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Now you see it, now you don't: Pop-up art galleries

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 27, 2012 - Finding a cool venue, plopping down a hefty deposit and signing a lease is one way to secure art exhibition space. But what if you have the ambition but lack the money -- or time? Or if you’re just not interested in a long-term commitment?

Temporary art galleries are popping up with more frequency in the current economy. Starting out in more expensive cities such as New York and Chicago, they’re also becoming popular with artists and art promoters in St. Louis.

In an exhibit opening Friday, The Luminary Centre for the Arts pays tribute to five closed or changed pop-up galleries: Proper Gallery, PSTL Gallery, Cosign Projects, Los Caminos and Pig Slop. They each operated in alternative spaces, such as artists’ residences or storefront windows, and around other full-time work.

Over the course of a year, as The Luminary’s James McAnally worked with the galleries on the exhibit, things began to shift.

“One by one, the owners would move or get a different job and have to close,” McAnally said. “Then it became kind of a portrait of where these types of spaces operate and that uncertainty around them.”

Illustrating the lack of a safety net for such spaces is the name of the show: “Social Security.” It’s part of The Luminary’s year-long series, “How to Build a World That Won’t Fall Apart.”

“It’s all about how artist-run and alternative spaces sustain themselves in times of economic uncertainty,” McAnally said.

‘You barely need any money’

“Social Security” is a collection of mini-exhibits from each of the five venues. PSTL’s contribution literally consists of miniatures of previous shows. Cosign is showing a series of flags, harking back to earlier exhibits that flew from the gallery owners’ home.

Remember that house in south St. Louis that acquired a white “housecoat” embellished with gold chains in spring 2011? That was the residence of Cosign owners Jake Peterson and former Washington University professor Lauren Adams, who’ve since moved to Baltimore. During its heyday, their home/art gallery housed exhibits in the front widows as well as flapping from poles embedded in the bricks.

Adams is making her own flags for “Social Security.” Bleached onto their surfaces is text from Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem “Dirge Without Music.”

“It’s about loss and desire and the idea of passage, and marking something that’s gone,” Adams said. “I wanted to reflect on how the show at The Luminary is about the passage of some of these spaces.”

Adams has also collaborated with others in creating exhibits in different temporary spaces, including a group show in a vacant Lemp Brewery building two years ago. Its title, “Sweet Jesus,” was taken from graffiti on the walls. For this show and other pop-ups, Adams and Peterson worked with owners to make the space affordable.

‘We would do some of the care and maintenance to make it possible. We did some light repairs to make it safe for people; and a lot of the artists, especially students, would make sure to clean up things,” Adams said.

There’s even a website that tells you how to set up a temporary venue, something Adams sees as a growing trend that makes sense.

“You don’t need some director or some administrator, you don’t even need a curator -- you barely even need any money,” Adams said. “If you want to do a show, find somebody who has an empty building and tell them you’ll get people in their door.”

Of pigs and pedestals

Of course, every idea has a downside. A local group called The Transients has successfully staged two pop-up shows this year, one in an apartment being vacated by founders Travis Howser and Gina Grafos in conjunction with third founder B.j. Vogt, and another in an unused Grand Center space.

The trio plans on four shows a year and is scouting locations for the next one. While the concept works well for them, Howser said it’s not for everyone.

“You’re going to have limited control of the space, and a curator’s dream is complete control of a space” Howser said. “And a big part of our work is finding space -- it takes a lot of energy.”

But their first space was literally under their noses.

“Why don’t we move out a week or two early and put up a pop-up art show?” Howser asked Grafos. “Yeah, great idea,” Grafos replied.

Two hundred people showed up the first night to see the works of art and to enjoy the sausages cooked inside one of them: a grill making up the mouth of a Sarah Palin-inspired sculpture. “It was designed to fit a full suckling pig,” Howser said.

The artist, who was moving the piece from Memphis to Chicago, planned a St. Louis stop around the exhibit, called “For Rent.”

The Transients’ second show also included a bit of serendipity. Howser, who works for Grand Center, was able to secure an unused space next to the Kranzberg Arts Center for “Analog.”

Even some of the “Analog” art was designed to be temporary. Vogt, a freelance art handler, borrowed some mockups, placeholders on cardboard pedestals, from The Pulitzer’s “Reflections of the Buddha” and “In the Still Epiphany.”

“It added a layer to the show about where does the artwork begin and end?” Vogt said.

It’s not just young artists, students and city dwellers who are interested in pop-up art galleries. Sixty-five-year-old photographer Anna Jackson of St. Charles also looks for offbeat, inexpensive places to show her work.

The St. Peters Art Centre provides some space. But response to online questions for the Beacon through the Public Insight Network, Jackson said she’d like to see institutions like the St. Louis Zoo, Botanical Garden and Butterfly House hold amateur photo contests to open up more opportunities.

“Artists need a place with a welcoming atmosphere to encourage them to display their art,” Jackson said. “If a gallery only has shows by invitation to those who are known artists, how will a new artist become known?”

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.

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