Nine students decide to put on a show Gallery: At the Maryland Institute, they learn to refine their talent. In their own gallery that opens today, they are learning the business side of their art.

February 07, 1997|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

As of yesterday afternoon, they had painted the walls, but they hadn't even started hanging the first show. Nevertheless, they insist that at 7 this evening they will definitely open the H. Lewis Gallery to the public. And, after what they've done so far, who's to say they won't?

They are a group of nine undergraduates at the Maryland Institute, College of Art -- sophomores, juniors and seniors, average age 21 -- and they're opening an art gallery in Bolton Hill. It's going to show student work (including theirs), but also the work of other artists in Bolton Hill and elsewhere in the community. It's not on institute property or controlled by the institute. It's in a previously empty gallery space at 1500 Bolton St. that was formerly the Folk Art Gallery and before that for many years was an antiques shop.

It's their idea, they're spending their money and putting their labor into it. And one of the ideas behind it, according to Greg McKenna, a junior from Massachusetts, is to prove their generation isn't a bunch of lazy slackers. "It's not true," he says. "People are motivated."

Others in the group express similar sentiments. "When you're dissatisfied about the way things are, you have to take action," says Matthew Gerring, a junior from Aberdeen.

"It's an opportunity to learn to be responsible and professional," says Deborah Johnson, a sophomore from Florida. "The whole do-it-yourself ethic is important, especially nowadays."

The idea began last fall with McKenna, who thought it would be good for students to have a gallery they controlled themselves -- something different from showing at the institute's student galleries, and an alternative to the very slim possibility of showing their work on the local gallery scene.

"I had envisioned a warehouse sort of space," says McKenna, "but when I saw this space I talked to friends, got the landlord's number and everything fell into place."

He makes it sound easy, but he and the rest of the group knew it wouldn't be. That was one of the attractions -- the opportunity for practical experience.

"It's a way for a group of students to be taken seriously," says Damon Bishop, a senior from Connecticut. "And to be learning stuff -- that's the most valuable thing. How to go about setting up a gallery. How to curate shows. Making connections -- the whole shebang."

The first thing was the lease. They got in touch with Peter Van Buren, owner of the building, and negotiated an initial six-month lease at $400 a month. That's less than he might have gotten for the space from someone else, he says -- "I could probably get a couple hundred more" -- but he's enthusiastic about the project. "I think it's incredible that they pulled this off on their own initiative," he says. "With that experience, they'll be way ahead of anyone else coming out of art school."

They also got a public liability insurance policy ($400 a year), and worked out a projected budget of about $3,000 to run the gallery for six months. They're contributing their own funds and planning to hold fund-raisers. Money they get from selling their own paintings will go back into the gallery, and they will take a small commission, 20 percent to 30 percent, from works sold in a juried show they plan to have in about two months.

To get the institute's approval of the project, they met with its president, Fred Lazarus. They not only got approval, they got help -- including financial advice, construction of display walls in the gallery space and a press release put out by the institute's public relations department.

"We wanted to do all we could to help facilitate their efforts," says Lazarus. "But it's their lease and they are going to man it and make the determination of what to show. I think the fact that students are taking the initiative and developing their own space is fabulous."

Another stop was Maryland Art Place, where program director Tex Andrews, himself an artist, advised them about a lot of things that go into setting up and running a gallery. "Practical matters like how far in advance you need to send out a press release and what to put in it," Andrews says. "Loan agreement forms with artists. What should be on a label and how to do labels. The importance of keeping files."

Andrews thinks it's not only good experience for the students, but good for the community to have the gallery. "You need little places like this for young artists," he says. "Other urban areas have more alternative galleries. The more that this happens, the more we achieve critical mass in terms of culture in Baltimore. What these guys have is gumption, and I just like seeing that."

The decision they had the most trouble with seems to have been what to name the place. "We had meetings and came up with about 300 names," says Josh Steinbauer, a senior from Minnesota. "At one time we even thought of calling it www.gallery.com. Nobody could agree on anything. So we picked H. Lewis." It's after Huey Lewis, a pop music star of the 1980s.

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