By Brent Owen | Feature
Downtown Louisville only gets prettier with age. Lately, it’s been getting a little bit of help from local artists and the Alley Gallery project, an initiative that has been collaborating with our city’s finest visual artists to bring their work into our city’s alleyways, bringing touches of beauty to forgotten pockets of the downtown landscape.
“Why hide artwork in alleys?” one might ask.
Imagine yourself on a crowded downtown sidewalk; a bump here, a nudge there, rushing to a meeting you’re going to be late for anyway. Remembering a shortcut, you break away from the hustle and bustle of civilization and dip into an alley. Amid the forgotten refuge of urban sprawl, usually adorned with no more than loading docks, trash cans and overflowing dumpsters, you walk, collecting your thoughts into something vaguely resembling order, and you come across something unexpected.
A door catches your eye, colors popping from the usual concrete and steel gray of downtown. It’s a painting. Not the mindless scribble of back-alley graffiti, but a real honest-to-God piece of art right there on someone’s back door. Something beautiful and deliberate with a voice and technique that only true artists can capture. It’s surprising. Out of place. But like a rose growing through the crack in a sidewalk, uncovering a thing of beauty in the least likely of places can be a gentle reminder that no matter where you are, something beautiful is never far away.
Your first thought is something along the lines of, “How did this get here? How does something worthy of a gallery wall find its way to such a forgotten place?” Well, the answer is the Alley Gallery, a project spearheaded by Louisville Downtown Partnership. a local action group with the following mission: “We are researchers, planners, and strategists with talents focused on sustainability, environmental and community experiences in downtown Louisville. We are here to promote, analyze, coordinate, create and welcome.” In short, they are a coalition of deeply passionate people with the common goal of enriching our downtown community.
The idea of bringing the Alley Gallery to Louisville was hatched by Ken Herndon, special projects coordinator for Louisville Downtown Partnership, last fall. He studied art while he was a student at Murray State University, and still holds a deep love and enthusiasm for it. He somewhat eschewed the arts in the name of more business-minded pursuits. Initially falling into the real estate game, Herndon ended up at the Louisville Downtown Partnership in 1997. For the last two decades, he has dedicated his career to building downtown Louisville into a stronger and more inviting community.
Louisville is not the first city to decorate its alleys. Incorporating art into the urban landscape is a concept larger cities have been adopting for years. “What we’re doing in Louisville is kind of a hybrid of several ideas I’ve seen in other cities’ applications,” Herndon says. There are at least two similar alley door installations in California in the cities of Los Angeles and Pamona.
Although, Herndon and Louisville Downtown Partnership led the charge, they were not going to be able to undertake this task alone. It would require the cooperation of local artists and local businesses – all unified under the purpose of making art more readily available to the people. The Alley Gallery affords the opportunity to be up close, face-to-face with the work itself. People can reach out and touch it. They’re not in a gallery or museum; they’re on the sidewalk. They’re in a public place where anyone, regardless of age, race or sexual orientation, can stand side by side, unified in their appreciation for the inherent beauty that exists within art.
“I think any kind of public art is beautiful,” says Victor Sweatt, one of the artists whose work can be found on a few downtown doors. “I’ve seen places all around the country do this so I’m glad we’re embracing it now.”
Sweatt is a self-taught painter who works in a variety of mediums. “I’ll work with anything I can get my hands on: markers, crayons, cigarette ashes – I will use anything that can leave a mark.” He has also been known to work with watercolors and charcoal, and says someday he would like to eventually get into sculpture. His painting “Ride Along” can be found at the Marriott Downtown, and another piece called “Bases Loaded” can be found at 4th Street Live!
“I like painting people,” he says of his work. “Everyday heroes. I have a thing about observation. People or things that most other people would pass right by are things that stand out to me.”
It took Herndon and his background in the arts to know that there were countless local artists like Sweatt who the Louisville Downtown Project could support by simply showcasing their work. And he decided the Alley Gallery concept was just niche enough to excite local artists and art enthusiasts alike.
“Anytime you can add vitality to a streetscape it helps build the community,” Herndon says. “Back doors and alleys are certainly not the places you would look for that kind of thing. That’s what we love about this, the discovery aspect. It’s not front and center. It’s around the corner or down there. It gives you a real sense of discovery.”
Once Herndon came to the conclusion that this was the initiative he wanted to bring to Louisville, he embarked on a months-long journey to see it fulfilled. In order for the Alley Gallery to happen, it would not only require an endless amount of coordination between businesses and artists, but would also require logistical planning. Acquiring proper permits and consulting with the mayor’s office and the fire marshal were just a few of the countless moving pieces that all had to fall into place for a program like this to launch.
Once the project had been given the green light, they had to figure out how to not only showcase artwork outdoors but display them in a manner that could withstand the Ohio Valley’s eclectic weather patterns. Eventually, Herndon determined they could photograph the original piece with an extremely high resolution camera, so nuance and brush strokes could be retained. Then, the detailed image of the artwork could be transferred to the same commercial grade vinyl used to advertise on buses. And then those vinyl reprints could be applied to the alley doors.
The next hurdle was a multi-faceted one. Who was going to pay for it? Who was going to let them use their doors? And how would the artists be compensated for their work? Herndon came to a simple resolution: Why solve three separate problems with three separate solutions when you can solve them all with one? He figured since the buildings themselves were being decorated with legitimate artwork, the owners should choose which pieces they would like to display and pay for the installation. In purchasing the artwork, the building owners became named sponsors of the project. And from the sponsorship money, the vinyl recreation was made and installed, and the artists were paid $300 for each door their work appeared on. This model also allowed the artists ownership of the original piece of artwork. As of the publication of this story, they have distributed $15,000 to local artists who have (or will soon have) their work displayed on doors around town.
“Any time Louisville can incorporate art, I think it really serves the community well,” says Joyce Garner, another artist whose work is featured in the project. “I know it’s only a small percentage of people who love art as much as I do, but it’s a really great place to dedicate our resources.”
Garner describes her work as “always narrative, generally featuring people interacting with each other, animals or nature.” A few of her featured paintings are “Peaches (Detail)” at the Marriott Downtown, plus “Cellist” and “Cantaloupe,” which are both featured at Riverside Parking. Garner also showcases art as the owner of Garner Narrative Art Gallery on East Market Street.
Once the logistics were ironed out, Herndon put the word out to local artists, galleries and art associations that they were looking for submissions. Louisville Downtown Partnership announced the project with a huge press conference on May 11 of this year. They launched with only two buildings on board: Riverside Parking and 4th Street Live! They now have 52 pieces featured around town, and are on pace to reach 100 by the end of the year.
As of now, they are only focused on downtown’s central business district, Hancock to 9th Street and York to the River. However, they have been getting a lot of inquiries from building owners South of Broadway and in NuLu as well, so Herndon anticipates expanding the breadth of the project in the near future. A map to all of the pieces can be found on the Alley Gallery page of Louisville Downtown Project’s website in hopes that people will utilize their phones to take self-guided pilgrimages downtown to see the works in person.
“If you look at tourism and the impact the arts have on that, cultivating art is imperative to our community’s well-being,” Garner says. “And artists are really connecting with this idea; they’re delighted with it, honestly. Six months from now, we’re going to purposely be getting lost in our city’s alleys.” And, yes, by “lost” she means it in the very best sense of the word. VT
The Alley Gallery