Monday, June 6, 2011

Phantom Galleries Springing Up In Surprising Places

I stopped for gas near Carlton this weekend and saw that a restaurant was closed that used to be adjacent to the truck stop. In Superior numerous buildings have vacated areas on the main drag. In one abandoned building we saw a pair of pigeons standing on the red carpet spread there. It's a scene is being played out repeatedly -- not the pigeons, but the abandoned real estate -- throughout our region's extended non-recovery.

When hard times strike, buildings can be left vacant for a season. But with a little creativity, they don't need to remain vacant.

A few weeks ago when I had my Dylan paintings at the Ochre Ghost Gallery in Duluth, I asked Jessica and Calvin how they found the space. They said it had been nothing more than a place where the owner of the business around the corner stored his motorcycle for the winter. The space has been alive with several shows since spring and it's exactly the kind of thing we will see more of here and there around the country.

Right now in Wisconsin there's a move afoot to bring vibrancy back to the streets of many towns through the partnering of the business community with the arts community. Superior is one of six Wisconsin communities selected for a Phantom Galleries project. Funding for the project comes from the Morgan Fund of the Duluth-Superior Community Foundation and the Wisconsin Arts Board with the support of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Another Wisconsin town seeing a bit of life breathed into its downtown is LaCrosse. A news story by Jason Smith titled Phantom Art Strikes Again tells the story of downtown revitalization.

It's night time in downtown La Crosse. The storefronts in the historic downtown area are mostly dark, except for a few brightly lit window displays interspersed throughout the area along the river. A small crowd gathers in front of a glowing window, gazing and pointing at colorful paintings and sculptures by professional local artists.

Walking through downtown La Crosse on a warm spring evening, it's a lovely sight to behold. But what is this artwork doing here in the window of an empty building, and who put it here?
This novel use of empty space in La Crosse is what's called a phantom art gallery. Phantom art galleries are temporary exhibition spaces created by community artists who work together in order to enliven street-level downtown windows, empty storefronts, and public spaces with colorful artwork exhibitions and installations that are viewable and accessible at all hours from the sidewalk.

But this notion of placing art in an unexpected context is more than about simply beautifying drab downtown areas: it's about economic development for community property owners, businesses, and artists alike.

And actually, I think this idea is brilliant. I know artists with whole houses full of art. Gallery spaces are limited. What does one do with all this creative output without an audience? Artists may not be as outgoing as rock stars, but they do feel the occasional need for validation, hence they value opportunities to put their work in front of an audience. Vacant real estate is a great way to connect with eyeballs. What's more, it's good for the merchants who own empty spaces, because the eyeballs are now drawn to these buildings that otherwise might appear to be eyesores.

Will it work? Can Phantom Galleries re-vitalize our downtowns? The verdict is out, but my personal feeling is that if we get people thinking about the problems of our cities, willing to take risks and explore creative solutions, we just might be surprised.

Kudos to the SPACES team for taking these steps toward bringing the various facets of our community together for a common cause.

Read the complete Jason Smith article here.

Photos on this page: Top right is Jessica L., co-founder of Ochre Ghost Gallery. Lower two images were taken at the Dylan themed show opening May 25.

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