Marketing Market Street: The arts are at the
core of a neighborhood's renaissance
By Elizabeth Kramer • ekramer@courier-Journal.com • August 23, 2010
On the first Friday of almost any month, East Market Street comes alive with people who spill out of galleries, pop into neighborhood boutiques and patronize the nearby restaurants.
As the sun sets, the street is aglow from gallery and storefront lights and a green trolley repeatedly drops off more people along the street. Sometimes even performance artists come out to entertain the crowds on the sidewalks.
Those crowds have grown to include thousands of people since the first Trolley Hop back in 2001. That happened after area gallery owners persuaded TARC to start running its trolleys here when many of them were opening exhibits.
While the people who were behind that move are still involved in the neighborhood's growth, there are many more who have come aboard. And on a sweltering Thursday morning, many of them are in a meeting room at St. John's Church, 637 E Market St., where the air conditioner has already been running for two hours.
Here, the East Market District Association has assembled 13 of its nearly 60 members for its monthly meeting.
There's Michael Brohm, a photographer who has lived and made his studio at 711 E. Market St. for 27 years. And there's Chuck Swanson, co-owner of Swanson Reed Contemporary, a gallery that made its home at 638 E. Market St. in 1998.
Art isn't the main topic of the day but it's definitely part of the conversion.
Between approval of the July meeting minutes and an update on new condominiums that will open this winter on nearby Main Street, Phoenix Hill Neighborhood Association executive director Cindy Brown Kinloch talks about the newly launched neighborhood project called “Creativity Rising.”
They talk about small concerts members are supporting, held on Fridays just next to Toast, the restaurant at 736 E. Market St. And there's discussion about working to get the neighborhood LEED-certified. LEED is a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design ratings system issued by a building industry association that deems building environmentally friendly.
Two years ago, Gill Holland, who is also here, and his wife, Augusta, opened The Green Building at 732 E. Market St., the neighborhood's first LEED-certified building, made from a renovated 110-year-old building. And then there's a big event the association has planned for Oct. 2 — the NuLu Festival, which will focus on music, food and retail. “NuLu” is the name the association christened this area nearly three years ago, after Holland got involved.
The voices here talk about plans and possibilities even in an economic downturn. The atmosphere here is upbeat. A few times during the meeting, association president Bill Marzian is practically giddy.
“The momentum of this neighborhood is unstoppable,” he says. Marzian owns the building that houses Toast and the one at 801 E. Market. It was previously home to the tony boutique called Scout and is now the address for the Gebhardt Marshall Gallery, which bills itself as exhibiting high-end photography and painting.
Roots in the 1980s
After the meeting, Marzian says he recognizes the roots of this area's renaissance: “What kept this neighborhood going and gave it its start were the artists and folks promoting the arts in the neighborhood, and we understand that,” he says. “And they are an active part of the organization.”
Those roots date back to the 1980s, when this neighborhood had mostly ramshackle buildings and not many businesses of note. The only prominent ones that drew outsiders were Joe Ley Antiques, which opened in 1962 at 615 E. Market St., and Muth's Candy Store, 630 E. Market St., which started in 1921. In 1979, artist and gallery owner Billy Hertz became a leader in the neighborhood's renaissance when he made his home on East Market Street. That interest gave hope and an idea to one woman who set out to change the neighborhood in the 1980s.
Barbara Smith, who was then in her 40s, loved the old buildings, and she devised a way to begin the process.
“So, I started buying buildings and renovating them,” she says.
Over several years, Smith bought 12 buildings. Then in the early 1990s, she began selling them to artists to use as work space, as homes and as galleries. Hertz, who opened the area's first art gallery on the street in 1991, bought the building at 632 E. Market St., which he still owns and is now the Tim Faulkner Gallery. Artist Chris Radtke bought one where she now has studio space and shares other parts of the building with artists Stephen Irwin and Letitia Quesenberry. Another building, at 610 E. Market, became home to Zephyr Gallery, the artists cooperative that had its home on West Main Street in the late 1980s but had to move out of that space and a succession of others because of unaffordable rents. Swanson was one of the last to buy a building from Smith, and that's where he opened his gallery.
All the artists here who bought those properties pay homage to Smith. They say they owe their longevity in large part to her. They were around to see the first two restaurants open in the area in the 1990s — the now-defunct Artemisia and Mayan Gypsy.
“That was the ignition switch,” says Radtke.
Soon after, Radtke says, Hertz pushed for a trolley hop, which the city agreed to and that brought more people and a sense of spectacle on the first Friday of each month. They had established a gallery district.
One of the new arrivals was the law firm of Sturm, Paletti & Wilson at 714 E. Market. It included Paul Paletti, a collector of art photography whose collection the partners decided to showcase in a gallery in its new home. Since the move, Paletti has not only had a constant showing of photography to the district; he has helped spearhead the Louisville Photo Biennial, when galleries around town feature photography exhibits.
Many longtime residents say they loved seeing the additions like The Paul Paletti Gallery and others who show a wide range of media. Flame Run's glass hot shop and contemporary art glass gallery opened at 828 E. Market in 2004. The Mary Craik Gallery, 815 E. Market, exhibits the namesake's fiber art and also houses her studio.
They also say the district has helped bolster regional work — both in making it visible to the public and buyers in one place where they see the range of local talent and in the way it facilitates interaction among artists and curators that helps them raise the level of their work. That's especially good for emerging artists.
“There's space and there's a crowd, and there are artists who are learning now,” says gallery owner Faulkner. “They're learning how to become professional artists.”
And Radtke says she appreciates how patrons support the regional work, but admits there is a drawback.
“It's hard for galleries in Louisville to find and go outside of regional work,” she says, adding that gallery visitors often look for and buy names and work they know.
New Center for Contemporary Art
But one gallery did go far beyond the city and regional border to bring new art to Market Street. Radtke and Swanson both say a pinnacle in the district's relatively short history was the 2004 opening of the New Center for Contemporary Art at 742 E. Market St.
“It gave gravitas to the area,” Swanson says.
Radtke adds that the center augmented the dialogue about art around the city and among the artists themselves. She says that's one of the great things about having artists working and showing their work in proximity to one another.
Right from the start, the New Center garnered attention by showing pieces by renowned photographer David Levinthal and went on to exhibit a range of work including enthralling video pieces.
Then in 2007, the local art community was abuzz when the center showed “The Most Beautiful Woman in Gucha” by Serbian-born Breda Beban of London. This visual depiction of seduction came to the center after it was shown at the Venice Biennale and bought by the Speed Art Museum. Many liked what the center's curator Jay Jordan was showing. And it benefited from technical support from the Speed Museum and its former contemporary curator Julien Robson. But The New Center closed in late 2008 because of lack of financial resources.
And like the New Center, there are galleries that don't last. The New Center didn't own its building, like many of the long-term galleries there.
That's the situation with Art Ecology at nearby 224 S. Clay St., which is closing after a short run, and Gallery Ex Voto at 634 E. Market St. Artist Shawna Khalily opened it last year and has shown art created with mixed-media and has showcased work from artists living throughout the Midwest, who, like Khalily, graduated from the Art Academy of Cincinnati. But the current exhibition will be the last in this space.
“The rent down here is pretty expensive,” she says.
Khalily pays $1,700 monthly for the first floor of this building owned by Louisville Fund for the Arts president and CEO Allan Cowen. Still, she doesn't regret opening here and shelling out the money to be here. She calls it “fantastic for exposure” and “great for the camaraderie.” She also says the quality of work on the street demands that those opening up shop there have high-quality work.
But new galleries are still opening up and staying in rented spaces. And they're bringing the district new artistic voices. One is the Gebhardt Marshall Gallery, which includes several artists, some based in Bloomington, Ind., and one who lives in the galleries' second floor that's been fashioned into an apartment. One of the galleries' co-owners, Angela Gebhardt, says the $2,200 monthly rent for the roughly 2,200-square-foot space hasn't been hard to meet so far.
Paletti says collections of galleries create synergy in neighborhoods and districts in urban areas throughout the world.
“In many cities, if you follow the art galleries, they go into an area and bring a lot of culture and attraction to those areas,” he says. “And then, over period of time, people come to understand that this is a really cool place and very vibrant, and so other businesses start moving in.”
Art at its heart
Rick Hill understands this concept. He says, “Art has always been the center of what's happening in a city.”
Hill is a real estate strategist, and through his company Village Solutions, he's working with Joe Ley Antiques and the owners of Service Welding Inc. to help create a strategy to redevelop East Market's 700 block. While the plans are still in development, they include an addition, Creation Garden. It's moving to the block from its current address near Main Street under a highway slated for expansion as part of the Ohio River Bridges Project. In its new digs, it wants to expand its services to include a demonstration kitchen that restaurants use to reach customers and to try out new menus, and a library for menu planning and research.
Hill says the area is ideal for independent and specialty retail businesses and that many of them find inspiration in art. He sees many of the businesses in The Green Building fit fairly neatly into this category. The Green Building not only houses a restaurant, 732 Social, but also a communications firm, a record label, a book-publishing company and an independent film-production and talent-management company.
Hill also sees the area being the perfect home to a culinary school and a recording studio. What would make the area more vibrant, he says, is more housing, including some affordable habitat for artists.
“The markets are going to have to get better for it to be developed, but I think that we're two years off, at this point,” Hill says.
Some cities have tried to create an arts district somewhat like Louisville's by employing the skills of developers and urban planners and creating special programs and policies. Hill isn't a fan of those, saying they tend to create a “totally contrived” and unsustainable community that doesn't have its own economic synergy. The success of the East Market district, he says, “stems from the creativity of the individual.”
Ruth Ann Stewart agrees with Hill. She's a professor who teaches about arts districts at New York University's Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. She says while artists and nonprofit arts groups still need support, many special urban development programs can put too many expectations on the arts to make the district a success .
“They tend to be rather artificial,” she says, “and as such they don't have a lot of the dynamism or the street traffic and people who are actually going to go in and out of these galleries and studios and buy stuff.”
She also says the arts are not economic engines: “They can be a linchpin of an economic development plan,” Stewart says, “but it has to be a full-blown plan, an integrated plan that looks at everything across the board in an area.”
She says she likes Paducah, Ky.'s model, where a local non-profit helps float low-cost mortgages through banks to support artists wanting to relocate to the city and purchase property. And she likes the idea of how East Market Street came into being through artists owning property, calling that ownership a key to success.
Most of the artists working on Market Street say they see the district as a success. And several, including Radtke and Swanson, say they are suspicious of special programs that might, even unintentionally, limit what and how they create and what they exhibit. But they, like the East Market District Association, want to see the district grow.
For Marzian, who has been president for nearly six years now, that means marketing.
“We need to increase the exposure a little bit,” he says. “I still feel like we're undermarketed. And I think that we'll see more artists come to the neighborhood — and many more neighborhood organic businesses.”
By that he means ones that are local.
Many here say they want to see a non-profit move into a nearby building and expose the artists and the community at large to new kinds of art. But in the meantime, Swanson says there will still be new and challenging work here.
“I think one thing you can count on is that people will always be trying new things,” he says.
Reporter Elizabeth Kramer can be reached at (502) 582-4682.