Longtime supporters lead Light Factory revival

When The Light Factory Contemporary Museum of Photography and Film suspended operations in October, people thought the 42-year-old institution would dissolve. But emotions ran too high for that.

So a group of longtime supporters is leading the organization with renewed spirit, a new location and a new partnership with Babson Capital for a private exhibition of members’ work. The idea “just won’t die,” says Byron Baldwin, a founder of that group.

Many current TLF members were not active until recently, when they decided to help keep the organization alive.

Linda Foard Roberts was a student of Baldwin’s at Myers Park High School years ago and had been TLF executive director. When she learned of The Light Factory’s trouble, she jumped to volunteer. She says the idea of closing it was “incomprehensible … because of its irreplaceable trademarked name, its history, and its reputation for outstanding exhibits, classes and community engagement.”

Roberts is now a board member and working on a Kickstarter fundraising campaign. It will start in April, and donors who pledge at certain levels will get photographic prints. “I am a believer that art can change lives,” she says. “It changed mine.”

In June, longtime members concerned about staffing and funding – including Baldwin and former board member Carolyn DeMerritt – approached the board with an offer of help but say the offer wasn’t accepted.

In October, TLF laid off its three employees, suspended operations and vacated Spirit Square. The group didn’t have enough money to pay debts and run the museum, one of four in the nation dealing exclusively in film and photography.

In 2012, the Arts & Science Council gave The Light Factory $125,000 in operating support; in 2013, it gave only technical support grants of up to $75,000 to help the museum create a sustainable model. TLF had spent $10,000 of it by October.

With a new life, TLF moved into the old Midwood School on Central Avenue and has been holding classes; a recent demonstration on wet-plate collodion technique sold out, and classes for DSLR photography and Photoshop are taking place. Since October, it has raised $40,000 through donations, two challenge grants and memberships. The first year’s rent is paid.

“The new art funding model is for you to go out and raise your own money,” Baldwin says. “We’re doing that, and we’re being successful.”

The Light Factory, founded in 1972, has contracted with independent curator and consultant Carla Hanzal to develop a strategic plan. A darkroom is ready, and an exhibition space is in the works. A new director and exhibitions will come later.

The group also got a boost from Babson Capital’s invitation for a private exhibition in its offices in Duke Energy Center. Babson is partnering with arts organizations to host private exhibitions. Its relationship with The Light Factory came from a suggestion by Kurt Warnke, a freelance installer Babson used for an exhibition of McColl Center alumni.

“The Light Factory: UNITED” consists of 24 photographs by members Baldwin, board chairman Phil Moody, Roberts and DeMerritt. In the show, thoughtful commitment to composition and style is ubiquitous.

Moody’s colorful images of Italy balance DeMerritt’s grayscale Lowcountry landscapes. Roberts’ ghostly images of cut flowers on their way to expiration have a haunting thematic similarity to Baldwin’s images of Central Avenue in the 1980s. They both show beauty that is embattled but, like The Light Factory, unwilling to throw in the towel.

“We’ve had all kinds of trouble in the past,” Baldwin said, “but the idea remains, and it works on so many levels – from the beginning level, for people who don’t know how to use a camera, to accomplished artists who want to show their work in the space.”