83 Gallery resurrected in sprawling, immersive group show at Blockfort
The opening takes place this weekend, coinciding with Alley Islands, an outdoor fest that will take over the alleys around the Downtown art gallery
The roots of 83 Gallery can legitimately be traced underground, the long-defunct art space hatching in the basement of a house at 83 W. First Ave. in November 2008.
“We had two rooms down there, and I think the startup cost was like $300 for a floor and work floodlights,” said Geoff Collins, who joined Maddy Beaumier and Nick Stull for a recent interview at Blockfort, where 83 Gallery will be temporary resurrected as a sprawling group show beginning tonight (Friday, April 15). Dubbed “Death, Taxes, 83 Gallery,” the exhibit also coincides with the daylong Alley Islands, which takes place in the alleys around Blockfort’s Downtown location on Saturday, April 16, featuring murals, pop-up vendors, food trucks and a pair of performance stages.
To solicit artists for its first show in 2008, 83 Gallery created a Craigslist post that simply read, “We accept any and all mediums, styles and ideas.” The post, recycled for subsequent shows, helped establish an anything-goes ethos that bled into every aspect of the venture, particularly after the gallery relocated to the Short North in the building now occupied by Oddfellows, where bands like Tin Armor performed during Gallery Hop as hundreds passed through the packed space, creating a vibe that felt antithetical to the comparatively staid image projected by other Short North galleries.
“We started doing these pretty epic shows with 40 artists and 240 pieces of art, and we’d get 400 people through the door each night and it would be just dangerously packed. … There was beauty to the basement days, but it kind of exploded when we moved to the High Street space,” said Stull, recalling shows where so many pieces of art were on display that works would even be pinned to the ceiling. “I came in [to 83 Gallery] as an artist, and at the time I was looking for galleries and a lot of them were exclusive, where they might have only 10 or 20 artists on the roster, and each artist only gets to sell at that gallery once a year. … And we presented a concept where each of our shows was a big group show, but these artists could show five to seven pieces every month.”
“We also had the cheapest art on High Street,” Beaumier said. “If you wanted to look at fancy art, you went to other galleries. But if you actually wanted to buy something, you went to 83.”
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As a result of this more democratic approach, a number of Columbus artists first displayed publicly at 83 Gallery, including Adam Hernandez and Hakim Callwood, both of whom have pieces on display in the Blockfort show. The two join an outsized roster that features more than 200 works by 102 artists, including April Sunami, Eric Vacheresse, Davey Highben, and many, many more.
“A lot of the artists who showed with us, it was their first time showing, and they would often come from outside, where they maybe didn’t have a connection to the gallery scene or the artist scene,” Stull said. “It was kind of a gateway for people to start showing and build confidence. The gallery was a launching point for a lot of people, which we knew, but when we started doing this reunion show, people were reposting flyers and sharing their story of when they first showed with us back in 2009, 2010, ’11, ’12. … It was really kind of touching to hear.”
When 83 Gallery moved into the space that would become Oddfellows, it was meant to be temporary, but what the founders expected to last maybe a few months stretched into three years before a larger renovation of the building necessitated a move. At the time, the group thought it essential to remain in the Short North, but they were unable to find an affordable space that would allow it to operate the way it always had, eventually landing in the Brewery District with the rebranded 83 South, in the back of Double Happiness.
“We’d do big group shows once a month, and bring in bands, but it was a smaller space and it was upstairs, so it wasn’t as accessible,” Collins said. “Being on High Street, one thing we were really bringing to our artists was sales. Every month, we were handing them checks, handing them checks. Without that foot traffic, and being hidden away in that little corner, we weren’t able to produce those sales for the artists.”
The gallery adopted its sales techniques in part from a friend of Stull’s who worked as a luxury car salesman at the time, and who stepped in to help train the gallery staff. “One of his primary points was that you never tell a customer that you’re buying a car. It was, ‘You’re going to own this car,’” Stull said. “He’d say, ‘You buy a blender, you buy produce, but you own artwork.”
As a result, at each show, including this Blockfort reunion, the 83 crew would tag the walls with a familiar slogan: “Own local art.”
Removed from the Short North, however, the energy around 83 Gallery gradually dimmed. “We were sort of burned out, ultimately,” Stull said. “We put so much time into it, and we had to take a break to figure things out.”
“We were sort of disenchanted because we couldn’t figure out how to capture what we once had,” Collins said.
Following a final show in the summer of 2014, 83 Gallery called it quits, only reconvening after Blockfort founder Adam Brouillette pitched the idea of a reunion show a couple of years back, albeit with some hesitancy.
“We didn’t know if we were going to have like 10 artists submit or something, and then we wound up with 102,” Beaumier said. “We didn’t know if the memory of it was still there, but once we got started [and saw the response], I cried.”
“We’d see someone make an awesome post that said really nice stuff about what we did back in the day, and we’d share it with each other,” Stull said. “It’s just been really heartwarming and exciting to put this together.”