Art Fights Urban Blight

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Look. You can see it all over town: vacant buildings, empty storefronts and disused spaces.

And it's not just in low-income neighborhoods. Do I need to mention the prime spot on the corner of Broad Ripple Avenue and College that might as well have been built on an Indian burial ground?

At a time when new commercial building is waking up, we still seem hard-pressed to fill the spaces we already have. But there may be a solution, and I'm not talking about the next Stutz, Harrison, Murphy, Circle City, Service Center or Indy Indie.

I mean showing off those vacant spaces so that they're attractive to potential buyers or renters looking for a prime place to set up shop, whether it's a retail boutique, office space, eatery or coffee shop.

One of the things that first impressed me when I first joined the Primary Colours board back in 2005 was how the organization at that time staged almost every event in a vacant space.

Here's how it worked in five steps:

1. The arts organization convinced the property owner to let them occupy the space for free.

2. Volunteers and chosen emerging artists exhibiting work in the show cleaned up the space, swept, hauled out trash and painted.

3. They set up temporary walls and lighting.

4. In exchange, the property owner could invite guests to the event that showcased the property with art, food, music and entertainment.

5. After the event, they removed the temporary walls and cleaned it up better than they found it.

This vacant building on north Mass Ave is ripe for an art show.
  • This vacant building on north Mass Ave is ripe for an art show.

Of the 10 disused spaces where Primary Colours held events, nine have been subsequently sold or rented out. This included the property on 121 S. East St. that became the Mavris Arts and Event Center, mostly due to a very successful Allotropy held there in 2001. In 2006, when PC hosted their TOYS show at 409 Massachusetts Ave. where Young & Laramore had just vacated, irony ensued as Mass Ave Toys, which had occupied a small adjacent space, expanded there after the show. That last outlier is the vacant lot on 500 N. College Ave. with a sign promising development that's already past due.

Oranje came along in 2002, transforming an empty warehouse at 1200 Madison Ave. into a sensory-stimulating "art-themed party." For the annual fĂȘtes to follow, organizers Adam Crockett and Ryan Hickey sought out vacant spots to host their smorgasbord art, music, film and fashion.

The Turf Pavilion put the city's shuttered former City Hall into use for a pop-up installation show during the Super Bowl.
  • The Turf Pavilion put the city's shuttered former City Hall into use for a pop-up installation show during the Super Bowl.

The grand achievement of this movement came in 2012, when IDADA made the brilliant and visionary call of staging the TURF Indiana Art Pavilion, an installation show at the old City Hall on 207 N. Alabama St. during the freakin' Super Bowl no less.

But I fear that era may have passed. Primary Colours now shares gallery in Fountain Square, Allotropy is a memory, and Installation Nation will take place at the Indianapolis Art Center (April 25- May 2, 2014). Oranje has even found a new home at the Indiana State Fairgrounds (October 12).

So, lately, when I traverse Indy, I really notice those new or abandoned spaces we used to seek out. Every time I see a prime, disused spot, I think how that space could host a pop-up art shop or a beatnik night with a jazz combo and slam poetry. How about a weekend art show in the guise of a speakeasy? Or maybe performance art, theater or dance taking place behind the plate glass?

Do you see it?

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