State of the arts

Recent gallery closings spur creative community to rethink the scene

Sometimes it takes bad news to shake people out of complacency.

That might be the best way to describe what's going on at the moment in Lawrence's visual art community.

When Fields Gallery closed in October and the Olive Gallery announced shortly thereafter that its last show would be in February, art enthusiasts began exchanging concerned e-mails.

Why couldn't a commercial gallery make it, they wondered, in a cosmopolitan burg often referred to as the City of the Arts? And what did the failures signal about the vitality of the art scene?

So they gathered in December - artists, writers, patrons, representatives of art organizations and institutions - to air their worries and brainstorm solutions. (Listen to highlights from the meeting in our podcast, Artful Thinking.")

"That meeting didn't answer any of these questions," says artist Dave Loewenstein, who played host to the gathering at his East Lawrence studio. (Loewenstein is also a blogger on "But I think the thing that was great about it was all these people came, all the institutions were represented, and people got to hear each other in the same room in a really respectful and honest way."

Their wish lists varied. Some would like to see more exhibition spaces. Others long for venues willing to show edgy work that might not be commercially viable. Some want to increase sales in Lawrence. Still others would like to see creative types coming together more consistently, sharing resources and inspiration.

Whatever their perspective, they seem to agree that now's the time.

"I'm sensing that this is a very important moment," says Saralyn Reece Hardy, director of the Spencer Museum of Art. "It's an important moment to think broadly about the ecology of arts organizations and individual artists.

"I think often what we do is think just organizationally, and I'm really interested to think about Lawrence in the context of how do we welcome and nurture the lives of individual artists, as well as building strong and stable organizations that can support art and artists."

Energy injection

None of this is to say that positive things aren't occurring already. A handful of commercial galleries continue chugging along. The Lawrence ArtWalk is sauntering toward its 13th installment in the fall. Last year, a grass-roots effort resulted in the Eastside Art Show, featuring the esoteric artists from that side of town. And the next exhibit at Signs of Life Gallery will reveal eight local artists' visual interpretations of Lawrence neighborhoods.

The problem, some at the December meeting contended, is that there's no sustained, unified push.

Already, though, some new projects are brewing, designed to inject the scene with renewed energy.

Leslie vonHolten, an arts writer with a blog on, has organized a monthly lecture series called SEED that will feature local and regional artists, arts professionals and performances. She envisions a forum where artists and others interested in art can connect.

"I think before an art community can reach a point where it's actually monetarily supporting artists, the artists need to be living in a place that excites them and where they find inspiration," she says. "A lot of people talk about how they need the community to spend more money on art, but I think, before that, the community needs artists to attract those people."

VonHolten says she's more optimistic than a lot of folks stressed out about the gallery closings. That's partly because she lived in Kansas City in the early '90s, just after the bottom fell out of the national art market. Times were bleak for artists, but then one gallery would get some legs. Then a few renegade artists would take over an abandoned building for a one-night-only show.

"Suddenly, it's 15 years later, and they have two new contemporary art museums and numerous galleries and the Crossroads district," she says. "And it all started by a bunch of artists wanting to show their work and deciding that whatever it took, that's how they were going to do it."

'More than we're doing'

Linda Baranski, president of the 250-member Lawrence Art Guild, shares vonHolten's optimism. She points out that guild artists collectively earned more than $100,000 last year at the organization's two annual sales: Art in the Park in May and the Holiday Art Fair in December.

The guild also has signed on as project manager for the Kansas River Expression of Soul Project, which will, among other things, line a trail between Constant and Burcham parks with sculptures. Baranski thinks the river could become the focal point for an arts and culture festival in the future.

"I think what the city is missing is the one thing that other art cities have that keeps galleries open and art sales up: some sort of weeklong festival in the summertime that draws tourists to the city to stay, eat at the restaurants, buy artwork," she says. "The city of Lawrence is such a unique, wonderful place. I just envision so much more than we're doing."

Getting out of town

Lawrence artist Sally Piller is taking matters into her own hands. When the Olive closes at the end of February, she and her husband, Lynn, will move their business, Richard's Music Co., into the Eighth Street space. That will free up the current Richard's location, 716 1/2 Mass., for Sally to start a new gallery.

Set to open in May, 6 Gallery already has confirmation from more than 30 local artists eager to show their work in the space, which will host group shows unified by a theme, such as "Thresholds" or "Delicious."

Big names like Roger Shimomura, Louis Copt and Lisa Grossman will be part of the gallery's slate, and Piller will focus hard on moving their art.

"The thing that people forget is that Lawrence has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to artists that are here," she says. "A lot of them have not been showing that much here in town. They show out of town."

Which is the only realistic way to make a living as an artist, says Kendra Herring, who delivered the inaugural SEED lecture on Thursday.

"I've never depended on Lawrence," she says. "I depend on Lawrence for support in a different way - creatively - but not monetarily."

Herring has an exhibition in Iowa this winter. Similarly, Louis Copt shows paintings in Kansas City, Manhattan, Wichita and elsewhere. He was represented by Fields until it closed. Now he and photographer Dan Coburn are selling work temporarily at Pachamama's, despite some of his friends' opposition to exhibiting art in restaurants.

"Until something else comes along, I have to do something," he says. "Artists, we can't survive unless we get our work shown. I've already sold two paintings there. I consider that a success."

Economic impact

Other success stories have played out at the Spencer Museum, where Kansas University student and faculty artists have become a regular part of the mix since Saralyn Reece Hardy took her post in March 2005. Rather than just mounting shows by faculty - although that has happened, too - the museum has been collaborating with them on creative projects. Like when Luke Jordan and Earl Iversen put together a multimedia exhibit about Lawrence workers last summer, and when Pok Chi Lau and May Tveit hung photos taken by KU students who accompanied the two design professors on a trip to China.

"It's not a cadre of faculty people that we're showing their work; it's inviting them to do something new and interesting, to set out a challenge they may not have had before," Hardy says. "For us, it just breathes new life into our work. It also allows the community to see what collections of the past and creative artists of the present share in common."

Hardy, who came to the Spencer from the Salina Art Center, where she gained a reputation for attracting innovative, contemporary artists to the Midwest, says Lawrence could benefit from looking at other models for a thriving arts scene - like the Crossroads Arts District in Kansas City or the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in Omaha, Neb.

"But I don't think you ever build from them," Hardy says. "I think the solutions and problem-solving that work are when it's really tailor-made, that Lawrence really looks deeply at what its strengths are."

Dave Loewenstein agrees, surmising that Lawrence will never have anything quite like the Crossroads. But, he says, it can't hurt for officials with the city and the Chamber of Commerce to see the boom that evolved there - funky restaurants, up-and-coming firms, loft housing - which all started because of art.

"There are direct economic impacts to a thriving visual arts scene, and it brings in some of the same crowds that they have there, but it also will bring in some other folks who will have an impact," artist Dave Loewenstein says.

"I would be a lot more skeptical if we didn't have such fantastic artists. But we've got the raw material. We've got fabulous artists from all sorts of disciplines and working in all sorts of mediums right here. So there's no reason why we can't make this happen."


sally 16 years, 4 months ago

Nice article. I found it interesting that the Lawrence Art Center wasn't even mentioned. I think that the LAC has been a colosal failure when it comes to engaging the local art scene!

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