Pillars of the community

When Gainesville's performing and visual artists began moving downtown, they helped ignite the creative spark needed to resuscitate a dying city center


Published: Friday, March 29, 2013 at 2:11 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 29, 2013 at 2:11 p.m.

The Hippodrome State Theatre's classical revival-style building in the heart of downtown Gainesville has become an icon for a downtown district that's slowly coming back to life.

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Counter-clockwise from top, Randy Batista of Gallery 21, Mary Hausch of the Hippodrome Theatre, Nancy Hyer, director of Artwalk, and artist Ellie Blair in front of the Hippodrome Theatre.

Doug Finger/Staff Photographer

But the building's familiar facade and massive Corinthian columns also stand for something more: the crucial role the lively and visual arts have played in the revitalization of the city center. In fact, if it hadn't been for the visual and performing artists, who braved the boarded up buildings and blight and began moving downtown during the 1970s and 1980s, the lively downtown cultural and business scene we enjoy now may never have gotten off the ground.

Today, downtown Gainesville is enjoying a cultural renaissance. In addition to The Hippodrome — the jewel in downtown Gainesville's cultural crown — the city center is also home to art galleries, dozens of art studios, a print co-op, the state's oldest artistans guild, a public plaza and bandshell that hosts free concerts every Friday, an avant-garde community theater, a monthly downtown artwalk and two major art festivals.

New this year: a city- sponsored Jest Fest featuring weekly family-friendly cirque and variety acts at the Bo Diddley Community Plaza throughout the month of April. Building on the idea of April Fool's day, event coordinator David Ballard says Jest Fest is designed to bring to the plaza “an overall month of merriment.” Each Saturday night features a new performance from such world-class acts as The Amazing Cirikli Stilt Bird puppets, noted for their shows at Epcot Center, and the internationally acclaimed silent clown from Paris, Arsene Dupin. The month-long festival culminates on April 27 with the famous circus stunt masters, The Flying Wallendas.

In a resurgence of activity, areas to the north and south of the city center recently have attracted even more artists and cultural offerings, including a children's theater and a new community cultural center —The Doris Bardon Community Cultural Center — on North Main Street. And the “South Main Art District” currently houses the Civic Media Center, a food co-op, an animation studio and a trash-to-treasure recycled art center, The Repurpose Project, though the city is poised to purchase some of these properties for its new fire station.

Even so, says Eleanor Blair, a painter who owns an art studio and gallery on South Main Street, “Downtown has become a destination instead of a place you drive through as fast as possible to get from point A to point B.”

But it wasn't so long ago that downtown Gainesville was in need of resuscitation — and the arts provided some of those first vital breaths.

Festive occasions

There's perhaps no better demonstration of the power of the arts to draw people into the downtown district than the two art festivals that take place there every spring and fall: Santa Fe College's Spring Arts Festival (April 6-7) and the city-sponsored Downtown Festival & Art Show (November 16-17). Both festivals bring in up to 250 artists to show and sell original works of art, along with music, performances, children's activities and food vendors. The festivals attract more than 100,000 people downtown during each of the annual weekend events.

The SFC Spring Arts Festival, now in its 44th year, is a regular rite of spring for many Gainesvillians. The festival takes place against a backdrop of historic homes along Northeast First Street in the Duckpond neighborhood.

The Spring Arts Festival was joined in 1981 by the Downtown Festival & Art Show, organized by the City of Gainesville's Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs Department. The downtown art festival takes place during November in the heart of historic downtown Gainesville.

“This event is truly a community event, yet it is nationally recognized as the No. 13 best fine art show in the country,” says events coordinator Linda Piper.

Spring Arts Festival coordinator Kathryn Lehman says that, in addition to the crowds, the festivals pump millions of dollars into the local economy.

“A lot of people think of the arts as just fluff,” says Lehman, who's served as the festival's coordinator for the past 20 years, “but artists and the arts actually make a substantial contribution to the community.”

Staging a comeback

Festivals do a fine job of drawing weekend visitors to the area. But it was the permanent residents that began breathing life into the dying city center. Among the first to brave the blight and boarded up buildings: The Hippodrome Theatre. Producing director and founding member Mary Hausch says the theater was operating out of a warehouse on North U.S. 441 in 1978 when they heard that the old federal building downtown might be available to them.

The building, constructed in 1911, originally served as a courthouse and post office. In 1978, the Alachua County School Board had been using it for storage. The Hipp staff saw beyond the layers of institutional green paint, paneling and indoor-outdoor carpeting to a world of possibilities, not just for their mainstage productions, but also for educational programs, festivals, cinema and more.

“Everyone was ecstatic,” Hausch recalls. “We all wanted to move downtown. But when we met with our board, they said, ‘Why would you want to move downtown? Everyone is moving out west. Downtown is dead.'”

The theater troupe reasoned that downtown Gainesville wasn't any more difficult for audiences to get to than either of the other buildings they had occupied since the theater's inception in 1973, including an old 7-Eleven on Hawthorne Road.

The theater staff and hundreds of volunteers began renovating the building in 1979 with help from a $175,000 matching grant from the National Endowment of the Arts. When they peeled away the paint, paneling and carpeting, they uncovered a gem of a building underneath.

“It was such a beautiful building...the antique glass, the brass, the heart-of-pine floors and the marble,” she says. The city owns the building and maintains its exterior, while the theater is responsible for the interior.

Two years later, in January 1981, the Hipp opened its doors downtown with “Elephant Man.” That same year, it earned the distinction of becoming a state theater.

Now, the Hipp — celebrating its 40th year — is one of the leading regional theaters in the country, drawing some 60,000 people downtown each year to watch its stage performances, enjoy a foreign or avant-garde film in its cinema or participate in one of its workshops, youth educational programs or other activities. And the steady stream of repeat visitors headed downtown to go to the Hipp, helped set the stage for other businesses to move in.

from hair salon to art studio

Meanwhile, visual artists were sowing their own seeds for a successful downtown rebound.

Photographer Randy Batista moved to Gainesville from Tampa in the early 1970s to attend the University of Florida. He decided to stay in town after graduating, and in 1981, he had set up shop — ­and his home— in a duplex across from what is now The Warehouse restaurant on South Main Street. He often walked a couple of blocks up the street to get a haircut at The Super Hair Salon in what's known as the Pontiac building on Southeast Second Place.

“One day in passing, I mentioned, ‘Hey, if this place ever comes up for rent, let me know, because I love the building,” Batista recalls telling the salon owner. Six weeks later, the owner called Batista to say he was moving out.

Batista moved into the building and opened Media Image Photography where, over the years, he built a reputation for natural portraiture that captured the personalities and moods of his subjects. His creative fundraisers for area charities also commanded a crowd. The most popular was Sole Sisters in 2003, in which he invited artists to design funky shoes for notable area women, which were then modeled by the women and exhibited in the studio gallery. That event and a similar one in 2000 raised more than $75,000 for the Acorn Clinic to help pay for mammograms for women who couldn't afford them. Over the years, he's also held fundraisers to benefit area pet rescues and the Peaceful Paths domestic abuse network.

Batista's Gallery 21 — once a gas station, a Pontiac car dealership, a motorcycle repair shop and a hair salon — now hosts exhibits from nationally- and internationally-renowned artists. He says visual artists often set up shop in blighted areas because “artists are looking for cheap places to set up their studios.” And like so many other down-in-the-heels areas in other cities across the nation, artists typically serve as catalysts to renovating those areas.

“They move in and once you get that spark going, it becomes pretty cool and pretty hip,” Batista says.

a studio of her own

Painter Eleanor Blair's search for inexpensive studio space also led her downtown in the mid-1980s, when, she says, four out of five storefronts were vacant.

“Downtown had a terrible face that it presented to the world,” she recalls.

She struck a deal with her friend and then-owner of Lillian's Music Store, George Swinford. He allowed her to set up her studio in an office on the second floor above the bar free of charge, with the understanding that he would continue to offer the space for rent and that she'd move out the moment he found a renter.

“For six glorious months, I used that studio space above Lillian's,” Blair says. “I never had more in there than my easel, a box of paints and a record player. But it was such a great thing to have a room that's just to work in.”

Six months later, Blair had to move out. But she didn't give up. Instead, she presented to then-mayor Beverly Hill her vision of having artists pay property owners low rent for temporary studio space in vacant buildings. As the idea circulated among city officials and property owners, it caught the attention of Benjamin Tench, a circuit court judge who owned a number of buildings downtown, most of which had been vacant for years. He agreed to rent a building on the corner of South Main and Second Avenue to Blair and seven other artists. He liked the idea so much that, within a year, he met with Blair and city officials, agreeing to donate the building to the city provided the city continue to offer the studio space to artists for a low rate. He also asked that a plaque honoring his father be placed on the building.

Today, the second floor of the Tench Building continues to provide inexpensive studio space to artists. The ground floor houses the Sweetwater Print Co-op, where several artists pool their resources to share a 100-year-old hand-cranked press and studio space.

A few months later, Tench offered Blair the opportunity to rent — and eventually purchase — the building next door, where she now has a permanent gallery and art studio of her own.

A walk

to remember

One monthly event that continues to draw people to the city center is the downtown Artwalk, a self-guided walking tour of participating galleries, restaurants and other venues where original works by area artists are on display. The event, which is free of charge, usually takes place on the last Friday of every month. Maps of each Artwalk are available the Monday before the event at The Lunchbox Cafe on Southeast First Street and First Avenue, and at each of the participating venues.

Nancy Hyer, the current coordinator of Artwalk, says this year, the event has seen an uptick in the number of participating venues. Last year, an average of 12 galleries and other venues participated. This year, the number has jumped to 15 to 20.

She estimates an average of 1,000 people from all over Gainesville come downtown for Artwalk each month.

“I think it (Artwalk) plays a big role in bringing people downtown who may not already have visited businesses downtown,” says Hyer. “Once they are downtown visiting the galleries, they stop in at area businesses, as well.”

Hyer came to Gainesville in the late 1970s and earned an associates degree in fine art from Santa Fe College. She stayed on in Gainesville after graduating to work in interior design and raise her three children. Her current “day job” is creating and selling fashion-forward dog beds for her online business, The Nest Collection.

Eleanor Blair, a regular Artwalk participant who also had a hand in organizing some of the earliest downtown Artwalks back in the 1980s, says the changes she's seen over the years are all good. “I feel like I'm in this time bubble watching the evolution of downtown Gainesville outside my studio window ... and I love what I see.”

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