Less than a decade ago, the 400 block of South Main Street was not a destination for art.
Today, it’s a thriving community of locally owned art spaces, the Civic Media Center and the Citizens Co-Op.
In 2005, Chris Fillie, executive director of Vibrant Community Development, entered a rental purchase agreement on the half of the building that currently houses the Civic Media Center. He used the 2,000 square feet as a space to showcase music and host speakers. The back yard became his workspace and tool storage.
From 1929 until the 1960s, the space was a grocery store called George’s Meat and Produce. Fillie swapped in a verb and rechristened it George’s Meet and Produce.
The space also hung art shows, hooking the framed artwork to a chain link fence that wrapped around the room.
“A lot of artists wanted to show there (because) it was such a neat, industrial space,” Fillie said.
It became a hotspot for experimental concerts, especially during the monthly downtown Art Walk. To entice cautious art lovers to venture past the St. Francis House, Fillie would light a path of candles and send friends to encourage people past the homeless shelter and into the gallery.
“Art Walk was a really big part of the revitalization of that area,” Fillie said.
Art Walk began in the mid-80s as Gallery Walk. After the city began investing in its downtown by landscaping and putting in brick sidewalks, the businesses in the area had a celebration, said Gallery 21 owner Randy Batista. Drawing from that energy, Batista and a handful of other downtown art gallery owners opened their doors to the public on a Friday night.
“We wanted to make the community aware of what wonderful art existed in Gainesville,” Batista said.
Click here to see a timeline of the recent developments in the downtown arts community.
The revitalization of downtown has bolstered the number of art spaces, said Nancy Hyer, the current Art Walk coordinator. After the construction of new businesses and hotels, “it only makes sense that art venues would begin to be added to the mix,” she said, “especially since there is a large art community in town.”
This year’s June event spanned 20 blocks with Main Street as the backbone. Art was displayed in galleries, bars, restaurants and a book store.
Since the downtown revitalization, Gainesville’s art community has boomed. F.L.A. Gallery is one of the many new spaces that opened in recent years. The gallery opened in September 2012, marking its arrival with a colorful mural on the brick wall outside its doors.
The space is run by Kelie Bowman and John Orth. The pair first worked together in 1998 on Cloud Seeding Circus, a performance piece using aspects of the bigtop as metaphors for contemporary issues.
“In the circus, I was the youngest, so I was definitely the little kid sister,” Bowman said, “so we had that kind of older brother/kid sister dynamic. But now we’re more equal partners.”
The circus doesn’t seem so long ago.
“It’s been, like, 15 years? It’s been a minute.”
After graduation, Bowman moved to New York on St. Patrick’s Day of 2002 to pursue her art career. A series of odd jobs ultimately led to the opening of Cinders, the gallery she ran with her husband, Sto, in Brooklyn.
They got rid of the physical building and turned Cinders into a travelling non-profit in 2010.
“I feel like I reached my plateau (in New York),” she said.
And then, in 2012, Orth called with a proposal. The people at The Top, one of Gainesville’s downtown restaurants, had always wanted an art space, and they asked Orth to run it in the room adjacent to their bar. He had never managed an art gallery before and asked for Bowman’s help. She agreed.
They signed a two-year lease and both created artwork for the gallery’s first show, Rewilding F.L.A. Since the opening show, Bowman has invited artists from around the world to display their work in Gainesville. Some are contacts from the Cinders roster.
“(Gainesville) is a really inspiring place to be,” she said. Since moving back south, she is increasingly inspired by natural beauty.
“I think as far as figuring out if you’re contributing culturally and spiritually to a community, in New York, it just tends to feel like a wash. . . I feel like here – and in other small communities – they really need art spaces.”
Bowman wasn’t the only artist to relocate from New York to Gainesville. Tom Hart and Leela Corman made the move in 2011. The couple was ready for a change of pace: Hart had been teaching at the School of Visual Arts for 10 years; Corman was commuting an hour and a half to her studio, which she shared with another painter and a photographer.
It “smelled like a rat’s nest,” Corman said. Now, she has her own studio space on the second floor of the Sweetwater Print Cooperative. The walls are covered in her sketches and posters of Josephine Baker.
“It’s easier to be an individual artist here,” she said. “It’s much easier to have studio space . . . It’s a function of being able to live a life as an artist instead of a life of drudgery.”
In January 2012, Hart founded the Sequential Artist Workshop, or S.A.W., in the space the Fillie used years ago as a woodworking shop.
Some of his tools, including a saw, were still in the building when Hart moved in.
S.A.W. is dedicated to the art of comics – not only drawing technique, but also how to craft a compelling story. In May, five students graduated from the first yearlong class. Students are travelling from as far as Australia for next year’s course.
Within a year, the Gainesville arts world embraced S.A.W. The city’s sense of community is one of the primary reasons Hart wanted to open the workshop here. With UF’s art program as a base, Gainesville is able to support a range of artistic activity, he said. From the traditional landscape painters to the boundary-bending sculptors, the city boasts an impressive talent range.
“Nobody is trying to impress some sort of establishment,” Hart said. “They’re just trying to make things and they’re just trying to test ideas out, which I think is what creativity is about.”
Across the street from S.A.W. is the Church of Holy Colors, an art space that supports aural and visual arts. The House Craft and Elestial Sound music labels both use the Church’s recording studio. Even Galbicka, who runs the space, often creates their album art and stage designs.
“It’s a space that provides face-to-face contact for people with art,” said Galbicka, who displayed his sculpture at George’s Meet and Produce when he was a UF art student.
Since his time as a student, Galbicka has seen “exciting growth” in the amount and quality of art in Gainesville.
“I think that artists these days are more interested in projects that take place in alternatively-minded communities like Gainesville,” he said. “There’s a lot of positive people in Gainesville and a lot of free thinking.”
For example: How about building a paper mache fish to fit around two bikes? That’s exactly what Art Lab did. And then rode it in the homecoming parade.
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Art Lab was established to bring artists together for workshops, critiques, studio visits and group projects.
Raymond Rawls, who works out of a warehouse next to Signs by Tomorrow on NW 10th Avenue, is one of its members. The fish bike is parked in his studio, taking up half the space. The other half is filled with projects in various states of completion: bicycle seats repurposed as chairs, molds of brain coral, an undulating snake-shaped bike rack.
In April, Rawls opened up his studio as part of Primavera, a local festival celebrating Gainesville culture. After the positive reception from the open house, he is considering adding his space to the list of Art Walk venues.
“Everybody knows that there’s an artsy side to Gainesville,” Rawls said, “but I think people are still trying to figure out what that means.”
As Cultural Affairs Program Coordinator for Alachua County, it is Russel Etling’s job to organize that part of Gainesville’s personality. The city’s Vision 2020 master plan includes elements to “brand Gainesville as a major cultural center in the state,” Etling said.
How, exactly, to accomplish that will be determined by people from the community. Etling plans to bring all the stakeholders in the cultural community together and ask what they want to see in the city’s future. Within the next two years, the initial planning stage should be complete.
For many artists, Gainesville is a city with a low cost of quality living, making the potential to produce art on their own terms high.
Gainesville has a long history with the arts. The Gainesville Fine Arts Association is celebrating its 90th birthday this year and second year in the Doris Bardon Community Cultural Center, which houses artists in residence, hosts classes and has a permanent gallery of paintings.
Gainesville’s art scene is a true community, not a group of people in competition with each other. If one gallery is having an event, they encourage other art spaces to open their doors the same night. The more the merrier.
“I love Gainesville,” Bowman said. “It’s a really magical, beautiful place.”