Coup D?Art

by Lesley Frenz
My parents both grew up in Jacksonville. My mother used to tell me stories about getting dressed up in her best dress, hat and gloves to go shopping at Cohen Brothers Downtown as a girl in the 1950s. Then, thanks to the growth of suburbia around the outskirts of Jacksonville, Downtown became a kind of no-man’s land for pretty much the next 50 years. But now, thanks in part to the downturn in the economy, a few forward thinkers and a steadily growing arts community, Downtown Jacksonville is once more a bustling destination.
“Off the Grid” is a program that works with Downtown Vision and the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville, matching artists with downtown property owners to give the artists a place to create, display and sell their artwork, helping draw more people and, therefore businesses, downtown. With fourteen galleries currently participating and the Downtown art scene gaining momentum, the program seems to be hitting its sweet spot.
One of the more recent additions to the Off the Grid roster is VAULT, a gallery space curated by the art consultant duo of Steve Williams and Cabeth Cornelius, Williams-Cornelius. VAULT, located in what was once the vault of the Atlantic Bank building on Forsyth Street, complete with the old vault doors intact, could be the coolest gallery space Downtown. Williams-Cornelius matches the uniqueness of the space by bringing in more edgy, contemporary work. This pair is working hard to usher Jacksonville into becoming a haven for more edgy, contemporary work by emerging artists. Williams, a well-known local artist himself, and Cornelius, Program Director for the JIA Arts Commission are well versed in contemporary art, so if you are looking for a well-curated, thoughtfully hung, give-me-something-to-really-think about art experience, VAULT Gallery is the place to visit.
Another well-known local artist making a home for his work downtown is photographer Thomas Hager. Hager and his wife Missy have created a space to display his work on the ground floor of the Suntrust Tower on Laura Street. This gallery has a slightly more corporate feel, but the clean marble and neutral palette create a simple, beautiful environment for Hager’s sophisticated and elegant photography and original mixed-media abstract paintings. His photography work employs vintage photographic processes that give his photographs a hand-touched, painterly quality rarely seen in this digital age. Hager’s work is widely collected and sought after by high-end designers and collectors and can be found in many private, corporate and museum collections. But despite this more corporate success, the Hagers sought to reach a wider audience and eradicate the myth that only the rich are able to become art collectors. In January 2011, the couple officially launched “Town Editions,” affordable limited editions of Hager’s work that retain the beauty of his original processes, but at price levels more accessible to younger collectors.
Southlight Gallery on West Forsyth Street may be the most stylistically diverse of the Off the Grid galleries. Southlight is a cooperative gallery space, showcasing the artwork of over twenty established and emerging North Florida artists. Work by locally renowned and highly collected artists such as painters Allison Watson and Jim Draper and sculptor Enzo Torcoletti are displayed alongside work of “artists on the verge,” such as photographers Jane Shirek and Doug Eng and assemblage artist Jim Smith. The wide variety of artists and mediums on view at Southlight make the gallery an enjoyable experience no matter what your artistic bent. Though filled with work by some of the most well-known names in the Jacksonville art scene, Southlight Gallery retains a casual, decidedly unstuffy atmosphere, complete with a chalkboard floor space where kids can pick up colored chalk to create a masterpiece of their own.
If you like your art with a shot of whimsy, Next Gallery is your best bet. Located in the Elks Building on North Laura Street, this colorful space reflects the eclectic style of its owner, Atlantic Beach artist Sharla Valeski. In addition to Valeski’s mixed media work, Next also carries the work of controversial artist Lee Harvey, black and white photography by Mark Sain Wilson, the playful felt work of Caroline Daily and hand-blown glass by Nick Beaman. Next is not only filled with innovative original art, but is also the perfect spot if you are looking for a unique gift for someone special or maybe just a little something to add an artistic spark to your own home.
With so many Off the Grid galleries popping up, a diverse and dedicated downtown art community seems poised for an artistic revolution in Jacksonville. And it’s about time. The spaces are waiting, the artists are ready and it seems that Jacksonville is hungry for change. Let them have art!

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