Student-run art gallery creates connections between campus, Blacksburg community
By Colie Touzel
On the second story above Joe’s Diner in downtown Blacksburg, XYZ serves as a bridge between Virginia Tech and the local community. As an entirely student-run venue, this eclectic space is a gathering place for all types of people that for more than 25 years has been showcasing art, music, architecture, and design by and for the community.
The gallery has also helped students discover career interests in art curation, event planning and organization, and community outreach.
In response to COVID-19, XYZ is closed for the remainder of the spring semester. But organizers are looking to reopen at a future date and continue having exhibitions, workshops, and events, according to the gallery’s Facebook page.
Members of the Virginia Tech community might know XYZ through the annual silent auction it holds on the same night as the Blacksburg Christmas parade every December. The auction, dubbed Silent Night, is one of the gallery’s most heavily attended events and has become an excellent opportunity for both artists and the gallery, which takes a small commission from pieces sold.
Silent Night and similar XYZ events allow emerging artists to break through into a competitive marketplace – and add value to the local arts community.
“The market is really tough, especially these days when online platforms are flooded with people trying to sell art,” said former gallery president and interior design alumna Callie Gobes ’18. “XYZ is a space for people with smaller followings to get their work seen and sold.”
For artists who would like to have their own exhibit hosted at XYZ (which they can request by filling out an exhibit proposal), their art has greater potential for connection with the personal feel and uniqueness of a student-run gallery in a small, Southwest Virginia town.
“XYZ is extremely valuable to this area because there aren’t many alternative art spaces here,” said XYZ faculty advisor and School of Visual Arts Assistant Professor Michael Borowski. “You typically don’t see experimental art spaces in a small town, but small towns can really benefit from galleries like XYZ, where we not only cater to what you might traditionally see in a gallery, but we also host performance events and very conceptual ideas.”
Recent exhibits include work from Paolo Morales, whose documentary “Memphis Tulips” focuses on community resilience. Another exhibit showcased Czech artist Tereza Tomastikova, whose work captured her personal reflection and insight with bipolar affective disorder.
Artistic work that highlights these issues and encourages reflection is one way XYZ fosters conversation between the Blacksburg community and the Virginia Tech campus around important societal and cultural issues.
“This gallery is one of the most stable places in Blacksburg,” said current student president and studio art major Mikayla Spivey. “We’re a very supportive community and want others to be a part of this with us.”
Students who hope to pursue careers in the art or design field find that volunteering at XYZ can shape their future opportunities.
“Many students who have been involved in XYZ have gone on to do an internship at a larger museum,” said Borowski. “There’s pressure with a big institution in terms of what galleries can and might be able to take on, but XYZ is so flexible that someone can have an idea and within a few months, the students have the experience of managing and bringing that show to life.”
For Gobes, XYZ’s former student president, having a job that contributes to the community has always been important to her, but she never expected XYZ to have such an impact on her career path.
“In one of my jobs, I’m an events assistant at the Heurich House Museum, which has directly correlated to my experiences at XYZ,” she said. “Before XYZ, I didn’t know how much I loved event management and project planning. Being a part of XYZ’s growth and meeting so many wonderful and creative people is one of the greatest joys in my life so far.”
Dedicated students like Gobes and Spivey who run XYZ recognize the process of encouraging community outreach and promoting emerging artists. For them, XYZ needs to be a true community arts space for students and locals of Blacksburg to unite, think, create, and be together.
“If I could, I’d have collaborative exhibits like Silent Night year round,” said current XYZ student president Spivey. “I want this place to always have events and exhibits happening to show off peoples’ work and talent. I know that means I have to be here every night, and that’s worth it to me. I just want to see the walls covered with art and the halls full of people.”