Wim Roefs, passionate Columbia arts advocate, gallerist and organization founder, dies

Wim Roefs, the owner of Columbia’s If ART Gallery and founding member of the 701 Center for Contemporary Art, died on May 12.

Roefs died from a heart attack, the gallery announced in an email.

“He was an honest critic, if he was in your corner, you couldn’t find a better advocate for your work,” said Michaela Pilar Brown, executive director of 701 CCA and an artist represented by Roefs. “That also meant caring about what he liked and disliked. He was a very honest person and had a deep love for the integrity of the art. He looked for work that was smart and intellectually curious, that challenged the viewer in not just how they saw the art physically, but in how they thought about things.” 

Roefs’ role in Columbia’s art landscape spanned for years, as he helped shepherd the city’s visual and performing arts scene towards a contemporary lens.

The art gallerist was known as honest and direct, yet warm and kind in his support for people he was close to, friends and associates described.

Roefs is best known as one of the originators of the 701 Center for Contemporary Art — an organization that has developed a strong regional reputation for modern art — and for his snug Vista-based if ART Gallery, one of the city’s only and most adventurous commercial contemporary art galleries.

He opened ifART Gallery in 2006 and that same year he began work with a group of local art advocates to start what would later become 701 CCA, which opened two years later.

“He gave it all, his time, his brain power, his connection to artists, for Wim the priority was always the art and the artists,” said Anne Sinclair, former Columbia city councilwoman and 701 CCA board member.

Born in 1959 in the Netherlands, Roefs moved to Columbia in 1989 and attended graduate school at the University of South Carolina for journalism, according to an article in The State

Prior to his time in Columbia, he worked as a journalist in Europe, at times in dangerous areas, recalled his friend and collaborator Ross Arnold.

Roefs also had a short-lived stint as a musician, founding a post-punk band with two fellow grad students in the Dutch city of Nijmegen.

According to details on the gallery website, Roefs had been holding regular exhibitions at his home in Columbia, but, in 2006, he took a major step forward and opened if ART Gallery in the Vista.

It quickly became a home for some of the most well regarded artists internationally, but remained a staunch supporter of local artists as well. In its first five years, work from acclaimed artists like Joan Mitchel and Karel Appel; and locals like Columbia artist Laura Spong was featured.

Two years later, he helped open 701 Center for Contemporary Art. In those early days, Sinclair recalled, it was held together by “bailing wire” as it was run without any full time staff and a cast of volunteers.

Sinclair said that Roefs was intimately involved in the organization, from funding to artistic functions, but was focused on the latter intensely. She recalled that at annual donor dinners for the organization, Roefs would, somewhat painfully, take time to thank every donor in attendance before people could eat — leading to jokes that the food could get cold before anyone could eat.

Between the two — if ART Gallery and 701 CCA — Roefs was instrumental in developing a contemporary arts outlet in Columbia.

“They stand out because there aren’t a lot of homes for contemporary art in SC and not a lot of gallery spaces for contemporary art,” Pilar Brown said. “He was a big voice, there was a big void.”

Roefs gallery also became a home for experimental music concerts.

Friend Ross Arnold booked many avant garde and improvisational jazz concerts that Roefs held at if ART Gallery, and, initially, at 701 CCA. The concerts, a far cry from the types of shows played at local rock clubs, helped develop Columbia into a go-to destination for artists that work in those genres, Ross said.

The gallery had become a regular host to highly respected improvisational musicians like Chicago drummer Tim Daisy.

“There’s a pretty strong relationship between a lot of the art he presents (and the music),” Arnold said. “The two often go hand in hand, you don’t mean many of these musicians who are not into that often abstract impressionist art work.”

Outside of Columbia, his roles in the area included artistic director for the Lake City Creative Alliance in 2017 and leading the organization’s ArtFields, an art festival with significant prize money attached, for that year. His tenure in that role ended after one year.

Roef’s emergence in the local art scene helped usher in a shift in the way Columbia’s art appreciators viewed art, said Cindi Boiter, founder of local arts organization and publication Jasper Project and who went to graduate school at the University of South Carolina at the same time as Roefs, though the two were not close then.

Throughout the 1980s and into the ‘90s, art in Columbia was valued primarily on attached price tag. Roef, she explained, brought a more “European” view of art to the community with ifART and 701CCA’s emergence in the late 2000s.

“Wim was able to go in and help gash those misconceptions. And he taught Columbia that art doesn’t have to match the couch,” Boiter, who is also a regular Free Times columnist, said. “But most recently he’s also been teaching us most recently, that art, that art is a very much experiential.”

Roefs held a progressive streak in his work.

In a 1998 issue of magazine “Teaching Tolerance” he chronicled efforts by students, South Carolina school districts and local policymakers to combat bigotry in the school. Pilar Brown said that he also remained active in arts writing, regularly writing for art catalogs and other niche publications.

He was also unafraid of difficult conversations.

In 2012, when several artists he represented were included in a Southern art collection that ultimately only included one Black artist, Roefs took an interview with Free Times when the book’s editor would not. He did not mince words, calling the lack of representation “appalling.”

“The book looks good, and it’s nice that my artists are in it,” Roefs said in a 2012 interview. “But I do have a sour taste about the lack of African Americans and about the process.”

In a 2019 e-newsletter sent through the gallery’s email list, he was critical of the state’s and Gov. Henry McMaster handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and sardonically commented on peoples’ excuses for not having a mask when visiting the gallery.

Despite his frequent jarring honesty for Southerners, Roef was also an ardent supporter of those he was close to.

When 701 CCA’s executive director Pilar Brown’s daughter was only 5 or 6 — she’s now 14 — she remarked she wanted to hold an “art party” for her work. Pilar Brown told Roef the story, who took the request seriously, and worked with her daughter to arrange a serious gallery showing for her work. Instead of wine and cheese, they served popcorn and juice boxes.

“That speaks to the generosity of his spirit,” Pilar Brown said.

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