Toni Carlton / Carlton Gallery
Banner Elk’s Carlton Gallery puts the emphasis on the art itself rather than just the sales.
Artists sometimes characterize their callings in terms of “an accidental career”—citing fate, providence, or even just dumb luck in how they were somehow able to forge a living while pursuing their passion. In similar fashion, you might describe High Country artist Toni Carlton as “an accidental gallery owner.” Her Carlton Gallery, after all, originated out of logistics: While studying art at Appalachian State University (ASU), she built a full-sized loom, only to realize that it was bigger than her apartment at the time could possibly accommodate. The only solution was to rent studio space, which led to her sharing that studio with some fellow artists, which in turn led to additional space needs, which in turn…
Cut to 2016, and Carlton Gallery, Carltongallery.com, occupies an expansive yet comfortable building just outside Banner Elk, displaying the efforts of more than 200 artists—hers included. (See the June 2014 issue of Capital at Play for a profile of Toni and her art.) “I’ve been celebrating 20 years, 25 years, 30 years, and now 34 years as a gallery owner, curator, and artist,” says Toni, “and enjoying long-standing relationships with many of the gallery’s artists, some being with me between 20 and 30 years!”
“I concentrate more on the art, the displays, and the connection with the artists than the sales.”
Toni’s first love was weaving, and she learned traditional patterns early on from her grandmother and an aunt. While earning an art degree in college, however, she found herself drawn more to the fine art side of weaving rather than functional pieces. “I saw myself as an artist,” she recalls, “creating art and having a space to sell it. My work later developed into large wall hangings, landscapes of the Blue Ridge Mountains, sculptural basketry, and a line of hand-woven clothing. I took many different studio classes at ASU because I wanted to know how to do everything—pottery, woodworking, architectural drafting, photography, sculpture, fibers, painting, drawing. I loved creating all media and shortly started showing other artists’ work that did different media. I enjoyed having a working studio as well as a display area to sell the artwork.”
Toni emphasizes that Carlton Gallery operates differently from many art galleries, featuring both fine art and fine crafts from local, regional, and national artists. It also offers seasonal workshops in painting, mixed media, and expressive arts, providing hands-on, informative techniques in a calm and inviting atmosphere. “An open studio has always been an aspect of the gallery for the 34 years I have been in business,” she says. “I concentrate more on the art, the displays, and the connection with the artists than the sales. I love showing pieces in a way that someone might display them in their home, a feeling of comfort and casual elegance, I call it.”
There have been challenges and hurdles along the way, of course. It’s not necessarily an easy thing to maintain a balance between running a business—consider the economy’s ups and downs since 2008—and being an artist herself, which has led her to explore additional possibilities to exhibit her own work in other galleries.
Still, Toni says she can’t wait to mark her 35th milestone next year. Her long-term goal for the gallery? “Maintaining a creative and inspiring atmosphere for new artists and educating the community on contemporary art.”
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