It means being supportive financially towards those artists who you say you love their work and to that gallery who you say you love what they’re doing.”

Thompson isn’t solely or even chiefly pinning his closure on slowing business. Rather, it’s to a skyrocketing rent. When the Satellite Gallery, in 2006, Thompson paid $1,200 per month on his 1,440-square-foot space, and he praises the building’s owner for only raising the rent in all the years since to just $1,500. Starting in July, the rent stood to more than double, to $3,100. Thompson is sympathetic to the economics, both the building owner’s and his own.

Satellite is currently showing work from four female painters, and the gallery remains open during its normal hours through the end of June.

“When Asheville started to change from the arts to, say, the beer/food economy, that’s when the clientele changes,” he said. “You never know what anybody’s interested in and I’m not trying to show what anybody’s interested in. Do I compromise my own values and what I want and slip into this, ‘Oh, I’m just going to be like everybody else in town?’ Or do I push the truth of what I’m trying to do?”

Thompson’s truth, or aesthetic, is what you could call street art. He opened the gallery with $10,000 of his money, largely saved up through years of selling t-shirts and other merchandise along tours of the Grateful Dead and Phish.

Satellite primarily showcased painters and photographers from this region with work at considerably lower price points than that of other contemporary galleries downtown. It hosted artists who painted on toys, model trains and skateboards.

“Asheville was a folk, craft gallery town, and all these amazing low-brow, contemporary, forward artists, graffiti artists didn’t have a voice to show,” he said. “That’s why I opened this gallery, because I was connected to a lot of these people.” 

As Satellite prepares to close, the Momentum Gallery will soon take over almost an entire block block of storefronts just across the street from Satellite on Broadway. Jordan Ahlers, Momentum’s founder, praised Satellite for paving the way to other outlets for outsider art and art-oriented shops such as Horse & Hero.

“Bill was a bit of a maverick by showing things that were a little more urban, a little bit edgier, taylored maybe towards a younger market, and in a lot of ways he was ahead of his time, for this community,” Ahlers said. “Bill’s commitment to the local art scene helped put Asheville and a number of contemporary artists on the map, and he should be commended for that.”

In addition to new exhibitions every four to six weeks, Satellite hosted an annual erotica art show that raised money for the WNC AIDS Project and the annual Warren Haynes’ Christmas Jam art show, with proceeds going to the Asheville Area Habitat for Humanity.

Thompson said he’s open to finding another home in Asheville for his gallery.

“It’s like the end of an era. It’s bittersweet. I love the gallery, everybody I’ve worked with and I love this community. It’s a little overwhelming,” he said. “You know, you build something up and have it all these years. I almost felt I was failing the art community of Asheville. You have to look at it positively. Knowing what we did here and knowing how the community supported the gallery and the artists supported the gallery, anything can be positive from here. I let collectors know what was going on and they texted me back and they’re like ‘Wherever you go, we will find you, even if it’s across the country."

Matt Peiken, BPR’s first full-time arts journalist, has spent his entire career covering arts and culture.