LOUISVILLE KENTUCKY ART GALLERIES
When I tell people in Boston that I lived in Kentucky for 12 years the first thing that crosses most faces is a smirk. Followed by questions about horse racing, bourbon, basketball, and generally a joke about people being barefoot and pregnant. People who know a little something about Louisville (generally pronounced Luh’-vl), where I lived, will ask about the music scene. Several bands came out of Louisville in the 90’s; Rachel’s, My Morning Jacket, VHS or Beta, and Slint to name a few. No one asks about the art scene. At least not yet.
On a recent visit I decided to take a look around and see what Louisville had to offer, not expecting much besides maybe some very nice quilts and paintings of horses - in the same way as expecting to find art galleries full of paintings of sailboats in New England towns.
What I found was a city reshaping itself around the arts. Every first Friday of the month, as in Boston, there is a gallery night in Louisville. This has been elevated to a social event that surpasses usual art-viewing and gallery-walking. It is called the "Trolley Hop." Because there are two distinct areas of the downtown art scene, a free trolley-shaped bus, delegated by the arts community of Louisville, provides transportation between them. Bars and restaurants that usually cater to the 9-5 business crowd stay open late as do almost all of the other businesses along Main Street, where the action is.
What really amazed me was the sheer number of people out. This was a major event, a time to see and be seen - one of the few opportunities in Louisville. Another amazing aspect of the evening was that the galleries were open late; they started to close at 9pm but not by a hard and fast rule. If there were people around, the business would stay open. Any chance to move merchandise was taken advantage of. (I should mention that there is also a “Fat Friday” Trolley Hop in a more upscale neighborhood every final Friday of the month, which is essentially the same party, relocated to a different street.)
The night started with the over-60 set getting a little tipsy on their white wine at 6pm and wound down with a mosh-pit-of-a-gallery where hip young things tried on outrageous costumes out of bins and posed in a free photo booth at 11pm. There were people amongst the turnout who still question the validity of abstract expressionism, or, “scribbles that any kid could do,” as I overheard someone say, but people were being exposed to new ideas, fresh young artists, and getting to hang out with friends too.
My first stop was at the Glassworks where passersby watched live glassblowing from an observation booth located conveniently close to a gift shop. In the back of the Glassworks space, a four piece band set up and started playing a bluesy rock.
So far my idea of art in Louisville wasn’t challenged. Although it was cool, where was the Art with a capital A? After the Glassworks we hit the Kentucky Craft Museum, where I thought I’d find those quilts. Sure enough, the first room I walked through was full of glass cases containing several quilts and hand-woven baskets. I got deeper into the museum, with its open, modern architecture, I saw ceramics, sculpture, and even quilts that challenged my conception of craft as - well - crafty. There were elegant, tiny teapots by Fong Choo, a professor at a local college, who has relocated to Louisville from Singapore, a cast iron apron by Elizabeth Brina that blew me away and a wall hanging comprised of Kewpie dolls by Shawne Major of Louisiana.
On my way to the Zephyr Gallery (http://www.zephyrgallery.org/), the city’s oldest co-op gallery, I passed a group of young women using the Trolley Hop for their bachelorette party, as evidenced by the bride-to-be wearing a wedding veil dangling with penises. I swiftly ducked into the gallery and found myself in another world, a show called “Out of Sound: an aural experience” with various artists contributing. No crafty baskets here, just your usual video monitors, headphones, old school TV’s, and yes, even some computer malfunctions. The most elaborate piece, by Leah Crews, was my favorite. An entire room whose walls were lined with various sized boxes full of objects of glass and metal, all connected to a foot pedal that visitors used to make the room make sound.
After Zephyr, I made my way to Gallery NuLu, which, as the press release stated, did indeed appear “completely empty.” I climbed a narrow flight of stairs to get to the gallery and walked down a cramped hallway that had several “empty” rooms off of it, each closed off with Plexiglas. At the end of the hall I entered a small room with a glass case containing three books. This work, titled “Enough is Enough,” was the name of the show,. It slowly became apparent to me that the show’s artists, Jacob Heustis and Thea Lura, had had completely covered each room with a light pencil stroke, line after line of obsessive-compulsion, surrounding us all. I was awed and I realized that my own preconceptions were not the only ones being challenged tonight. I feel safe saying that a number of people out that night still feel that art is something you hang up on the living room wall, not an idea.
I’ll finish my tour with possibly the most surprising and strange of all the art-stops, 21c, a “museum hotel” featuring a luxury hotel, spa, bar/restaurant, and museum “dedicated to world class luxuries, Southern-style hospitality and contemporary art from living artists.” 9,000 square feet are dedicated to those “living artists” and after making my way through the crowded bar I walked into a room that could have been in MassMoCA or even MoMA. The ceilings were at least 15 feet high and the room was cavernous. Was this really a Louise Bourgeois in Louisville? It was part of the exhibit “Tangled Up In You: Connecting, Coexisting, and Conceiving Identity” with artists from Bourgeois to Bill Viola. I got the impression that much of the work in the museum was on display because of who made it, as if to say “See? We have the big names, we rate.” Disclaimer aside, the show was top-notch, and I started sounding like a broken record, “Where am I, is this really Louisville?” Then the bachelorette party stumbled past me with their drinks refilled, and I remembered. I admired a photograph on one wall and turned around to see the gym for hotel guests and had to laugh at the art world in all its incarnations.
A question I’ve been asking myself lately is this: if New York is no longer the center of the art world, then what place will be next? As I systematically rule out cities like Paris (already happened), China (still too much government control), Japan, Los Angeles it occurs to me that the next place is this place you are reading in, the internet. Jen Bekman seems to have that figured out with her 20x200 program, and cities around the country are no longer taking location as an excuse for not being part of it all. So the answer to where the next art boom will come from is everywhere. Louisville is one of many cities that seems to have seen the need for artists in their community and the viability of art as a market. 21c, Museum Plaza, artists’ lofts, and Trolley Hops are bringing the fair citizens of this Ohio Valley city closer to art and its world than they dreamed they would ever be. So watch out Boston and watch out New York. The world isn’t your oyster anymore because the oyster is up for grabs.
Louisville image obtained on Panoramio via Google Maps.
Bourgeois mage courtesy of 21c Museum, Louisville, Kentucky.
Major image courtesy of Jonathan Ferrara Gallery and the artist.
Thanks to Louisville artist Greg King for his insights about Louisville for this article.