The retirement community at Fearrington Village in Pittsboro brightens its walls with engaging displays
By Anna-Rhesa Versola
Roger Berkowitz sizes up an empty wall the way an artist views a blank canvas: He sees potential.
In March 2019, Galloway Ridge executive director Bob Zimmer asked Roger, curator emeritus of the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio and Galloway Ridge resident, to find original works of art for the community’s newly renovated dining and garden areas. “That turned out to be pretty successful,” Roger says. “So I asked [Bob] about establishing an art fund, which would allow us to have original works of art within Galloway and replace the reproductions that were just sort of here and there throughout the building.”
By March 2020, a handful of residents formed an art advisory to recommend pieces for Bob’s consideration and final approval. Residents established a fund for donations to support acquisitions, and a docent program became an extension of the existing art education program. Today, the growing collection includes 273 pieces by artists from around the world, each with a connection to North Carolina and the retirement community’s well-traveled residents.
Meant to Be
The grassroots art project continues to blossom. “It’s been a little bit of an aligning of the stars really,” Roger says of the wide-ranging collection, adding that it offers something for everyone.
“People are continually seeing new things,” he says about groups of residents and visitors in docent-led tours. “By the end of [the visit], they have a different understanding of [the works], and maybe of why [they are] here. And that’s all you can ask for, really.”
Roger worked his entire professional career at the Toledo Museum of Art. Starting as a curatorial assistant, he rose through the ranks to eventually become executive director, retiring in 2004. That’s when he and his wife, Rhoda Berkowitz, bought a home in Fearrington Village. In 2017, they moved to an apartment in Galloway Ridge. Rhoda, a retired law professor, had served on the Galloway Ridge board and knew the continuing care community would be the right next step for the couple as they advanced in age.
For Roger, art is a lifelong passion; in retirement, he spent 12 years on the board of North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh. But building this art collection in Fearrington Village has been wholly unexpected. “I never thought I’d be doing this,” Roger says with a smile. “And, it’s fun.”
Visitors entering the main lobby immediately see a large multicolored acrylic painting by Indigenous Australian artist Michelle Possum Nungarrayi. Guests move through the room and come to face a black aluminum panel sharply incised with a series of metallic strokes to create a pattern resembling a bird’s nest. The work by Asheville-based artist Mitchell Lonas was among the collection’s first acquisitions. In the garden room, it’s impossible to ignore an enormous glazed ovoid vessel by local ceramicist Mark Hewitt, fittingly titled “Monumental.” There are many more botanical portraits, quiet landscapes, woven textiles, carved wood and lyrical abstractionism throughout the community’s corridors and public spaces.
Roger says any piece can spark curiosity or conversation, providing a meaningful way in which residents and their guests – friends, children and grandchildren – can engage with these unique works from around the globe. “Instead of sitting around the apartment, [residents] take [visitors] out and show them the art,” Roger says. “So it set up another dynamic within families to have that resource here.”
“People were very, very generous, and that’s what allowed us to proceed with this,” Roger says of the fundraising effort to acquire original pieces. “It was a real experiment, because we didn’t know how people would respond.” The first bit of money raised led to a few acquisitions.
“Someone in our [advisory] group said, ‘Just put them up on the wall so people know what this is going to be like,’” Roger says. “That’s what we did, and then people really got into the spirit, because they could see the difference it made in everyday life here. During the pandemic, it took on special meaning.”
Piece by piece, the institutional-feeling reproductions once found throughout the building were replaced. “People could see that difference, and it warmed up the place,” Roger says. “People were talking about it, and they were talking with one another. They were asking questions, and they were doing research. It set off a whole intellectual, aesthetic journey for a lot of residents.”
Roger says he could not have launched the art collection without the help of many residents, volunteers and staff who transport the works of art, install the pieces, maintain records of each acquisition and print labels that describe each piece. Another staffer is putting together a book about the art collection. The list goes on.
He specifically credits Davenne Essif, who has a doctorate in art history from UNC and manages the art education program, with ensuring the idea came to fruition in an intentional way.
“At the beginning of this, a lot of residents and also staff were very sensitive to the fact that they did not want this to become an art museum,” Davenne says. “This is a residence, first and foremost. It’s a working facility, so we had to be very aware of that as we worked to create this program.”
She now provides weeks of training to the docent volunteers who guide visitors on art tours. “It’s amazing the way that I feel connected to the communities through the art and the way that I also get to see how the work I’m doing means so much on both an individual and a collective basis,” Davenne says. “That kind of community centeredness really has been wonderful, and a central part of this. But it wouldn’t matter if there wasn’t the support of the community at Galloway. It’s a unique community to give this much support to something like this and to recognize the value that it has.”