Maybe, just maybe, it's too much of a good thing.

There's so much art in Lawrence -- sculptures on the street corners, paintings in the coffeehouses, photo exhibits in pizza joints -- that Brett Allen thinks many people just don't notice it.

"I think sometimes people don't take time to look up on the wall, that they take it for granted," said Allen, an abstract painter who has 19 pieces on view at La Prima Tazza coffee shop downtown. "If you frequent a coffee shop a lot, you forget to look at the walls, you forget to pay attention."

Even David Cateforis, an art history professor at Kansas University, said it's easy not to notice the art around town.

"I guess I've sort of taken it for granted," he said.

But Tammy Gulotta, who sat last week with her two children at a table underneath Allen's paintings, thinks differently.

"It always gets your attention and gives you something to look at," she said. "Everywhere you go, there's something different. It's actually one of my favorite things about Lawrence."

Sure, art and artists exist just about everywhere you go in America. But the fact that people can forget to notice it in Lawrence shows how thoroughly art infuses our lives here.

Music, dance, film
There's no doubt, Cateforis said, that art dominates the Lawrence landscape, figuratively and literally.

"I do think the arts flourish in Lawrence," he said.

"Obviously, being a university town is important, since you have a school of fine arts here -- not just visual arts, but music, theater, dance and film."

KU provides artistic centerpieces in Lawrence, with the Spencer Museum of Art and the Lied Center as prime locations for consuming visual and performing arts.

But the arts experience isn't limited to campus.

The Lawrence Arts Center provides gallery space for exhibitions, performance and classes. It even has a preschool to start arts education early.

Still, art isn't ghettoized to museums and fine arts centers either.

There's the Art Tougeau parade, the Van Go Mobile Arts programs, the downtown sculpture exhibition, the independent theater companies and all the local businesses that feature rotating exhibitions by local artists on their walls.

Art, it seems, is everywhere you look.

"It's a kind of system, from preschool to the university," Cateforis said. "It's both a local scene and a scene that has national recognition."

In 2001, the National Endowment for the Arts said Lawrence ranked 12th nationwide for percentage of artists in the workforce. Around the same time, the city was named one of the "100 Best Small Arts Towns in America."

The scene also helps drive the Lawrence economy. A 2002 study by the Washington D.C.-based Americans for the Arts determined that Lawrence's nonprofit arts community generated $33.46 million in spending during 2000 and attracted more than 548,000 people.

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Judy Billings, director of the Lawrence Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the city's reputation for arts also helped attract businesses and was making the city a burgeoning center for new retirees.

"When you have a critical mass of (art), it's attractive to people. It also creates a quality of life, a standard of living, that people want to be around," she said. "Retirees would like to live in a community with culture in it."

'Bad place to sell'
There is a downside, however.

People get so much art just walking around town, Allen said, that they don't feel much need to buy it.

"It's a good place to make art," he said, "but a bad place to sell it."

Allen considers himself primarily an artist but supplements his income as a projectionist at Liberty Hall and with work at a Kansas City warehouse.

"The market is flooded, and the economy for art isn't very reliable," he said. "There's not a large group of people out there buying art in this town because it's everywhere."

Some of his artist friends, Allen said, live and work in Lawrence but only display and sell their work in far-flung places like California.

Such complaints aren't unusual, Cateforis said: "It's tough to make a living as an artist anywhere."

But Lawrence artists have plenty of places to get their work seen. For Allen, displaying his paintings at the coffee shop was a quicker route.

"It was mostly wanting to get it out there," he said. "It was mostly wanting to show, and not caring so much about where it is as long as I get to show it."

At Sakaroff's hair salon, a new exhibition goes up every six weeks or so.

"Luckily in Lawrence, it's pretty easy to find artists," said Ryan Crowell, a hairdresser. "There's enough of them around between the local community and the student community that, a lot of times, we'll be booked out four to six months in advance on shows."

Those shows sometimes lead to profit. Allen said he had sold four pieces from his coffeehouse shows, and Crowell said artists make occasional sales through the salon.

"We've actually had some people get some pretty strong sales out of here," he said.


Lawrence artist Brett Allen, foreground, enjoys a cup of coffee at La Prima Tazza, where his artwork is on view. Patrons Rhiana Huff, left, and Andre Huffman are pictured in the background.

The community
All those opportunities make Lawrence an attractive, even relatively easy, place for artists to live.

"I think what's nice is that you can plug into different things," said Lora Jost, who does mixed-media collages and is co-writing a book about murals across Kansas. "You don't have to be thoroughly plugged in to get support."

Allen, too, likes living in proximity to other artists.

"I think, because of the town itself, it seems to have a heavy art population as opposed to other towns this size. So you come across art more readily, more easily, because there's more people out there doing it."

Cateforis agreed, saying the critical mass of artists in Lawrence attracts even more artists.

"To know that we have that kind of energy here kind of sustains itself," he said.

Adds Allen: "It's just the vibe in the town. There's a lot of creative souls and a lot of creative people that have things they want to do and people willing to display it."


Priest Fontaine 18 years, 2 months ago

Dear Brett and the rest of Lawrence,

Maybe people don't notice the art because of the way in which it is displayed. Art in coffee shops is great but isn't it kind of an afterthought. People are mainly going there for coffee, to study and to socialize. This interior space is designed to be a coffee shop, not a serious art gallery. Display your art in a designated art space with no distractions and proper lighting and then people will notice your art. The last problem Lawrence has is too much art. It is scary that people are even considering this. Should we as artists stop producing as much work to make the choices easier on potential buyers/collectors? I should hope not. The problem is not the quantity. The problem is in the quality of the art and the way in which it is displayed. The sculptures on Massachusetts street are downright immoral. But to give them a fair chance, I propose a televised art critique. The critique would consist of members of the city council, professors in the KU art department, downtown employees/residents and, of course, the artists themselves (wherever and whoever they are). To assume that people just don't have the money to buy art is another misconception. Johnson County, our next-door neighbor is the third wealthiest county in the Nation and our nation is the wealthiest in the world. There is defiantly money around here. Maybe the problem is a cultural one. People are more willing to spend hundreds of dollars at a time for mass-produced generic art works at Hobby Lobby or Target when they could own a one-of a-kind painting from a local artist. It is time to start holding ourselves accountable. If art is so important to us as a city then why does our art center look like it was designed and built by the Free State High School prom committee? Shouldn't our art center building be a work of art? Something that could help define the standard we so desperately need if we are going to genuinely value ourselves as an art community.

-Kyle Batten

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