The Short North: Where’s the art?

With galleries on the decline, is the Short North still an arts district? Does it matter?

By Columbus Alive
From the August 8, 2013 edition

Maria Galloway, the owner of PM Gallery, has been doing interviews about her art wonderland long enough that she’s sure to point out how to spell her shop dog’s name. It’s Sisko. Not Sisco, Cisco or, heaven forbid, Sisqo.

That kind of awareness alludes to years of experience with the press. Accurate. PM Gallery has called the Short North home since 1980. It recently relocated from its old location, directly across from where Buttles spits you out onto High Street, to a spot in the northern Garden end of the Short North.

PM Gallery was one of five art venues that, in an effort to navigate the uncharted territory of 1984’s Short North, began a recurring event called Cooperative Opening. What happened next is stuff of Columbus art-reprenuerial history; soon renamed Gallery Hop, the idea to join forces to show and sell art attracted thousands to the neighborhood and set the area up for a lucrative creative renaissance. The first Saturday of each month soon became the Short North’s calling card. Even the persnickety New York Times Travel section loves it.

“I never thought it would go this far,” Galloway said of Gallery Hop. “It has become an institution.”

Indeed, but has the institution become too much of an institution? As the district’s traditional gallery count dwindles and high-end retail (which is incredibly creative in its point of view and often shows local art) expands, it’s fair to question if the spirit of the Short North has shifted from its art roots.

The answer you get depends on whom you ask.

“It doesn’t bother me that galleries leave,” Galloway said, noting that that’s the nature of the art-gallery business; an avant-garde gallery, for example, can only last under the same owners for so long. “It does bother me that we haven’t gotten new galleries in a while.”

In 2004, 30 galleries participated in Gallery Hop alongside about a dozen other businesses. In 2009 there were 24 galleries and businesses that displayed art during Gallery Hops. Today there are only 16 galleries listed on the Short North Business Association’s website but more than 40 venues show art for Gallery Hop.

Meanwhile, a neighborhood-and-a-half over is the gallery of the anticipated, soon-to-be-revealed artist space in Grandview, called Tacocat (it’s a palindrome, y’all).

Tacocat is a graduated version of the former studio space Junctionview, which was located just a block south of the new venue. Tacocat is much smaller; only 12 resident artists work in studios there compared to Junctionview’s more than 60. But, more importantly, Tacocat will showcase local artists’ work in a 1,400-square-foot attached gallery (get a sneak peek at this Thursday’s Pecha Kucha or at the Aug. 17-18 grand opening).

Part of the reason the Junctionview team started offering open-to-the-public catchall art shows was because of the decline in the number of artists being shown in the Short North, said Junctionview’s former manager and Tacocat artist Adam Brouillette. And while Junctionview was very democratic in its show selection process, Tacocat intends to be much pickier in the quality of work it shows. This, Brouillette said, will help fill a void of galleries where well-produced, high-quality work is shown in a professional setting; a void exacerbated by the 2010 closing of the Short North’s contemporary-art fixture Mahan Gallery.

Tacocat is just one example of how local artists are responding to the changing nature of how to view art. Artists are joining forces, making their own places that are conducive to showing and seeing art. Collaboration of this kind is the modern day version of what Gallery Hop was to those Short North startups in the ’80s.

“The Short North can thrive if people accepted that it’s not the arts district anymore,” Brouillette said. “Franklinton is the new arts district. The Short North is the high-class district. It deserves an Anthropologie, an Apple store.”

Franklinton, the former eyesore on the city’s West Side, does appear to be the new local-artist frontier. It’s got 400 West Rich, which is opening a bar this fall, and Columbus Idea Foundry is moving there soon thanks to a $350,000 relocation grant. Wonderland is even considering a space near there.

(It’s worth mentioning Brouillette’s idea of having the city incentivize artists to move into one pocket of the city instead of several by giving loans to artists to create a new fine arts-focused district. “Then you have 10 groups right beside each other making art,” he said. “There’s your Gallery Hop.”)

If there’s not technically more art in Franklinton than in the Short North, art seems like it happens a little more organically on the West Side. Or maybe it’s just that the types of art these two areas represent feel very different from one another. Do we have the wonderful problem of having too much art happening in too many areas of town to really designate a neighborhood the arts district?

What the Short North could be applauded for right now is making Easton look like Short North Lite. Gallery Hop’s popularity has attracted businesses big and small; Cleveland’s famous toy store Big Fun recently opened a Short North shop because of the foot traffic the monthly event entices.

Also exciting (to some): Anthropologie. A location of the women’s clothing, home decor and gifts store will take up two stories of The Joseph, which is the Pizzuti Companies’ office building and boutique hotel near the Cap.

Anthropologie is a national brand that, in addition to that new Hilton at the edge of the district, will attract new shoppers to the Short North. It helps that it will be attached to the Holy Grail of the Short North’s continued success — a 313-car parking garage.

Pizzuti Companies president Joel Pizzuti predicted that more and more national retailers will start to look at the Short North because there is a renewed interest in living downtown in an urban core.

The store won’t open until next fall, but on Sept. 7 another exciting Pizzuti project will. The Pizzuti Collection Gallery, across from Goodale Park’s east side, will showcase the renowned contemporary art collection of Ron and Ann Pizzuti.

“Where else can you eat at somewhere like Betty’s and then go see a Frank Stella?” said the Short North Alliance’s executive director Betsy Pandora of the new gallery’s appeal.

When asked if the Short North was still an arts district or if it would be better off highlighting its retail attractions, Pandora countered that “the Short North really has art infused in all places in spaces in the District.”

So, while there may be fewer locations dedicated solely to showing art, all the businesses there have some artistic bent — whether it’s the modern arty decor pieces sold at Tigertree or the graphic design in Jeni’s advertising. Pandora also recognizes national-event potential for some of the Short North’s popular events, like making HighBall for Columbus artists and crafters what Pitchfork is for Chicago artists and crafters.

But does all of that make an event titled Gallery Hop misleading? There are still galleries in the Short North, but much of where you see art during Gallery Hops are in the neighborhood's retail businesses. Would Shop Hop be a more accurate term?

“People need to understand we still have 10 galleries here,” said Marcia Evans, owner of Marcia Evans Gallery in the Short North. “I love being in the Short North, and Gallery Hop gets me better sales. … I do wish, though, that there was a little more emphasis on the art. It’s become more like just a fun night out in the Short North.”

Private art galleries are an essential platform for artists to gain credibility, Evans said.

Thoughts on that, of course, vary from artist to artist to viewer to gallery owner to art buyer.

Painter Michael Bush said he has found great exposure in showing his art in non-traditional Short North venues such as Image Optical and Union Cafe. They are a means to the end goal of being represented by a gallery.

Other camps think dubbing any area an “arts district” in the age of the internet is moot. Galleries are just one piece of an impossibly large puzzle.

“Our generation has a lot of digesting to do. I feel like they started with A, B and C and we are starting with X,” said Samantha Rehark, a 24-year-old CCAD alum. “I don’t feel like I am just here. In a pre-internet world, [calling something an arts district] makes sense.”

Rehark, who has shown artwork in a Short North gallery, operates out of a Merion Village multi-artist joint called, ironically enough, No Place Studios. She and fellow artist Elijah Funk, 23, operate EAS-Y, a nonprofit emerging-artist organization that provides regionally distributed publications and events for artists that feel like getting a gallery can seem like you “put in all this time sucking up to other people,” Rehark said. Exposure and collaboration are a roving experience for these artists. You don’t need a gallery’s mailing list when you could “know” literally almost everyone on Facebook.

Perhaps the internet is the new Columbus arts district.

The pair, of course, sees value in the Short North, but they think contemporary art can be better found in places like the Wexner Center and CCAD’s Canzani Center Gallery. Those galleries are the spots — not Gallery Hop — to promote to out-of-towners if you want them to think Columbus is a modern art hub.

Creating new types of physical art arenas, like what is happening in Franklinton, is just “cruising down the same highway,” Funk said. “It’s the same thing as [the Short North], it just looks cooler.” Art will come in, revitalize a neighborhood, retailers will come and then artists will have to leave because it gets too costly to work and live there.

Regardless of what your definition of what an arts district is and what a Gallery Hop should look like and what area of town you think it would be best accommodated in or how our arts representation should evolve, there’s no denying the Short North Gallery Hop its history. If not for Gallery Hop, this conversation might not even be happening.

“When we first opened, this was a city of followers,” Galloway of PM Gallery said. “Gallery Hop’s legacy is about not having to look for validation or inspiration outside of the city. That’s what Gallery Hop was about, and I don’t think that’s going to change anytime soon.” 

Photos by Meghan Ralston