$20 Worth of History

There has always been a certain mystique about Louisville’s “$20 Art Show.” Exactly when and how it began its love affair with the Louisville art community is a somewhat disputed story, but most everyone agrees that, from the very beginning, it has been a unique opportunity for people to purchase original art directly from the artist at an unbelievably affordable cost. Over the course of its history, both well-established, revered artists and relatively unknown newcomers have accepted the invitation to create works of art that will sell for no more or less than $20 per piece at the popular show.

The “$20 Art Show” has its beginnings in a gritty Smoketown warehouse. In the late 1990s, sculptor Mike Ratterman and multi-media artist Mike McCoy lived and worked in a studio in an old carpet warehouse on the fringes of downtown. They created their own underground art scene and began to curate shows of their own work as well as that of other local artists. They called the place the 953 Gallery after the address, 953 S. Clay St.

Ratterman and McCoy met artist John King after attending his glass and photography exhibit at Galerie Hertz. Impressed by his art, they tracked King down and invited him to exhibit at the 953 Gallery. Within a year, King was one of the artists living on the top floor of the warehouse in a space with 30-foot ceilings and hardwood floors that he describes as looking like “the belly of a clipper ship.”

Soon after King joined the fray, he, Ratterman and artist Leticia Quesenberry began monthly art exhibits at 953. These shows became very popular in the arts community, attracting 400 to 500 people. They evolved into wild parties that included live music by bands like Music for Nintendo, DJs, costumes, poetry readings, performance art and frequent unwelcome visits by the LMPD. With a down-and-dirty avant-garde vibe, the shows caught the attention of local media, including LEO Weekly and The Courier-Journal, which published cover stories on this new edgy movement. In LEO’s 2001 cover story “Dig the New Breed,” Amy Drozt writes, “Some of the parties — like the pajama party and the pimp ’n’ ho parties — provide guests the occasion to dress scantily and provocatively. That takes the proceeding in an erotic direction as the evening progresses.”

While 953’s dedicated following was able to partake fully in the parties, King took notice that the same was not true of the pre-party art receptions. “I thought this was outrageous that our biggest supporters couldn’t afford the work,” says King, “and that owning artwork was — and still is — mostly for a privileged few in our society.”

This problem gave King the idea to have an art show where artists would design quality and well-crafted artwork that could be sold for $20 per piece, and the gallery wouldn’t take a cut or a fee from the artists. He planned on having the show right before Christmas, giving their supporters a chance to purchase presents of original art at an affordable price. This would also be a great opportunity for artists to make some extra money for the holidays. This became a win-win-win situation for the art community.

The first show of this concept was in early December 2000 and included Albertus Gorman, Quesenberry, King, Ratterman, McCoy and about a dozen other local artists. Word got out quickly into the community about this new show with $20 art; people lined up at the door four or five hours before it opened. By the end of the show, almost all of the art was sold. The event was such a success for the artists and the community that the organizers decided to make it an annual event.

In 2001, the show was officially christened the “$20 Art Show” and saw growth with the inclusion of more artists, who made smaller versions of their artwork for the show. King created 5-by-9 inch acid-etched glass panels that were of the same quality as his usual 5-by-9 foot pieces. Ratterman presented polished rocks suspended from the rafters with wire that purchasers could cut down at point of purchase (you can still see these rocks hanging on porches and in yards around town). Scott Scarboro made little kinetic junk creatures that roamed around, lighting up the gallery as they buzzed and pinged about. Shayne Hull made tiny sculptures of tables with plates of food.

The show was very strong those first two years, but after the “$20 Art Show” in 2001, Ratterman joined his family business and left the 953 Gallery. A recording studio that Ratterman’s brother, Kevin Ratterman, started at the gallery was taking off and expanded to take over the third floor. King moved on as well to a new studio on Main Street. So it looked liked it might be the end of this art event.

However, Scott Scarboro had other ideas. He wanted to continue King’s concept of art for the community. In 2002 Scarboro decided to bring the “$20 Art Show” to his Cinderblack Gallery, which he had opened in 2001.

For the first show, Scarboro decorated the front windows of the Cinderblock Gallery like an old-time toy and hardware store. He had a moving art train, weird animated dolls, robots and a talking Christmas tree. The decorations alone were an art exhibit. Scarboro spent so much time on the decorations that he didn’t make art to sell, so he ended up hawking the decorations, as many show attendees wanted to buy them.

Scarboro had 15 artists for his first “$20 Art Show,” including locals such as Anessa Arehart, Karen Welch, Dane Waters, J. Todd Dickey and the Squallis Puppeteers. Art collectors were now looking forward to it; more and more people were lining up hours before the doors opened. This show was a success, and it was now becoming quite the established event in Louisville.

King wasn’t too keen on the new direction of the show, as he felt it took it away from his avant-garde concept. However, he is now glad to see the spirit of his idea living on and says, “All art galleries should have a yearly show where anyone can afford the work. The art world should not be just for a select group who can afford high prices. It would be nice to see every gallery in NuLu do an annual December $20 art collective, like how the Louisville Photo Biennial is done.”

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The “$20 Art Show” continued with Scarboro at the helm for fours years. He added some regional artists and some internationally-known artists as well. An influx of folk and outsider artists also started showing up, such as C.M. Laster, Sean Garrison, John Haywood and Steve White.

After running Cinderblock Gallery for four years, Scarboro took a full-time job at the Mellwood Art & Entertainment Center and he took the “$20 Art Show” with him. He capped the show at 20 artists to keep with the theme. He continued bringing in local artists as well as regional and nationally-known artists, and the show packed the house. He also created and organized the popular “Good Folk Fest” in 2006 at Mellwood. Scarboro would recruit artists from “Good Folk Fest” to be part of the “$20 Art Show” and vice versa.

After Scarboro’s employment ended at Mellwood in 2010 he was invited to have the show at Spot5 Art Center & Gallery, where it continued until 2011. Altough more tightly spaced, at this venue the show nonetheless continued to pack in art lovers. The crowd queued up hours before the doors opened. The cramped quarters fed the anxiety of getting to the best art first, and the show was also shaved down to three hours, fueling the art-buying frenzy even more.

Running both the “Good Folk Fest” and the “$20 Art Show” was taking a stressful toll on Scarboro. He did not bring back the “Good Folk Fest” between 2008 and 2011 due to difficulties finding a proper venue after losing Mellwood, but it did return in 2012 at the Kentucky Center for African American Heritage. This particular “Good Folk Fest” took a lot of Scarboro’s time and he was not planning on continuing the “$20 Art Show” as a result.

Enter Ron Jasin and Mary Yates. Jasin and Yates had participated as artists in the “$20 Art Show” since 2008 and were also involved in working some of the Cinderblock Gallery shows. “This show became one of our favorite events of the year and we knew how much work Scott Scarboro was putting into it. So we always offered to help anyway we could,” Jasin states.

While attending the 2012 “Good Folk Fest,” Jasin learned that Scarboro was not going to organize a “$20 Art Show” for 2012. Jasin and Yates offered to help him in order to keep the tradition going. Scarboro, at this point, was ready to pass the reins over to the couple if they were willing. Jasin and Yates were thrilled and brought in their partner Scott Shuffitt. The three had recently started their own successful “Second Most Awesome Art Market” and the opportunity to bring the “$20 Art Show” into the fold was thrilling.

Jasin, Shuffitt and Yates went to work securing a venue and laying down the groundwork to organize the show. They only had two months to pull it all together in 2012 and were fortunate enough to quickly locate Art Sanctuary as the perfect venue. “They could accommodate more people than recent venues and they had some display materials that artists could use,” explains Jasin.

Jasin remembers thinking about the future of the show. “We had big dreams that year of letting the show grow. Scott was very kind to offer us his guidance and wisdom from years of putting on the show, and without that help I fear we may have lost sight of some of the things that make it so magical. We wanted to add a lot more artists, extend the hours … and turn it into a show that’s like every other art show. But he reminded us of what makes the show so special.”

Scarboro told the new “$20 Art Show” keepers that the success of the show revolved around keeping the number of artists down to keep it intimate and special. Jasin remembers his advice: “Keep the hours short. This helps maintain that sense of urgency for people to get in early and fast before all the crazy deals are gone. Bringing in artists who don’t normally participate in holiday or low cost art [shows] … challenges them to work at a price point they are not used to and that’s what really makes this show unique. This isn’t a situation of devaluing the art; the artists know going into the project that everything will sell for $20. They use that creative constraint to create the art. The buyer gets something special and unique and the artists do not feel cheated.”
The 2012 event at Art Sanctuary exceeded expectations by far, with 2,500 people attending the three-hour event that year and almost 2,000 people attending in 2013. “I love the frantic energy of the show, how it’s geared to benefit the artists when so many shows use the artists as a sideshow for music, eating or drinking. The ‘$20 Art Show’ always puts the artists front and center — no competition, no distractions, just affordable art in a condensed amount of time, “ says Jasin.

Vendors have fun with the show and always create interesting displays to work in the host locations. It’s always a mystery to see how the spaces will be arranged and how well it’s going to work to benefit the show’s energy.

“I always do a ton of my gift and personal art buying at this show,” Yates says. “The artists are people we look up to and respect, so it’s such a treat to get work from them at an affordable price.”

The event is moving this year to Butchertown at the new Copper & Kings Brandy Distillery, which is also a new sponsor for the show. “Their facility is beautiful and they want to be vested into the creative arts community,” says Jasin. “The Copper & Kings event space is perfect for the ‘$20 Art Show’ and they have the desire to help facilitate our ideas. We also hear that they’ll be getting in on the fun and offering some $20 specials on merchandise in the gift shop.”

The “$20 Art Show” has changed a lot in the past 14 years. From its beginnings at an old Smoketown warehouse with edgy avant-garde artists to its new home in a modern brandy distillery in Butchertown with an eclectic mix of artists, the “$20 Art Show” has thrived on change. This most recent move is yet another chapter in its oddball history, with brandy tastings bringing back the old tradition of throwing a little sauce on the party.

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