a space to call their own

photos: Anthony Hodge
photos: Anthony Hodge
photos: Anthony Hodge

Jacksonville’s newest art studio/gallery provides new vision for downtown’s unused property by jack diablo
There’s just no sense in letting a good thing go to waste. Luckily for a handful of local artists, even Downtown Jacksonville recognizes this simple fact of life. Rather than let prime urban real estate go unoccupied, a reminder of the current economic crisis, several property owners recently teamed up with Downtown Vision Inc. to fill said locations with artists in need of studio or gallery space.
The program, initiated by Downtown Vision’s Terry Lorince, began in September with an open house of available spaces put on by DVI and the Cultural Council. Those interested were put in contact with the landlords and negotiations began to iron out the arrangements. One such artist is Matt Abercrombie, who along with a group of like-minded artists, were put in touch with DVI through Jim Draper, another Jacksonville artist.
“I think it is a win-win to have artists in spaces downtown,” as Draper puts it. “Get more spaces like that going and the results are exponential.”
Although there were many prime locations perfectly suited for artists to utilize, Abercrombie’s gaze kept returning to the building at 229 North Hogan Street above Hemming Plaza Jewelers.
Before Matt et al descended upon the space, it was nothing more than a vast, brick-walled loft full of potential. Looking at it now, one can see that potential fully realized. A variety of artists have laid claim to corners on one side while the other half serves as a gallery space displaying pieces from whatever show is currently being held. With views overlooking Hemming Plaza and a wealth of local talent, it seems the perfect spot to find a little inspiration.
There are currently nine artists sharing the work space including a visiting illustrator from Copenhagen, Denmark. Nearly every medium from screen-printing to acrylics to spray paint seems to be represented within its walls. Several collaborative pieces can be found taking shape as the occupants of 229 N. Hogan begin to mesh and their individual styles bleed over into one another. It is more than a simple studio/gallery. It is a place where the foundations of community and culture are built and ideas are shared. Even when empty, it is a showcase of some of the most creative minds in Jacksonville; but when those minds are present, the place comes alive with an energy that can be clearly felt.
The space hosted its first show during the November Art Walk. Fellow artists and friends who have known about the project were sure to come check out the new digs, but to ensure the show was not ignored by the general public, Matt had the gallery added to the Art Walk map. For some, Art Walk is nothing more than a party to see and be seen. For others, it’s actually about seeing as much art as possible.
“They actually look at the map and use it to try and hit every spot,” says Tom Pennington, one of the studio’s tenants. “That’s their experience.”
For whatever reason Matt said that a few art-walkers seemed surprised or even shocked upon entering the gallery. Perhaps it was the mathy prog-rock coming from Buff Clout’s speakers or the outsider art on the walls. Whatever it was, it caught them off guard.
“It’s definitely not your typical gallery vibe,” admits Abercrombie. “But that’s what makes it fun. It’s more of a party.”
Perhaps they were simply amazed at what a few clever collaborators can be capable of when given the opportunity.
Even though the event attracted an estimated 500 visitors, the group seemed wholly unconcerned about making any sales that night. Turning a profit is simply not a part of the spaces raison d’etre. As Matt explains, “It can’t be about getting the money back because that would ruin it.” The tenants funded the entire event completely out of their own pockets, something that wouldn’t ordinarily be possible without such low overhead.
“I might be a nicer guy than most, but to me the experience was worth the money I spent,” says Pennington. “At least people are getting out and seeing stuff. It’s not really about whether they’re buying it or not.”
In addition to putting on their own shows, the space is available for other artists, curators and groups to use the gallery for their own events. AIGA will host “Designers in Toyland,” a custom toy show benefitting the Big Toy Box during the December Art Walk, and “Femme Fatales,” an art show celebrating women is scheduled for December 11th. Even though other entities are utilizing their facility, the group has no plans to profit from opening up the space. “We don’t want to charge people to have shows, we just have to figure out a way to make it sustainable. Try to get it to pay for itself somehow,” Matt says.
Unfortunately, outlets such as this one tend to have an expiration date attached to them. Before the Hemming space was fully realized, the short-lived but highly buzzed-about venue to catch the more underground side of Art Walk was the basement of the Hayden Burns Library or the OLB (Old Library Basement) as referred to it by its visitors. Before that it was the Thief in the Knight Gallery. The Hemming space is no exception. The underlying purpose of DVI’s program was to highlight these unused spaces so that potential tenants might get a look at their potential while the public generated buzz on the locations. “We’re just here to get people in to see the space,” confesses Abercrombie or as Tom puts it, “to provide an open house.” Fully conscious of the terms of their situation, the resident artists intend to make the best out of it. “We could be here three months and be gone. It’s just the nature of the set-up,” Matt points out. After the initial three month lease, the artists will remain in the studio on a month-to-month basis until someone steps in to fully lease the property. The landlord envisions a law firm.
No matter how long the Hemming space remains a reality, its tenants and the cast of others who embrace the DIY ethic of art, music and culture in Jacksonville will continue to find venues for their creative outlet. But as Matt puts it, “It will be hard to top this.”