It’s the last Friday of the month, and the muffled sounds of rock and rap music can be heard as art gallery hoppers approach the Bakova Gallery at the corner of King and Churton streets in downtown Hillsborough. Through large, arched historic windows, soft, bright lights illuminate art lovers flowing by the abstract and sometimes provocative works of art.
Open the door and the sound grabs and captivates you. “Party-like atmosphere” and “art gallery” are not words that often find themselves in the same sentence. And it’s not often you find a cocktail bar tucked in among oil paintings and sculptures. But then, the owners of Bakova Gallery are becoming adept at taking the unexpected and making it work.
“We’re getting there. We’re finding our niche,” said Nick Baldridge, who opened the gallery Dec. 7, with his wife, Anna Shcherbakova. “We’re finding out the sweet spot of sellable and exciting, which is oddly difficult. We’re trying to build up this gallery that reflects both worlds — the exciting artwork and the sellable artwork.”
It’s a fine line the two have been walking since they packed up their belongings and moved from Merida, Mexico, to Hillsborough, N.C., site unseen.
Once settled in the Tarheel state, the two set out to find a gallery to show Baldridge’s paintings. They checked out every gallery in the area, but kept coming back to the space that would become Bakova Gallery. Only then, it wasn’t what it is now.
“We found the Eno Gallery here in Hillsborough,” Baldridge said. “The owner agreed to show my artwork and it started selling really well. I was helping him with curation of the space, I was helping him with hanging pieces, organizing and cleaning. I built the website and got to know the owners really well. I then learned that they wanted to leave the industry and retire.”
Taking a chance
It was a big decision, and Baldridge had previous experience in running a business. But his paintings were selling well and he was a little reluctant to break that momentum. Still, the couple agreed that they wanted to start something, and Anna had shown interest in a career change that would be geared more to the arts.
“Anna wanted to take it on,” Baldridge said. “She wanted to get into managing the gallery. We talked with the owners about a lease agreement and negotiated for a while. They sold us some of the assets and we came in that way. We started Bakova Gallery, which is off Anna’s last name.”
“It’s too long and difficult to pronounce,” Cherbakova said. “So we decided it would be too much and just split it. Bakova is Slavik. Names that end in “ova” are for women. We decided it would be something interesting.
“We also believe that the gallery would be more serious if we chose an actual name for the gallery,” she added. “Not just ‘Gallery By the River.’ Lots of serious galleries in New York and all over the world, they will often use the owner’s name for the name of the gallery.”
With the name and location set, the two went to work on remaking the look of the gallery, which mostly was handled by Baldridge. “I’m pretty handy with building things and remodeling,” he said. “I was able to come in with a new floor plan and an outline of the space. I came up with a nice flow, built some of the structures. Built the display wall. Meanwhile, Anna is setting up the back end of the business, and all of the accounting aspects of it. It all came together. I have experience hanging paintings, I have experience running a gallery.
“We have done a lot of work. We haven’t stopped working,” Baldridge said. “The gallery wasn’t to the level we wanted when we got here. The structure, the paint — we had to repaint everything — building new things. We still need to repaint some of the walls. We gutted the closets and the bathrooms.
They hired two more people to help run the gallery. Laulea Taylor was brought on as an assistant director who helps curate and manages the front gallery. Catherine Barnhardt was hired as a sales executive.
While the physical space was being overhauled, Baldridge and Shcherbakova also put forth changes in the type of artwork that would be displayed at their gallery.
“We wanted the gallery to be different from the others in Hillsborough,” Baldridge said. “We want to attract international artists. Local as well, but we’re going to be choosey. We’re getting a lot of new local artists over the next several months that are representative of what we’re really going for. Soon we’ll be getting art from artists overseas, other areas of the country. It’s going to change the look of the place.”
Changing of the art
The process of changing the type of artwork to be shown at the gallery was a little sticky at first.
“When we first started,” Baldridge said, “some people were like, ‘What are you guys doing?’ Some folks weren’t sure about change. There were those that were scared of the change and didn’t want to have their art in the gallery. So a few took out their artwork. But now many of those people come in and are super-excited about the shows we’re doing. That was a surprise to me. I was thinking that we’d lost some of these people forever. The first couple of months were a rocky road.”
In fact, the gallery is booked out for a year.
Laulea Taylor finds many of the artists the gallery shows. “She does a lot of research,” Shcherbakova said. “A lot from Instagram and Juxtapose magazine. She will follow an artist on Instagram, contact them and see if they’re interested in our gallery. She’s in charge of bringing fresh blood to the gallery. She’s got quite a big job.”
This often leads to negotiating yet another balance act for the couple.
“It can be difficult because Nick is an artist, Laulea ran a little gallery in Georgia,” Shcherbakova said. “They all have their own taste. Sometimes they’re trying to bring artists based on their taste. Then I come and argue with them because we need to get what’s sellable. Sometimes I tell them, ‘That’s beautiful. That’s perfect. But that will never sell.’ We have to find a balance between art that is amazing and compelling, but it has to sell.”
“There are two worlds you have to live in as a gallery owner and an artist,” Baldridge said, “one that stays true to your art and one that says ‘will this sell?’”
Still, the two plan to remain true to their goal of bringing compelling artwork to Hillsborough and making it accessible.
“One of our goals was to bring new people to the gallery, even if they can’t afford the artwork,” Schcherbakova said. “And we can’t have people walk through without noticing the art. We will change it. We do that all the time. We have to keep it fresh.”
Raising the bar
So, with the gallery looking more and more to their liking, and a collection of artwork and artists that reflect their mission, Baldridge and Shcerbakova could have chosen to stand back and enjoy what the two had created. Instead, though, they added a cocktail bar.
“That was a joint idea.,” Baldridge said. “My last business was a cocktail bar. We decided that if we wanted to rent the space out for events, we should have a bar for that. To have our own events, the bar is a nice addition. It’s been a bit of a strain due to all of the investing and time put into it, but it’s here now.”
The bar is small, yet stylish. It has several bar seats that slide up to a smooth, shiny white bar top.
“Anna and I built the bar,” Baldridge proudly said. Behind the bar is a wall of shelves with an impressive selection of alcohol.
The most recent Last Friday Art Walk was the first with the bar for the gallery. How did it go?
“Great. We were busy,” Baldridge said. “Normally, during the Last Friday Art Walk events, other galleries give away alcohol. Now we have to sell it because we have a license. So we’re breaking this tradition. We had rock music, rap music pumping out of the gallery. I just turned it up. We made it loud. Made it fun. Old people, young people. They loved it. We wanted to change the stereotype of ‘art gallery.’
“We’ve seen a complete 180 degree turn on what some people have said when we first got started,” he said. “Now they’re saying they’re really excited, and that the gallery is great. That we made it beautiful. Everything is clean and the art is very approachable. And then we have the bar, and people love the bar.”
The two still plan to add seating areas in the upstairs section of the gallery, and possibly wall-mounted shelving to rest coffee cups and wine glasses. It’s a plan that invites art lovers to take their time and spend more time with the exhibits.
Once that is done, Shcherbakova and Baldridge plan to relax a little.
“I’m here 7 days a week,” Baldridge said. “Now that everything is in place, I feel like my role is changing. I have neglected my painting for two months. But, when I look around at all of the work I’ve done here, with the renovations, and the stuff I’ve built and designed, I have still been artistic. Just in a different way.”