Art in transition

Louisvilleā€™s art scene continues to transform, reshape and sustain

Louisville’s music and dining scenes have garnered attention for a long time, but only in recent years has the city’s local art received similar recognition. This is in part due to the establishment of a designated art zone on East Market Street, national praise heaped on 21c Museum Hotel and a myriad of new exhibition spaces that have opened throughout the last two decades. Now, an artist can walk into any coffee shop in town and get a show.

“Everybody is jumping on the art train,” says Margaret Archambault, director of the Tim Faulkner Gallery. “This isn’t a new thing, this has been happening for the last six or seven years. How many galleries have opened and closed in that time? You can hang art and call yourself a gallery, but to do that consistently over time takes a lot of work.”

Archambault is a painter who grew up in northern Indiana and gravitated to Louisville in the late 1980s. Her business partner, Tim Faulkner, moved to Louisville in 2006 after Hurricane Katrina devastated his home in New Orleans. They opened the original Tim Faulkner Gallery in 2009 in a small space on East Market Street they rented from the established Galerie Hertz. In 2012, the Tim Faulkner Gallery moved to Franklin Street in Butchertown, where they had a place big enough for retail and performance space. But zoning issues have pushed them west.

In February, the gallery opened in a 25,000-square-foot warehouse in the Portland neighborhood. It features exhibition space, artist studios and a performance area. Archambault says some people questioned the wisdom of moving a fine arts gallery so far from the downtown art zone, but she and Faulkner find that being a little out of the way means that people who visit them are there for the art and nothing else.

“When Tim and I first met, there were maybe 10 galleries on Market Street and three restaurants,” she explains. “When we left, there were three galleries and 10 restaurants. The people who go there, they will spend $200 on a meal and feel like they supported local art because they bought dinner in the art district. It’s like putting a bumper sticker on your car that says, ‘I support local art.’ Did you buy anything besides the bumper sticker?”

Avoiding the cookie-cutter gallery
Faulkner says he and Archambault wanted to have a gallery that catered to working artists, whatever the discipline. The Tim Faulkner Gallery stopped opening exhibitions during the First Friday Trolley Hop, because Faulkner and Archambault felt it had become more about partying and visiting boutiques than celebrating art. Not that they are above a party — they commemorated the opening of their new space with a show by the Tunesmiths and other local bands. They intend to host live music each month on First Friday, but art exhibitions will probably open on Sundays, like the current show by multi-media artist Damon Thompson.

“Running a gallery is like being a painter,” Faulkner says. “It’s just you in front of a blank canvas. You surround yourself with good people, as we have, but you have to have a personal vision. I’m happy to see all the new things going up, (but) there are a lot of things I don’t care about. One thing about our gallery — we have always moved forward with our vision, whether there were 20 galleries on our block or two. If you are going to do this thing, you have to have a personal insight into what you want to do. You can’t do something cookie-cutter.”

The Tim Faulkner Gallery isn’t the only place going through a transition. After 25 years as an artists’ cooperative, Zephyr Gallery has transitioned into a for-profit establishment. Zephyr held its first show under the new regime in February. The exhibition by Ariel Lavery and Liz Clayton Scofield was titled “Project 1,” because it was the first proposal at the gallery from an outside curator, Suzanne Weaver, formerly of the Speed Art Museum. Until now, Zephyr’s members took turns doing shows at the gallery on a rotating basis.

Longtime member Peggy Sue Howard says the change was necessary because the gallery was having a hard time attracting new members, and some of the older members were not developing their work. She says it made matters worse when some members were not contributing to duties in the gallery. “The social cooperative plan ended up not working out because a few members did all the work,” Howard says. “After a while, it became difficult. It felt like you were driving everyone along.”

Zephyr Gallery moved to 610 E. Market in 1995, and they bought the building in 1999. In those days, the neighborhood was far different from what it is today. Galerie Hertz was the only other art gallery in what is now the NuLu neighborhood; there were no restaurants on East Market Street and not much retail outside of Joe Ley Antiques. Howard remembers hosting artist receptions in the afternoon because people wouldn’t come to the area at night.

“Now it’s stunning — in the development and variety of shops, the restaurants, the art galleries,” she says. “There is a lot of activity. This neighborhood has just evolved into something else, and we had to change, too.”

Technology tramples tradition
Zephyr board member Patrick Donley says the switch from cooperative to for-profit gallery was years in the making. The members knew for a long time that something had to change. It took them a year to decide what that was and what form the gallery should take. Part of the problem they had in the cooperative model was that members were required to pay dues, and young artists are usually strapped for money. Zephyr started an apprentice program that allowed artists to avoid paying dues for 18 months, have an exhibition and then stay on as a junior member, with no voting rights but lower membership fees, or become a full member. They had a handful of artists in the program, but no one opted to become full members.

“When we were moving forward with the transition, we looked around and we saw the Land of Tomorrow and other fresh projects that were developing,” he says. “We realized we were starting to gray. We had to catch up to where we could stay relevant and attract young artists, and the cooperative model is not a way to do that.”

Zephyr is down to 16 members from the 25 it had as a cooperative. The current members had to buy shares in the gallery, which is now operated by a five-member board of directors. A gallery director has been hired so Zephyr can keep regular hours. Donley says the changes will allow the gallery to have a place in a more competitive art world. The gallery will focus on its successful corporate art program and bring innovative shows to town. Since they are using outside curators, Donley says even shareholders will have to apply to be part of future exhibitions.

“The changeover from the cooperative had to happen to allow us to exist,” Donley says. “We were getting burned out on the way we were doing it. The new model is doing more cutting-edge pieces. One of the challenges is to keep it fresh. We will work with the curators to make sure the exhibitions are up to the quality Zephyr has always had.”

John King, the impresario behind the annual Zombie Walk and the Louisville Is for Lovers record series, is one of the cooperative artists who did not transition to Zephyr’s corporate model. King, who is a student at Berea College, says he simply couldn’t afford the $1,000 buy-in required under the gallery’s new business model. He feels Zephyr’s new direction has more to do with economic than artistic aesthetics.

“Money should never be a qualifier of self-worth or artistic merit,” King says. “I was told by one of the people pushing for Zephyr to go corporate that the Zephyr that managed to survive for over 25 years was ‘socialism, and socialism doesn’t work.’ In my experience of always being on the losing side of capitalism, capitalism only works for a select few and at the expense of all others.”

King grew up in what is now the NuLu area, and he believes Zephyr Gallery reflects the direction of the neighborhood as a whole. “What has happened to Zephyr really shouldn’t have been a shock, seeing what has happened to my beloved neighborhood,” King explains. “Generation after generation has lived and worked in the Phoenix Hill and Butchertown neighborhoods, and all at once, outsiders move in, tell us they are doing us a favor, push us out and then change the name of our neighborhood.”

Another former cooperative member, painter-photographer Matt Meers, is more positive about the change at Zephyr. Meers says he will miss the camaraderie from the cooperative days, but he realizes the gallery had to evolve. Meers is rooting for his former peers.

“The art world has its challenges,” Meers says. “It is not the easiest road. The conversation kept going back and forth, there was split within the gallery, but we all knew it was due for a change. There were a few things going on that needed to be updated in order for Zephyr to be competitive. Each of us has a different perspective, but I’m going to wait and see what happens. I want it to go in a positive direction.”

Karen Welch and David McQuire, owners of the CRAFT(s) Gallery on South Fourth Street, believe technology has made the traditional artist-and-gallery relationship obsolete. They opened the retail store/gallery in July after both leaving the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft. Zephyr’s Donley, who is a painter and a mixed-media artist, had a show at CRAFT(s) in February, and in January, the gallery hosted an exhibition of paintings by former Kinghorse frontman Sean Garrison. McGuire says CRAFT(s) uses the art show to attract new retail customers, because they could not depend on art sales alone. Throughout the last decade, he says, technology has practically eliminated the need for a traditional art gallery.

“With Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, do artists really need galleries to get their work out?” he asks. “Gallery representation — sure, it’s nice to have a house to have your show, but do you really need a middleman to sell your artwork? I think this is having the biggest impact on art in Louisville and the rest of the country. Technology allows artists to have a more personal connection with their audience, but it also affects the business model.”

An incubator for developing artists
The changing nature of the art world is also impacting nonprofit organizations. Art Sanctuary was founded in 2003 to promote local artists. The group threw multi-media parties integrating the visual arts with music and performance art. Art Sanctuary’s president, Lisa Frye, says the organization was a necessary outlet for local artists in its early days, but the need has waned.

“The things we were doing back then happen all the time now,” Frye says. “Nobody was doing it back then. It seems like that was a dead, dormant period. Now it has exploded.”

Art Sanctuary has tried to re-imagine itself as an incubator for developing artists. Two years ago, the organization moved into a warehouse near Shelby Park, where they have a photo studio, artists’ workshops, a wood shop and a performance space. Until recently, Frye says, the facility was not self-sufficient. Art Sanctuary was depending on shows at Headliners Music Hall by the Va Va Vixens, a burlesque group Frye directs, to pay the bills. Now, Art Sanctuary has reorganized with an eight-member board that is determined to carve out its niche in the local scene.

“We haven’t done the visual arts as much as in the past,” Frye says. “We’ve focused on the performing arts, but there are things artists need that we provide at a reasonable price — we have a photo studio, we have artists’ studios. I think there is definitely a role for Art Sanctuary in the current environment.”

Frankie Steele, Art Sanctuary’s chief operating officer, says there have been some growing pains in their transition from an essentially underground warehouse to a legitimate arts organization. In December, after someone from the city’s Code Enforcement Office saw a Facebook post about the $20 Art Show at Art Sanctuary, a fire marshal was dispatched to the building. Steele ended up making thousands of dollars in renovations to bring the place up to code.

“The renovations were as important to me as anything I’ve done recently,” Steele says. “I want the place to be safe and to offer quality to the people who use our facility. With the budget we have right now, I’ve learned patience. It’s still a big operation, and there are a lot of moving pieces, but I feel like things are going in the right direction.”

Change is good
Galerie Hertz is now located in Shelby Park, not far from Art Sanctuary. Its co-owner, Billy Hertz, is the grand old man of the Louisville art scene. He moved to Louisville in 1974, when there were just two art galleries in the entire city, and a framing shop that sold reproductions. Hertz played an important role in developing the current environment. The painter was one of the founding members of Zephyr Gallery and helped young artists like Tim Faulkner get their start on East Market Street. Hertz says he always believed Louisville would become a regional arts destination, and he sees all the changes as signs his dream is becoming a reality.

“Change is good if you are changing into something better,” he says. “The art scene is alive and thriving in Louisville because each gallery is different; it reflects the owner’s taste. The more competition — it’s good for everybody. It raises the awareness and, in the end, that’s what we all want. We want people talking about art.”