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A New Art District from the Ground Up

Tom Brand. For Now We See Through a Glass Darkly, 2012. Oil on Panel. Michigan City, IN. (Photo Credit: Zachary Johnson)

How do you start an art district from the ground up? Fifty-three miles east of Chicago, the answer is collaboration. A town of thirty thousand people connected to Chicago by the South Shore Electric line, Michigan City boasts an art center, a handful of commercial galleries, non-art spaces actively showing art, an art walk, public art displays, and is developing a live/work building for artists through the Minneapolis-based non-profit developer Artspace. All of this activity takes place in part of the city’s downtown known as the Uptown Arts District. Several years ago, however, things were quite different.

In 2006 Uptown was simply the north end of Franklin Street, ripe with shuttered businesses and with little art scene to speak of. During that time the 37-year-old Lubeznik Art Center began hosting First Fridays @ 5, a monthly art event series. Meanwhile, Chris Grohs and Julia Nielsen were hard at work refurbishing a building on Franklin Street, converting it into two residential lofts, a storefront, and a studio/woodshop. “I saw the renovation of this building as a strong investment as well as a way to inject life into the recession-plagued historic district.” Grohs commented. The building now houses Walnut Ink Gallery, which, along with Lubeznik, has become an anchor of the Uptown Arts District. Things really started changing in 2010 when Walnut Ink Gallery opened with N-ô gy r-l (pronounced inaugural), a group show full of Chicago artists. That same year, Lubeznik approached other galleries on Franklin Street and asked them to join the art center for an expanded first Friday event. Carol Saxton, Executive Director, commented on what developed from that first invitation, “During those initial meetings, the recommendation evolved to establish an arts and culture district.  From that the name Uptown Arts District was suggested since that area of Franklin Street was formerly called Uptown.” From that a committee was established, comprised of Franklin Street business members and staff members from Lubeznik.

Now in its second year, I decided to stop by the district’s First Fridays to see how it had developed. Catching a ride from Chicago, I was in Michigan City within an hour. I’d been to Walnut Ink Gallery once before for the opening of a show by Chicago artist Chris Smith, and the space was just as impressive the second time. The bright, open rooms with wooden floors, white walls, and professionally displayed artwork resembled commercial galleries in Chicago.  The first room featured new work by Doug Fogelson, represented in Chicago by Linda Warren Projects. The second room had on display a variety of works by past exhibiting artists. What felt different from Chicago galleries was the close-knit atmosphere between the guests. Different groups co-mingled and bumped into friends who’d just arrived. Visitors from Indiana and Chicago chatted for hours,  some long past closing time.

The Warren Building, proposed future home of an artist live/work building in the Uptown Arts District, Michigan City, IN. 2012. (Photo Credit: Zachary Johnson)

The other art spaces, beyond their similarly friendly atmospheres, were markedly different. A short walk from the gallery was Haas & Associates, an engineering firm which participated in First Fridays with generous refreshments and multiple art pieces by a local artist. The pieces, beautiful area birds created from driftwood found on the nearby beaches of Lake Michigan, were as local as one could get. There was only overhead office lighting for the pieces and hastily printed titles attached to the walls.  What was impressive, however, was the office’s commitment to displaying local art, creating a welcoming environment, and participating in a town-wide revitalization effort.

The other spaces were a similar mix of local energy and uneven quality. Southern Shore Art Association, a group of over eighty local artists, featured a show at its gallery. The art itself, all two-dimensional works, were of various subjects and levels of technical proficiency. Among them only a few stood out. Two striking pieces were abstract paintings whose colorful, contrasting forms vaguely resembled each other. They were painted by Tom Brand and Carol Stodder, husband and wife and both founding members of the Chicago Artists Coalition who have since moved to Michigan City.  Nearby was Lakeside Gallery West featuring work by Robert Stanley and Gordon Ligocki. Not all pieces appeared well crafted, but there were some strong ones among the mix — though the unevenly hung gallery worked to their detriment. The last show I visited was at a furniture shop featuring photography. Despite the harsh overhead lighting, overall the photography featured was eye-catching and well crafted.

Coming from Chicago, a city with art districts full of high-quality work, it could be easy to discount Michigan City’s Uptown Arts District with its at times incongruous displays of art work, but that would be selling the district short. One must remember that the Uptown Arts District is still less than two years old. Already in that time it has proved that visual art can enliven a downtown area if the community is behind it. To quote the Uptown Arts District website, “Through the amazing efforts of local artists, businesses, and the partnership of Michigan City Mainstreet Association the Uptown Arts District is an evolving collaboration of commerce, camaraderie, and creativity.” Whether that creativity is displayed under fluorescent lighting in an office or at a bad angle in a furniture shop, the community’s enthusiasm and the effort’s positive impact on the downtown cannot be denied.

Lakeside Gallery West towards the end of the night, Michigan City, IN. 2012. (Photo credit: Zachary Johnson)

Last month during First Fridays, twenty-two businesses kept their doors open late to display art. Outside of the galleries there was a church hosting a take back the night mural, a flower shop who’d just relocated to the downtown, resale shops, a bakery, an Irish pub, an architecture firm, and a salon, to name a few. There is a long history of artists showing work in alternative spaces, and the business owners in downtown Michigan City have made sure they are part of that legacy.

Asked about the challenges the district has faced, Chris Grohs of Walnut Ink commented, “Michigan City has a very large blue collar middle class population.  I’ve found that this segment often has misconceived notions about art – can’t afford it – don’t deserve it – can’t understand it.   Convincing people that not all art is expensive and that many or most artists are hardworking middle class individuals has been key.” Judging from the crowds at First Fridays and the number of enthusiastic businesses, it seems that so far that effort has been succeeding. And as downtown Michigan City gains the Artspace-renovated live/work building in the next few years, its artistic revitalization will only increase.

The initial challenges confronting Michigan City seem to reflect similar situations in neighborhoods across Chicago. Concerns voiced by far south side neighborhoods during the Chicago Cultural Plan meetings included having no places to display art and, in some areas, a perceived lack of interest in art by the community. To foster an arts community and even economic revitalization, those neighborhoods would do well to look east to the efforts underway in Michigan City.

Uptown Arts District’s next First Friday Art Walk will be at 5pm on July 6th. To learn more about the district’s events visit their website here. Downtown Michigan City can be reached by taking the South Shore Line from Chicago to the 11th Street stop.

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4 Responses to " A New Art District from the Ground Up "

  1. Good reporting! The spirit, some of the people, and the overall milieu are well-limned. I moved to the area ten years ago, and have watched as many people, more than the Lubeznik Center, quietly worked to build the district. There might be a follow-up there, how struggle is a struggle without certainty of success.

    By the way, “unevenly hung?” Are not we all?

  2. As a former art critic, I applaud your effort to bring at least a portion of what is still often viewed as a wasteland (INDIANA) by both Chicagoans and Indianapolites. I spent a couple of decades bringing Chicago art to the region and visa versa. IN THE END IT’S one big region.

    For my own information as a gallery patron i would have enjoyed more specificity on the precise character and genres of the works exhibited at each of the above-mentioned spaces.

  3. […] Below is a wonderful article feature from Sixty Inches from Center in Chicago. Read the full story here: […]

  4. Jon E Wilson says:

    Hey Great article..
    I have a beautiful Tom Brand that i just placed nicely!
    Kudos 60 miles…

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