Preservation & Innovation at the 57th Annual St. James Art Show

Staff Writer

Connie Light recalls how over forty years ago, as she moved from New York to Louisville for graduate school, she got lost in storied Old Louisville. As she stumbled amongst the dusty Victorian mansions and gas lights of the small section of downtown, back then used primarily as boarding houses, she instantly fell in love.

“I got lost here when I moved from out of state and I wondered onto St James Court,” explains Light, “I knew straight away it was my home.” Forty years later and Connie Light has called Belgravia Court, next to St. James Court, home every single one of those years. She’s also the long-serving Chairwoman of the Belgravia Court section of the St. James Court Art Show.

On the first weekend of October, just as it has every year since 1957, the St. James Court Art Show will play host to hundreds of artists and thousands of visitors looking to soak up one of the largest open-air art shows in the country that brings the best artists and craftspeople from across the nation to the art-loving public in Kentucky.  During more than 50 years, the show has become such a beloved tradition that it’s almost one of the defining events that mark the start of fall in Louisville. Regularly attracting a crowd of 300,000 over the course of the staged weekend, this event is second in size only to the Kentucky Derby Festival. But the origins of the festival are much more humble in nature, a million miles away from the sea of bodies that flood the largest Victorian neighborhood in the country.

In 1957, faced with mounting costs to St. James Court, including the historic and iconic fountain at its epicenter, local residents decided that “they were tired of bake sales,” as described by Margue Esrock, Director of the St. James Court Art Show. “They instead hosted an art sale.” Neighbors strung up a rope between some trees and invited local artists to exhibit their work. With the $150 raised that was needed for the repairs, the adjoining streets and neighborhoods realized this was a new and innovative way of hosting an event that could easily cover for the area’s expenses plus allow them to have an impact on the larger city as well.

Today, the St. James Court Art Show is an amalgamation of teamwork amongst six local neighborhood organizations, including: Belgravia Court, South Fourth Street, Third Street, The 1300 Association, West End Baptist Church as well as St. James Court itself. Each organization focuses on its own section during the festival as well as spending any money raised with local charitable causes, a prime concern aside from the yearly maintenance works.

“One hundred percent of the money that we raise, goes back into the neighborhood,” explains Light. “Every little thing in the neighborhood we have to pay for ourselves. If a tree falls on Fourth St., the City will come get it. If if falls in Belgravia Court it’s our responsibility.”

One responsibility that Light will refuse to ever shirk is preserving the history of the neighborhood, such as the gas lamps the area is so well known for.

“Because we’re historical we have to preserve it just as the way it was, not just the way it looks. People don’t often think about that when they come here. Our gas lights for example are 24/7.” Light also is quick to point out that aside from helping with their own section they are keen to donate money to other worthwhile causes.

“We donated money recently to the regeneration of Fourth St. and Oak St. We also donate to scholarships.”

Aside from causes such as these, there is also the annual St. James Court Art Show Gala, which this year is the sixth to be staged and is aimed at benefiting The Louisville Zoo’s “School at The Zoo Program.” The gala scheduled for Sept. 28, will be held under tents at St. James Court and will be the lead event that kicks-off the annual St. James Court Art Show where the official poster will be unveiled. In addition, an Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Louisville Arts Community will be awarded to Churchill Davenport, President of the Kentucky School of Art.

But with such growth year after year, there is an expected influx of artists looking to participate in one of the premier events on the arts calendar. Thankfully, Esrock and her team at St. James have acquired new ways of sifting through the thousands of entries.

“It’s really an interesting process,” explains Esrock who says that each year artist turnover is close to 50 per cent, ensuring that visitors each year are faced with a swathe of new art. “About nine years ago we got together with the Western States Arts Federation to start using their online platform Zapp. It allows us to evaluate the entries online in real-time with the artists being able to monitor how they fare.” And it’s the art that always remains at the forefront.

“We’ve always stuck to a good variety of art and it’s for this reason that we’ve not added food or music to the event. We’ve always wanted the focus to be on the art.”

One of the obvious challenges that the art show organizing team faces each year though dealing with the influx of thousands of visitors and vendors converging from around the country is making them fit seamlessly into to the tight narrow streets of St. James Court and the surrounding areas. One concern is the environmental impact of increased traffic, something Esrock, Light and the art shows have tried to tackle by partnering with the Transit Authority of River City.

“TARC will run a shuttle service under their innovative ‘Park It, TARC it, Art It’ scheme,” explains Esrock, who says last year police estimated the number of visitors to the art show at 200,000 over the course of the weekend. The shuttle, which will run from downtown at the Brown Hotel garage, will picking up passengers every 15 minutes over the course of the day and drop them off at the fair. For $10, parking is even included in the garage.

With so many artists flooding into the city and the level of organization rising with each passing year, Esrock’s position has become busier and more demanding. What started out as a fundraiser some fifty years ago amongst residents to make small repairs is now the largest event of it’s kind in Louisville behind the Kentucky Derby Festival. And what started out as a part-time internship for Esrock, is now a full-time job all year round where she spends countless hours in a converted carriage house on the corner of Fourth Street and Magnolia pulling major strings on an art show now considered one of the top in the country – even if it’s something that occasionally Esrock wishes afforded more of a break.

“I typically work all the way through the weekend,” explains Esrock. “But occasionally on the Saturday at noon, it [the art show] is basically moving along by itself and I really know we’ve done our job. Even though I don’t get to do it  every year, occasionally I have a little holiday and a gift giving ceremony to celebrate another fair passing.”

One saving grace though is the time Esrock has to herself each day before she steps into the whirlwind of canvases and sculptures.

“I live in Jeffersontown, so let’s just say that I enjoy my 20 minute ride to work and home,” laughs Esrock.

As for Light, just as the gas lamps in Belgravia Court burn bright, so does her passion for fostering the unique atmosphere and appearance of her beloved home.

“It’s my home, I raised my children here and I love it. I would do anything to protect it. For that, I want to make sure we deliver the best art show possible.”