The Eno Arts Mill opened in October and hopes to revive the arts in civic life by creating sustainable programs for Orange County artists
By Chris Vitiello | Photography by John Michael Simpson
When Renee Price, chair of the Orange County Board of Commissioners, arrived at the Eno Arts Mill’s grand opening on Oct. 1, she had to circle around for a long while just to find a parking space – and that’s a good thing.
“We got there, and we couldn’t find a place to park. I mean, it was just that popular,” Renee laughs. “Already, it’s become a venue.”
Hillsborough came out in droves to see the new 7,000-square-foot arts center, featuring five artist studios, a classroom, a satellite office for the Carrboro-based Art Therapy Institute and a spacious gallery, all housed in the historic Eno River Mill building. The center shares walls with the 3,000-square-foot Eno Mill Studios, which houses 11 artists and opened in February 2020.
The Eno Arts Mill represents a remarkable turnaround during the pandemic and speaks to the cultural vision of the county government and especially to the community-oriented will of Orange County Arts Commission (OCAC) Director Katie Murray.
When Katie took the commission directorship five years ago, after running an arts center in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, she was looking forward to returning to the arts-rich place she had enjoyed during her college years in the 1990s. But she found that things had changed.
“What happened?” she recalls thinking. “I was so surprised by the lack of visual arts spaces, especially in Chapel Hill and Carrboro.”
Despite the presence of a lot of artists, Katie found the county severely lacking in physical space for the arts. Thanks to real estate appreciation and rising rents, what had been gallery and studio space two decades ago had become retail and restaurant space today.
“In order to have a healthy arts ecosystem, you have to have spaces for artists to work, live, exhibit, perform and rehearse,” Katie says. “So I basically put a hold on everything going on at the commission when I came in, and for two years we did listening sessions and surveys with anyone who would talk to us just to get a better understanding of how, in a community as rich in the arts as we are, did we get to this place.”
While mapping the arts ecosystem, Katie started identifying possible spaces for the arts to get a foothold, which was a challenge. Orange County lacked the old tobacco warehouses and manufacturing buildings more common in Durham and Wake counties. Instead, the county is largely residential and has a rural buffer that – although it keeps the county pleasantly green – limits development and makes properties more expensive. Forming a task force, Katie saw space as the first domino that needed to fall to catalyze the arts community.
“If organizations had more space to work with, then they could make their programs more accessible, because it wouldn’t be so bottom-line driven,” she says. “And if the arts had more of a physical presence, then they would have had a voice at the table when growth is happening so fast. All of these things are interwoven, and I got a really clear picture of how it ended up this way.”
The Eno River Mill building was among the many spaces on the task force’s radar, so Katie started emailing Alex Gold, whose family has owned the mill since the 1980s, and Frank Gailor, owner of Hedgehog Holdings, the Raleigh-based managing partner, to check out other similar converted spaces, like the Torpedo Factory Art Center in Alexandria, Virginia (a Navy munitions factory after WWI), and the Goat Farm Arts Center in Atlanta (a 19th century industrial complex). Once they saw Katie’s vision for the Eno Mill Studios, they became enthusiastic partners and offered leasing terms and an upfitting plan that she describes as generous.
Katie took that plan to the county commissioners in October 2019, and it was unanimously approved. She announced the availability of new studios, and they immediately filled up. And then, a few months later, COVID-19 happened. Around half the artists promptly backed out.
Nonetheless, despite low occupancy the initial year and the impossibility of public engagement, the space sustained itself. Shaerie Mead, a clothing designer who owns IONA Clothing Studio, was one of the first artists in the door.
“The space saved my life at the time,” Shaerie says, having relocated from Los Angeles just three weeks before the shutdown. “I’m a pretty social person, so to not meet people and just be stuck in the house – I was going insane. So I was able to come here for half-days and to develop the ideas I had.”
Shaerie describes IONA as a slow fashion clothing line using “sustainable fabrics, ethical production, hand dyeing and effortless comfort.” Exhausted from the constant hustle and the lack of community in LA, she has found a supportive home in the mill. “The first time I met Katie and she showed me the studio, she was like, ‘We really want to make it work for you. Here’s all the stuff we’re doing, and these are our future plans.’ And I was just blown away,” Shaerie says. “This is exactly the kind of community I want to be involved with.”
During the pandemic, office tenants in the rest of the mill building moved out, and Katie saw the opportunity to locate those future plans in the same footprint as the Eno Mill Studios. Front-facing with exterior doors and parking, the new Eno Arts Mill space is more than twice the size of the first studio building and houses the OCAC offices.
Samir Knego is a multidisciplinary artist-writer whose watercolor and ink paintings and drawings draw upon his disability. In his words, he “doesn’t have the motor skills for precise work and needs higher contrast colors for vision reasons.” He has found his work opening up now that he is in one of the studios at the mill.
“I explore a lot of disability and accessibility issues in my work; I’m a wheelchair user,” Samir says. “So it felt kind of important, doing stuff on social and community issues, to not just be doing that all on my own.”
After having worked at home, on a tabletop that he was constantly having to clear off in order to do other things, Samir now finds himself thinking of larger, longer-term projects and engaging more deeply with each piece he makes. And he feels more outward-looking in the work through his interaction with other artists, and now the public, at the mill.
“It’s not just this little island,” he says. “I feel really connected to the whole arts system and community, which is compelling to me. And it’s a really accessible space, too.”
Now that the mill is officially launched, look for a full calendar of community events in the gallery and open studios each first Friday of the month, as well as classes and activities in the classroom. But also know that Katie is just getting started. Future plans include a community darkroom, a community ceramic studio, a children’s theater and partnerships with Title I schools to provide after-school arts instruction and activities. It’s all part of a comprehensive vision, one shared by county leadership, that the arts are an essential component of civic life in Orange County.
“We have to think about creative placemaking,” Renee says. “The world is changing, and I think there’s a place for the arts that’s more than just economic development; it’s used in therapy for domestic violence and PTSD, and as we try to get through the isolation of the pandemic. The arts do so much for our community. And it also is a way of expressing who we are and what we are.”
“We’ve got the know-how and the equipment. We just need to figure out the right space and how to make these programs sustainable,” Katie says, distilling that vision into a workable plan. “I would love it if we could just occupy every empty space with something arts-related, and for this to really become a hub, not just for our community, but for the whole Triangle.”