On The Hill Gallery embraces community’s art—and support—for 45 years
By Melissa James, York County Contributor
Nothing cultivates a sense of cultural identity like local art. Therefore, promoting the love of art—and the talented citizens who create it—is an essential endeavor for any community. It’s why the Yorktown Arts Foundation was established in 1975. This organization provides art education, outreach, participation and sales by local artists at its retail operation, On The Hill Gallery.
The gallery first opened in 1978 inside a small, bright yellow building on Route 17 in Grafton. There was room for just a handful of work from local artists.
“The location wasn’t the best and we ended up paying the rent each month by leasing out the upstairs studio space to local artists, like myself, who needed space to work outside of their homes,” said Kathy Wahl, president of the YAF, and manager of On The Hill Gallery. “That’s how I first got involved with the foundation. I rented studio space for a few years before being asked to join the board and help run the gallery, plus a few new community art programs.”
In 2012, the foundation board realized the gallery was not making enough money to sustain its operations. To the dismay of several members, the rest of the board voted to dissolve the organization and sell the building. But that small, dedicated group devised a plan to save the gallery.
“Five of us got together, voted to undo the dissolution, and then we listed the property for sale,” Wahl recalled. “We knew that we needed a location with much more foot traffic if we wanted to survive.”
The group began looking for available space on Main Street and the Riverwalk Landing area. They fell in love with historic 402 Main Street, which is owned by the National Park Service, and took a chance on applying to lease it. To their surprise, they were approved.
“The Park Service wanted a tenant who could afford to fix up and maintain the historic building. Thankfully, we were able to use the money from the sale of our old building to do just that,” Wahl said. “We had to fix the roof, the siding and flashing, the HVAC system and even existing water damage to make the space usable. But it was all worth it to be able to have this amazing location.”
Wahl credits much of the gallery’s success to this prime spot in Historic Yorktown, but even more importantly, to the many people who contribute their time and expertise to the cause.
“It really does take a village to operate this gallery and the many events we host each year,” Wahl said. “We are a non-profit board that operates solely by volunteers. Our events and overall success would not be possible without their help and without the assistance provided by the county.”
The YAF established a close partnership with the County’s Economic & Tourism Development Department as soon as their lease on Main Street was approved. The two entities team up to provide several arts-related events throughout the year, with the County providing both staff and marketing assistance as needed.
“It is a win-win situation for everyone involved,” Wahl said. “We get increased foot traffic and exposure from the County’s marketing help, the County gets activity and events on Main Street that they don’t have to fund or run by themselves, and the Park Service gets a tenant to renovate and maintain their historic building.”
Despite having no paid staff, the group provides some of the most interactive and engaging art programs available on the Virginia Peninsula.
“Our board is a working board, so we all pitch in and help with any programs or events that we host,” said Wahl. “Any member artist who is selected to be featured in the gallery space, also volunteers time each month to work in the shop—running the register and greeting visitors. It’s incredible what we’re able to do without any paid staff!”
Each fall, the foundation hosts the Yorktown Art Stroll, its most popular community event. Visitors and locals fill the Freight Shed, on Water Street in Historic Yorktown, to hear live music and browse unique pieces in a variety of mediums, including oil, acrylic, and watercolor paintings; drawings and photography; jewelry; pottery; baskets; fiber art; glass; woodwork, and more. The artwork is made by more than 30 local artists, and the event is free and open to the public.
The foundation’s most popular educational series has been the children’s summer art program, which began in 2010.
“Thanks to generous grants from York County and the York County Arts Commission, we are able to offer our four-week-long Kids Summer Art Program for free. We have so much fun working with the kids on all kinds of projects, from clay to collage and everything in between,” said Wahl.
Other popular events include an annual photography show, the Veterans Show, the Colors of Fall exhibition and a holiday exhibit at the Christmas Market on Main.
“We usually display work from about 75-80 artists throughout the year,” said Wahl. “When locals find us and realize the many different types of art that we feature and the fun classes that we offer, they continue to come back again and again. We even see many repeat tourists, who remember us and make a point to visit again every time they come back to the area.”
What does the future hold for this quaint gallery in the village?
“Unfortunately, our lease expires in 2024. We are hopeful that the Park Service will renew it, so that we can remain in this space and continue to host locals and visitors in our gallery and at our events,” Wahl said. “Our members also have such great ideas for future programs, so we’d love to be able to make those happen.”
The foundation will be hosting a reception onsite at the gallery on Oct. 8 from 6-8pm to celebrate their 45th anniversary. The event will be free and open to the public.