Two school teachers and a husband-and-wife team are igniting the arts scene in this fast-growing community.
The idea of launching an art gallery/wine bar hybrid had been building in the minds of two Washington Community High School teachers for some time. It all started when Stephanie Scott, who taught writing, and Tiffany Wyse-Fisher, an art teacher at the school, hatched the idea for a literary arts magazine featuring student writing and artwork. After working on the project through the school year, they issued the fruit of their efforts, a publication entitled Bloom, in the spring of 2004, in conjunction with a student art show and poetry reading.
“We were so amazed by the response in the community,” Stephanie recounted, “and each year it has continued to grow exponentially. The students really started looking forward to it…and their families—even people who didn’t have students. We became very excited and understood that there is a need in this community for artistic experiences.”
As the women expanded their efforts, their friendship grew as well. In the summer of 2007, they journeyed to San Francisco, where Tiffany worked on her photography degree and Stephanie volunteered at a writing center. Much of their free time was spent soaking up the eclectic atmosphere of Bay Area galleries and cafes.
“It was always in the back of our minds that we would love to have some kind of gallery and cafe…[to] promote art in our community,” explained Stephanie. “I remember going to neat cafes and taking pictures—we called it ‘research’—for some day, if we wanted to do something like that ourselves.”
That “someday” came sooner than they might have expected.
Meet the Woodses
Jeffrey and Julia Woods are the award-winning husband-and-wife team behind Portrait Life. Jeffrey, a Washington native, and Julia, originally from Metamora, are two of the most admired photographers in the area. The duo is also plugged into the community of Washington, where they have had a hand in a number of projects that have brought artistic renewal and economic development to town. Their purchase of a historic building on the town square would lead to the fruition of the two teachers’ dreams.
“Jeff and I had purchased the building in 2005,” explained Julia. “In 2006, the business that had been up there went out of business, and so [we] took the front part of the space as our daytime studio.”
The two batted around a number of ideas for the upstairs space. To keep up with their growing business, they needed a room where they could host occasional workshops, conferences and other events for up to several hundred people. They also had designs on hosting monthly wine tasting events, and so decided to renovate the space for those purposes.
The renovation was nearly complete when a larger question loomed: “What do we do on the days when we’re not using it for those types of things?” While they wanted to host more than one event a month, the couple quickly realized that the energy and time that would require would take quite a toll on their already-hectic schedules.
“About that time, Tiffany and Stephanie came along, and we knew that they had similar desires to bring art and culture to Washington,” recounted Julia. “And so we talked about a lot of different options…but in the end, decided that it would be best to let them take it and run with it. So they, at that point, became our tenants.”
On the Square, Electric
The result of this alliance, Venue Art Gallery and Wine Social, is situated right on Washington’s historic downtown square, overlooking a one-third acre public park surrounded by dozens of specialty storefronts in century-old buildings. “I grew up in Washington,” noted Stephanie, “so I’ve always loved the square and the historic feel of it.”
Climbing the steps at 112 N. Main Street, one enters a world that mirrors the sophisticated galleries of Chicago and other large urban areas. The exposed brick and ductwork gives Venue the “loft look” that is quite fashionable, while its unique lighting, furniture and decorative art lend the space a hip, artistic ambiance. The wine bar sits at the back of the main room, encircled by a smattering of tables and stools, tailor-made for fine wine and worldly conversation.
“The art gallery/wine bar hybrid allows people to enjoy art in a relaxed atmosphere, as well as have an aesthetically pleasing place to enjoy a glass of wine,” said Stephanie. The gallery will host art of various mediums, with an emphasis on the provocative. “We are looking for art exhibits that are cutting-edge…not your typical fare,” she explained.
Venue has a small space for retail goods, ranging from artisan jewelry to hand-painted wine glasses, and is available for special events of all kinds. Live music can be heard every Friday night, and there are plans to host thematic film nights. A holiday wine and dinner pairing is in the works for November, with education classes for children slated to begin in the spring.
Venue first opened its doors to the public on August 16th, in conjunction with the first annual Washington Fine Arts Fair. “We couldn’t believe the number of people who came through our door—over 400 the very first day!” exclaimed Tiffany on the official Venue blog. “The feedback was amazing: ‘Washington has NEEDED a place like this,’ ‘This place is Chicago-cool,’ etc. etc. etc.”
A month later, Venue celebrated its grand opening with live music, the unveiling of its wine bar and the thought-provoking work of internationally known sculptor Bob Emser. Electricity permeated the air as hundreds of well-wishers filed in and out of the gallery throughout the evening. If this sort of energy can be sustained, Venue certainly has the brightest of futures.
Come and Find the Arts
“What Julia and I have found…that has brought our friends together, it’s always been two things—and that has been art and a nice bottle of wine,” said Jeffrey Woods. The launch of Venue brings these elements together quite nicely, part of the couple’s vision for a “Galena-type” feel on the square.
“People are looking for an overall artistic experience,” added Stephanie, when asked about the community’s evolving tastes. “[They] want to experience something different—not just go out to dinner or see a movie, but actually participate in something larger than that.”
“I know this is a big vision for only having been open a few weeks, but I’ve been doing a little dreaming recently,” Julia mused. “Washington has always been known, for so many years, as a place to find antiques. I would love to be a part of catapulting it into a new era of being a place where you come and find the arts.” a&s