Q&A: A conversation with The Fruit owner Tim Walter

Tim Walter sits on a chair in an entirely blue room

Tim Walter poses at The Fruit on April 23, 2024. (Photo by Eleazar Yisrael)

The Fruit, a former refrigerated warehouse in downtown Durham, has provided a unique venue for visual and performing arts in the city since 2014. Owner Tim Walter chatted with the Durham VOICE’s Lucy Kraus about the past, present, and future of the venue.

This interview has been edited for length, accuracy, and clarity. 

Durham VOICE: How did you first get the idea to create The Fruit? What was the process of getting the venue up and running like? 

Tim Walter: I’ve loved for a long time the sort of gritty warehouse collaborative art spaces that exist all over the country in redeveloping areas. Out of Brooklyn, the Bushwick neighborhood has a lot of these and they’re just spectacular spaces for artists to create and show their work. So I thought, “Let’s just do that with this [warehouse space],” and I started asking around. A lot of visual artists and some performing artists and photographers and the theater critic from INDY Week, they all toured the space and so we just brainstormed for a year or two with different artists. We did some pretty interesting shows — Duke Performances came in and did a show, we did after parties for Moogfest. We just tested and thought and dreamed for a little bit. We weren’t under pressure to do anything too quickly. And this sort of collective vision emerged for how to use the space.

How would you summarize what you want The Fruit to bring to Durham?

We want to be a contributor to the art scene that makes community-grown art. We want to be attracting people from around the Triangle and within driving distance, say from Savannah to D.C. We want to be hosting art events that’s worth drawing people from that wide region to come see. And we would like to be one of the organizations that is helping to grow the notion of being a patron of the arts in town rather than just a consumer of art, and that our local artists are benefiting from a wider and more receptive audience for their work.

We’d like to help support local artists to develop their skills and build their audiences. We provide a supportive environment at a price lower than even the city-funded art spaces. If the Durham community won’t support our local artists, who will? 

How did the pandemic affect The Fruit?

The first answer is financial, the second answer is emotional. We’re $400,000 deeper in debt today because of the pandemic. The day the city conscripted us in its public health strategy we gave up $140,000 in revenues for events booked in the next three months. The refinance of our mortgage was canceled because we suffered a major “adverse” financial situation orchestrated by the city, and our construction lender doubled our interest rate and promised foreclosure in six months. I spent 1000 hours in a panic, raising nearly a million dollars loaned to us by a consortium of ten families.  Many folks may assume that with reduced operations there are reduced costs, but start-up costs are high: we restarted three times, once in June 2021, then again after Delta, then again after Omicron. Like all performance venues, we saw 50%-70% of audience levels we need to break even; now, four years after the start of the pandemic, we’re finally seeing audience figures at a level we can sustain ourselves. 

Emotionally, the pandemic was traumatic. We lost a key team member from a Covid-related condition late in the pandemic. And before then you just never knew when the next wave of closures or slow-downs would come. Unlike healthcare workers who were paid for their work, each wave of the disease cost us tens of thousands. There were no good [Small Business Administration] programs for us.

Politically, the City and County Boards were sympathetic but useless. And I like them as individuals and had some good conversations and helpful calls. But they preside over a $15B economy with a surging tax base, yet failed to find meaningful funds to help us. 

Do you think that change in Durham, specifically demographic change, has impacted The Fruit?

You talk with the young queer artists in town, and a lot of them, they look at these apartments that are being built and it’s a studio apartment for $1,500, and they’re like, “Who can afford that? I don’t get it. I don’t know who these people are.”

And I look at them and say, “They’re your customers, go meet them.”

We view this growing demographic in the region as these are customers and they are to be welcomed into the community. We cannot be standoffish to them. Because if we are, then they will of course become bitter and disaffected. The charm of Durham and the welcoming nature of Durham will be lost; they’ll feel it and they won’t dig in and be happy.

The other element to this that we all have to be cognizant of is that the Black population in America is just shy of 15% of the overall population. The Hispanic population is growing really rapidly as a percentage, but the Black population has held relatively constant for hundreds of years. We need to be aware because there’s so much national movement into this region, it’s going to reflect the national population, not regional, and so the Black population in Durham will probably be shrinking as a percentage of the population, and we need to still lift up the current black population and black artists and need to make sure that there’s room and visibility for them. 

I’d love to hear a little bit about the future of The Fruit.

We are entering our next decade with the understanding that we have become a small institution in Durham. We’re no longer a secret that can operate under the radar. You know, we chose to operate under the radar — there’s very little signage. We really want the space to not be branded, because we wanted the artists to come in and make it whatever they wanted. But we’re now realizing that, you know, we’ve won best place to dance in the Triangle. We’re in Durham Magazine, we’re in INDY Week, we get covers — it’s no use pretending that we’re a secret. So the idea is now to talk about who we are. We do stand for variety, welcoming and inclusivity.

Can you also tell me about the basement gay bar [being set up in collaboration with Naomi Dix] and plans for when that will open?

That’ll open on June 1. The idea there is that there are a couple of gay bars that have good dancing in Raleigh but they’re culturally a little limited compared to something that we would call more of a queer bar. What we really want to do is make sure that the space is open to Black and Hispanic as well as white people, and that they feel invited and welcomed. 

Are there other things coming to the fruit in the next year that you’re excited for in addition to the queer bar?

We have three American Dance Festival events, two of which are community dances. Les Ballet Afrik and Ballet Hispánico are both coming to do after-parties that are open dance events.

We have another ADF performance which was done in collaboration between a sighted choreographer and a blind choreographer. We did something with them a few years ago, and I was so skeptical, and it was one of the most transformative art experiences I’ve ever encountered.

If you had to describe the vibe of the Fruit using one specific fruit, which fruit would that be?

One is a fruit basket, because we really aim to do a variety of things. And then the other is bananas, because we just go bananas.