Asheville's One-Man Art Scene
By Bryan Ochalla
You know that horrible old saying, “You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a (fill in the blank)?”
Well, if you ever find yourself walking the streets of Asheville, N.C., don’t be surprised if you turn to your companion and make a similar (yet hopefully less vulgar) comment about the many businesses owned by John Cram.
An Iowa transplant by way of Wisconsin, Cram has—as yet another saying goes—made quite a name for himself since he first graced the city with his presence in 1972.
In the ensuing years he has opened three galleries—New Morning Gallery, which features “art for living” crafts, the fine-art filled Blue Spiral 1 and the art-to-wear Bellagio, managed by partner Matt Chambers.
The avid traveler turned his sights toward a different medium in the 90s when he bought an old porno theater in Asheville’s once-dilapidated downtown. After extensive renovation, it was reintroduced to the community as the “new and improved” Fine Arts Theatre, a showcase for independent films (recent marquee-toppers include the controversial “Shortbus,” “The Queen” and Pedro Almodovar’s “Volver”).
Cram’s background (he says he “grew up in a business environment” and worked as an “object maker” in Madison, Wis., before heading south) likely helped solidify his success in Asheville, though the city’s background played a role as well.
“Old Ashevillians gave away their downtown in the 70s and 80s, as they had no faith in the city's future,” Cram shares with historical pinache. “After all, Asheville was one of four cities in all of America that went bankrupt” during the Great Depression.
That wholesale atmosphere allowed Cram and his wife (yes, he was married for two-and-a-half years) to open New Morning Gallery a few months after the pair arrived in Asheville’s Biltmore Village, with Blue Spiral 1 following in 1990. “Buildings went for a song” at the time, admits Cram, who says he purchased the space for that second gallery “with no great thought in mind.”
At the time, Asheville’s downtown was downright ghostly—Cram estimates it was 80 percent empty. That didn’t last long, though. “Shortly after, it was like dominos on end as things started to open up: restaurants at first, then more retail,” he remembers.
Pay the city a visit today and you’ll quickly see the turnaround is complete—thanks at least in part to Cram and his many endeavors, say fellow artists and businesspeople. “He has virtually changed everything for artists in Asheville,” former gallery owner Connie Bostic told the Asheville Citizen-Times earlier this year.
Cram hasn’t let such sentiments go to his head—nor has he finished living his mark on the city whose natural beauty so captivated him all those years ago. He and Chambers are hard at work on another clothing store—Bellagio Everyday—that they hoped to unveil in May. It will feature “lower price points, less complicated surface design and a different set of designers than the first Bellagio,” Cram says of the elliptical and contemporary space.
Don’t worry if you show up after the store’s grand opening and Cram is nowhere to be seen. He’s likely spending some well-deserved quality time in his six-acre garden, purchased from a landscape architect who connected 22 plots with moss covered trails.
“I’ve been a gardener all my life,” Cram says while reflecting on the space, opened a few times each year for charity tours. “Being a fire sign, I’ve always balanced myself with digging in the earth.”
(Outlook Magazine, May. 2007)
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