Free Radical Gallery contributes to revitalization of Heartside


A spider is one of the many diverse pieces of art that have been exhibited at the Free Radical Gallery show in the last 10 years. Courtesy Avenue for the Arts

For a decade, the Free Radical Gallery art show has popped up for one night during the fall, filling vacant buildings and established businesses, mostly along South Division Avenue, and attracting artists and visitors to a handful of blocks downtown.

This year, celebrating its 10th anniversary and now an Avenue of the Arts staple, the show will expand to two nights, Friday, Oct. 26, and Friday, Nov. 2. There will be 192 local artists and 25 participating venues, some of them businesses and some of them vacant spaces that have been transformed into galleries for the event.

Artist Mark Rumsey established Free Radical Gallery in 2002 as a unique way of bringing awareness to underdeveloped areas of the city and helping artists show their work. Initially it was a part of the Dwelling Place’s Wealthy Main Street Program. It moved to South Division as Wealthy Street began to experience healthy development.

“Obviously if you are on Wealthy Street now, there are not a lot of vacant spaces,” said Jenn Schaub, neighborhood revitalization associate for Dwelling Place. “When we started the Free Radical show, the idea was to utilize some vacant spaces, utilize spaces that people weren’t getting into. I was just driving down Wealthy Street and there are very few available spaces along the street. The same thing goes with Cherry Hill. As we are working on the event this year in Heartside, along Avenue for the Arts, that same thing goes. We are seeing fewer available vacant spaces. Some of the spaces we are in are vacant, but we are also partnering a lot with businesses.

“It has a different feel than it did 10 years ago. Ten years ago a bit of the excitement was around seeing a space you’d never seen before. Now it’s really focused on this idea of local artists creating a show in conjunction, in partnership, with the business district.”

Coordinated by the Dwelling Place as part of its neighborhood revitalization program, Free Radical Gallery is one of multiple efforts the organization is making to help encourage economic development along South Division in the Heartside neighborhood.

Another effort that has been successful is attracting artists to the corridor to live and work.

“Artists started to be interested in having longer-term spaces, in looking at studio spaces, finding out about apartments,” Schaub said. “As that interest began to grow, especially along South Division, Dwelling Place started looking at how some of the buildings along the street could be utilized for longer-term solutions for those artists.”

During 2005-2006, Dwelling Place opened up 24 units to artists for rent. Today, Schaub said there are 60 units of live/work spaces along South Division, including units owned by another developer.

Attracting residents to the neighborhood is a huge sign of success. In addition, many new businesses have entered the Heartside neighborhood, encouraging regular diners and shoppers to the street.

Economic development comes with a set of challenges, and one big challenge for South Division is how to integrate the new with the old. South Division serves a vast homeless population through well-established organizations like Guiding Light Mission and Degage Ministries. The neighborhood has had to try and answer the question of how to bring in new businesses and residents without displacing the many people who seek essential services on South Division.

“I think we really try to focus on the fact that a healthy community is a diverse community,” Schaub said. “That diversity means a lot of different things, individuals of all different backgrounds and occupations. It means that the creative community doesn’t have a boundary of age, race or income.

“Now, that means that we would like to see diversity all the way around within the community. Right now there is a lot of affordable housing within the area; we’d like to see a wider array of housing stock. I think we are seeing more of that and that’s very exciting. We are working specifically with the shelters along South Division. That is an ongoing dialogue. It’s not something that we’ve found a magic solution where everyone is always happy. I know that there are sometimes challenges for the residents living in the live/work spaces, just as there are sometimes challenges for the clients using the shelter program, the neighbors that are utilizing Heartside Gallery, and we are all working together trying to figure out the best solution to retaining the parts of what we feel is a really healthy community. I would say that the entire neighborhood of Heartside is constantly looking at how we can better those relationships and further the dialogue, and making sure that everyone is included as much as possible at the table, because that is not an easy task.”

Though South Division has seen a lot of success through focusing on the arts, Schaub said that she doesn’t think that is a one-size-fits-all solution for other neighborhoods looking to revitalize. She said that South Division was known as an arts neighborhood long before Free Radical Gallery and other arts events came along.

“I think that arts and culture are essential to the whole of the city,” Schaub said. “It doesn’t mean that every single neighborhood or business district needs to have an arts-related focus, but I do think that having a really healthy creative community and cultural community is vital. It’s what makes an urban area very different than sometimes a rural community, because we will be the home to major cultural destinations.”

South Division gained a big cultural destination footprint when the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts relocated there in 2011. In addition, the street got some attention this year during ArtPrize when some of the juried short list recognitions landed there at UICA, Calvin College’s (106) Gallery and Pub 43.

As it celebrates its 10th anniversary, Free Radical Gallery is innovating again, this time by focusing on creating dialogue through the event. The Nov. 2 evening will include an opportunity to listen to “documenters” who have been selected to share their personal feedback about the work on display.

“From working with the creative community, one of the things I love is we’re not afraid to try different things, and we aren’t afraid to figure out what is going to make an event a little bit more dynamic,” Schaub said. “I think this is part of what makes participation from the artists, the creatives, the curators and the documenters, this is where it becomes very fulfilling for them, because, frankly, not all of them are going to sell work. Very few of them are going to sell work, so a lot of it has to do with making this a fulfilling participation. It’s a great experience in multiple ways.”

Besides being a great opportunity for artists to gain exposure and network with one another, the event is a nice chance for entrepreneurs to visit the area.

“This is a great time to come down and experience the community at its best and get to know some people and make some connections,” Schaub said.

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