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Crawling with the Galleries

Published in 1993
in Skyway News

Art gallery owners on the south end of Nicollet Mall paint a pretty picture of the new "Gallery District," which offers high foot traffic and the hope for economic success

While some might say the Nicollet Mall redesign has taken the style out of Minneapolis' famed street, owners of the 17 art galleries on or near the south end of the mall beg to differ. They say that artful curves and tasteful landscapes can be found in the abstract paintings and pastoral oils that are behind the storefronts of Minneapolis' burgeoning Nicollet Mall gallery district.

In the past year, seven new galleries have opened between Eighth and 12th streets, giving Nicollet Mall the distinction of having the highest concentration of art galleries in the Twin Cities.

"There's been a remarkable influx of galleries in the past few months," said Leon Kramer of Kramer Gallery Inc., which moved from its 20-year home in Saint Paul's Lowertown to Nicollet Mall in May, when Kusmierz Market and Delicatessen sought Kramer's former space for an expansion. "By far, this is the best location for us," he said about having his gallery in downtown Minneapolis.

According to Melanie Keeble, her business has tripled since she opened Gallery 416 six months ago just off Nicollet Mall on 12th Street. In contrast, her Saint Paul gallery in Lowertown (also called Gallery 416) is experiencing diminishing sales. "Downtown Saint Paul softened considerably when Mall of America opened," said Keeble. "The base is really here." She said that her Minneapolis customer base comes from Orchestra Hall patrons, the Minneapolis Convention Center and Loring Green.

Last year, the Jack Wold Fine Art Gallery relocated to the mall from the Wyman Building in the warehouse district, also for economic reasons. George Peterson, co-owner of Jack Wold Fine Art Gallery, said that trade in the Wyman Building virtually had dried up. "There just was nobody coming through," he said.

The opposite is true on Nicollet Mall, said Peterson. "It's a live street as far as I'm concerned. Just look at it," he said, pointing to the busy sidewalk outside his window at 1018 Nicollet Mall.

Although the warehouse district is still considered to be an artistic pocket in Minneapolis, other gallery owners in the Wyman Building may be feeling the pinch, according to Brian Burg, property manager for Eberhardt Property Management Co., which manages the Wyman Building. "Economics put people out of business," said Berg. "These [art galleries] are businesses, not museums."

According to Nicollet Mall gallery owners old and new, the increased competition of galleries on the mall hasn't been a problem. If anything, it's been a boon. And gallery owners have teamed up on marketing efforts to advertise at Orchestra hall events and they have published a guide to the Nicollet Mall gallery district that's distributed in hotel lobbies around the city.

In the future, gallery owners might even sponsor a Nicollet Mall gallery crawl or hold a traveling art auction, where people move from gallery to gallery bidding on art as they go.

Describing the nature of competition in the Nicollet Mall gallery district, Jonathan Carver, co-owner of the Vern Carver Gallery, said, "It's not like we're Target of Kmart vying to compete over the price of toilet paper or toothpaste." The uniqueness of each gallery's stock enhances the selection of fine art in the area, thus drawing a wider clientele, he said.

"People are actually quite surprised that there are so many galleries," said Carver. And the Nicollet Mall galleries go over big with tourists who stay in downtown hotels or visit the Minneapolis Convention Center, he added.

The best way to describe the Nicollet Mall gallery district is to highlight its contrasts. Gallery owners say there are works of art please every budget: pieces pricey enough for the hallowed halls of Sotheby's as well as paintings, lithographs and objets d'art affordable enough for the most modest homes. Collectibles range from $5 to $50,000 and include limited-edition prints, original oils and watercolors, pottery, jewelry, furnishings and handmade crafts.

One gallery might specialize in representational art, while its neighbor might display abstract or avant-garde works. Many galleries feature artists from Minnesota and the Midwest as well as those from across the Americas and Europe.

There's everything from the conservative but tasteful 19th and 20th century paintings at the Beard Art Galleries and the whimsical animation cels at Jean Stephen Galleries, to a quilt of Bette Davis at Perspectives and the original paintings of 1950s pinup girls at Bill Daley Fine Art Gallery. At Nairobi Minneapolis, shoppers can find hand-worked African figurines and jewelry that come directly from the store's owners who live in Kenya.

Some Nicollet Mall galleries appraise and restore artwork, handle estate sales and provide custom framing. There are also gallery owners who like to engage customers with their warm conversation and anecdotes.

Even with all the variety, some people are looking for something else. Bill Daley, whose Bill Daley Fine Art Gallery opened on the mall 19 years ago, finds he's often visited by people who just want to talk. Daley, an All-American football player for the University of Minnesota and the University of Michigan who later played professionally in the 1940s, said, "Some people just come in to talk football, but don't know much about painting."

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david southgate
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