Contemporary Problems Require Historical Solutions

Abel Contemporary Gallery space
Photograph provided by Abel Contemporary Gallery

Space needs order. Not that everything is in its place, but that navigationally things need to make sense. Even the most cluttered pack-rat wonderland jives with someone. But the task for a business taking on space is to make it comprehensible to everyone. When Theresa Abel and Tim O’Neill of Abel Contemporary Gallery moved their business from Paoli, the pieces fell into place for them to take on the old no. 5 tobacco warehouse in Stoughton, which had been living its latest life as an antique store.

“What we loved about it is it was just a big open space. We could envision gutting the interior completely and simply having this giant open gallery space,” says Theresa. Two of the three 4,200-square-foot stories would work for their art gallery, and the basement would be rentable studio space. First things first, they had 12,000 square feet of white pegboard corridors, burgundy carpet, drywall, and shelving to tear down.

Tim and Theresa weren’t strangers to renovation, but this was beyond anything they’d done. Theresa says, “Partway through, we realized it was going to be a huge project. We are handy people, but this was a much larger-scale building than anything we had previously tackled. It needed a completely new heating and cooling system, and all the electrical had to be redone. We brought in professionals for those updates. The work was still overwhelming, and simply finding the time for demolition was daunting.”

The problem then became twofold: no time and no money. They were working within a strict budget. Their fortune, however, had been amassing in relationship capital—owning a gallery has led to them building a community with patrons, friends, and the artists they represent. Everyone came together to ensure the new space would be a success.

In addition to the manual help with renovations, someone else from their lives pulled through in a rather unexpected way. “One of our dearest friends, Suchi Reddy of Reddymade Design and Architecture in Manhattan, offered to take on the design work for the new gallery. Suchi does phenomenal work around the globe, and our project would be in amazing company. Her work has been featured in national publications, and her project list is impressive. While visiting the building, she asked, ‘Can I design the gallery for you?’

“We looked at her stunned and said, ‘We can’t afford you for a minute.’

“And she said, ‘I want to do this because I love you and we’re friends. If this isn’t why we do the work that we do as creative people, what are we doing it for?’

“She designed every wall and envisioned how you move through the space, creating movable wall systems that we have inside to make the gallery completely flexible. She’s amazing.”

Not every aspect of Suchi’s vision was affordable at the time, but her ingenuity along with Theresa and Tim’s experience created a space that harmonizes with every piece exhibited. Museum lighting doesn’t just highlight the work, but also the exposed skeleton of the building. The resulting contrast is compelling. Original wood floors marked by blue-collar tenacity match dense structural timber columns that frame areas around the studio, inspiring direction.

“There’s something about the way you walk through the space,” says Theresa. “There is a clear view from the front of the building to the end, making the art on the rear wall a crescendo.” And everything is movable, so different exhibits can be focal points.

One distinct area of the main floor breaks away from the darker, footstep-patinaed wood to a sanded, cream-colored maple. Here, an exhibit can be shown in an entirely different element, allowing a more-expected gallery experience behind a weathered brick column. This room provides the option of displaying pieces in natural light, which works better for some artists and mediums.

The upstairs continues the warehouse motif, but instead of columns, a large tobacco-elevator-sized hole is surrounded with a railing system complete with overhead electric motor and pulley. This space feels even more open than the large main floor, affording sculptures their deserved prominence.

In the corner, Theresa and Tim built what I found to be the heart of the potential everyone saw in the building: the no. 5 room. It’s a place for experimental pieces that give visitors a glimpse into the mind of an artist. When I was there, pools of water on suspended clear plastic refracted light onto wooden cities below. It’s really a place where a concept can be born as well as presented, breaking conventional restrictions of customary gallery spaces.

On the frame of the entrance to no. 5 is a potentially 100-year-old drawing of a tobacco pipe from an employee of the warehouse’s past. The building is filled with these relics—markings, initials made of nail heads pounded into columns, and abundant dents from hammer strikes, offering a stage for those historical voices to intermingle with those from the artwork.

“The warmth of the wood and the architecture gives people a good feeling when they walk in as well as the way that we have displayed things and the welcoming way the staff approaches people,” says Theresa. “We want you to be able to visualize a painting in your home. We want the work to be approachable and for you to want to spend time with it. We want you to feel like you belong here.”

There’s still a lot the space has to tell Theresa and Tim about how to best use it. Since every podium and interior wall can be moved, there’s a never-ending host of layouts to be discovered. One addition they hope to incorporate is an L-shaped staircase (designed by Suchi) in the middle of the room that would lead visitors up through the hole left by the elevator. The result through each addition and rearrangement is something that demands exploration. Best of all, everybody who enters the space is experiencing as intended because, as is true with every piece of art in the gallery, the intention is left to interpretation.

Kyle Jacobson is a copy editor and writer for Home Elements & Concepts.

Abel Contemporary Gallery
524 East Main Street
Stoughton, WI 53589