Vanguard outsider art space remembered 30 years later

Outsider art is more than just art made by self-taught artists. It's also about makers who operate outside of the art establishment. There have been spaces that served these kinds of artists in Columbus throughout the years, with ACME Art Company, founded in 1987 in the neighborhood that would become known as the Short North, among the earlier to help foster the scene.

To mark the 30th anniversary of ACME's founding, artists and scenesters from ACME are planning several events in October. Cafe Ashtray, a performance event once held in the ACME gallery's basement, will be recreated on Friday, Oct. 6, at the Vanderelli Room, featuring original Ashtray performers and new and vintage art by ACME member artists. The Vanderelli will also host an ACME-style art auction on Oct. 21, modeled after an annual, long-defunct ACME auction. Columbus artists donated work for the auction, with proceeds going to support the Vanderelli Room.

“[ACME] was the independent gallery in Columbus,” member artist Charles Wince said in an interview at his Harrison West home. “It served to expose Columbus to artwork that wasn't generally being seen.”

That included Wince's own work, which received solo showings at the gallery. Wince also participated in regular ACME group shows and curated a handful of exhibitions at ACME, which evolved from the former Geoffrey Taber Gallery when Taber decided his vision would be better served by a nonprofit collective.

“We had people with ‘real' art qualifications that showed there as well. And while we specialized in Columbus artists, we would show work by artists from all around the country,” Wince said.

“Basically all you had to do to have a show was become a member, which was like 30 bucks, and even if you couldn't afford it, you could probably still be a member,” member artist Michael Kehlmeier said in a phone interview. “Artists received a lot of exposure. … People hold ACME in their hearts as the place where they got their start.”

“I felt like I was a baby [getting ready for my first show],” said member artist Melissa Vogley Woods, who, at 22, had returned to her hometown after studying art in Kansas City, Missouri, and was looking to find a point of entry into the Columbus art scene. “But the gallery was really supportive and it was so good for me at the time. They allowed for all these weirdos.”

One of those weirdos was musician and performance artist Mark “Trademark” Gunderson, who found an outlet for his work at the monthly Cafe Ashtray events.

“I was an electronic-focused performer, and a lot of electronic music was not welcome in the clubs at that time,” Gunderson said. “Cafe Ashtray was not only a place that was welcoming to me but to all other sorts of artists as well.”

Kehlmeier said the scene that grew up around ACME gave rise to other art ventures, including MadLab and ROY G BIV Gallery. Wince recalled ACME as among the early spaces showing art that began to hold collective exhibition openings, laying the groundwork for what would become the Short North Gallery Hop. Wince also said future leading lights in the Columbus art scene, including Andy Hudson, Paul Volker and Jim Beoddy, found community at ACME.

It was a couple years back at Beoddy's funeral that discussions regarding an ACME reunion started to take place.

“People were like, ‘We miss ACME and wouldn't it be nice to reconnect?'” Kehlmeier said. “People have fond memories of both [Cafe Ashtray and the art auction], so we started with those and called out to former ACME artists to try and have a reunion of sorts.”

Kehlmeier said holding these events at AJ Vanderelli's space in Franklinton is a nod to the “outsider” atmosphere that's grown up around her space.

“It's the most ACME-like gallery that's out there,” Kehlmeier said. “It's a place where you can really have that ACME feeling today.”