Gallery taps into buy-local enthusiasm

It's all in how you look at it. And in an art gallery, looking is what you do.

When Midtown Gallery opened at 356 South Kalamazoo Mall in July 2009, some might have looked at it as business suicide.

Opening a new business in the midst of the most grueling economic times many of us have seen? Who will have a buck or a few hundred to spare for art?

Then, there's the way Terry Nihart, the gutsy owner of Midtown Gallery, looks at it.
 
Not one to see a glass half empty, Nihart, an artist himself, has had his finger on the pulse of the Kalamazoo art community for a long time, and he is convinced this gallery is coming at the right place and at the right time.

"Sure, Kalamazoo can be a tough place to open an art gallery." Nihart grins and shrugs. "There are still people who think you have to go to the big city to buy 'real art.' But there's been a surge of interest in buying local lately. Buying Michigan, buying Kalamazoo. People are starting to realize you don't have to go to the big city to buy quality art. Kalamazoo has an amazing count of artists — really good artists. It just floors me."
 
Nihart's made his name in art through his own work and through teaching. He has taught photography at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts for 30 years and also has been an instructor at Western Michigan University, where he earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in communications. He sharpened his craft at the the New England School of Photography in Boston.

It was on a Kalamazoo Institute of Arts photography class expedition that Nihart first spotted the location for his gallery. As he would often do, he took his students out on the town to take photos of everything Kalamazoo.

Looking through his own camera lens, he spotted it: the perfect location. An empty corner spot, kitty-corner from the Kalamazoo Gazette, opposite corner from State Theater, across the street from the Epic Center.
 
"It's the arts and entertainment corner of downtown," Nihart says. "It's a gem of a space. Windows to either side, a ready loading zone out back, track lighting already in place." He throws his head back in laughter. "I was just tickled."
 
His work has been shown throughout the community, and there are few local artists who don't know the gregarious Nihart, with his bright laugh, long, shaggy beard and warmth that wraps around customers the moment they set the bell on Nihart's Midtown Gallery door to tinkling.
 
He's tried other spots for other art galleries — in Richland ("too out of town"), in Saugatuck ("a different animal, had to make money in three months and then it was over") and above the Michigan News Agency in Kalamazoo ("location, location, location, and up one floor from street level was one lousy location").
 
This time, tough times or not, he built it and they have come.

The regulars at Midtown Gallery come as much to visit with Nihart as they do to see what new art is showing. He's only too happy to accommodate. There every day but Sunday, Nihart believes in consistency — in his reliable presence, in the hours the gallery keeps (Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.), in his participation in every single Art Hop since opening his doors.

Art Hop happens the first Friday of each month. It brings out lovers of art and of downtown to businesses displaying works of local artists.

Art can be seen at galleries like Nihart's, tucked among aisles of shoes at a local bootery and on the walls of local hair salons. The number of spots exhibiting art can range from 15 for a traditional Art Hop to 50 for what the sponsors call an extended Art Hop, taking place four times each year. The event, sponsored by the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo and Downtown Kalamazoo Inc., is one Nihart is always ready for.
 
"The surprise is in the art I show," he says. "Something unique, that's why I'm here. I may do a pretty show one month, then an edgy show the next. It's important to be edgy. Art can start revolutions."

Pretty or edgy, the art shows at Midtown Gallery are a blend of every medium. There may be glasswork in the middle of the room, paintings and photographs along the walls, ceramics lining shelves, sculpture placed on the hardwood floor, jewelry under glass cases, wood carvings set on podiums, silk scarves draped along wires.

The artists, too, range from first time exhibitors to longtime professionals, artists who haven't shown their work in decades but couldn't resist Nihart's charm when he requests a show, to artists who never fail to enthrall, no matter how many times Kalamazoo has seen them.

"My partner, Chris Poppas, put a list up on our Web site recently of all the artists we have shown at Midtown Gallery since we opened," Nihart says. "In a span of less than a year, we have shown more local artists than any other gallery in Kalamazoo."

Kalamazoo is appreciative. Good times or not, customers have kept Nihart busy and his cash register ringing along with the bell on the door.

"Buying posters and prints, sure, that's safe, that's fine." Nihart tosses his beard. "But owning something that is real, owning a piece of original art, that's important. The feedback I'm getting from customers is that they love local arts, they love the diversity of artwork here, and they love that the place changes completely every month. So that's why I'm here. Midtown Gallery is allowing Kalamazoo to see what a vibrant community of artists we have living right here. And that just tickles me."
 
Zinta Aistars is a freelance writer from Portage and editor of literary ezine, The Smoking Poet.

Photos by Erik Holladay
 
For more of his work visit Erik Holladay photography.

Captions

The Midtown Gallery sign is reflected in the glass of frames hanging on the wall of the gallery. Midtown Gallery is located kitty-corner from the Kalamazoo Gazette, opposite corner from State Theater, across the street from the Epic Center.

Terry Nihart, owner of the Midtown Gallery, an artist himself, has had his finger on the pulse of the Kalamazoo art community for a long time. Nihart stands in front of paintings done by artist Mary Burke

The tin roof is what first attracted Nihart to the space. After some remodeling he now shows a unique selection of art every month. 

A piece of pottery by Nancy Payne called Petal Pot can be seen in the foreground while paintings by Mary Burke hang on the wall.

Midtown Gallery has a selection of pottery and glassware made by local artists from around the area.

The gallery is celebrating Michigan Glass Month with a selection of exhibits from artists in the state. Jessica Bohus created a selection Bugs In Jars.

"Buying posters and prints, sure, that's safe, that's fine," says Nihart Owner of Midtown Gallery, right. "But owning something that is real, owning a piece of original art, that's important."

Dazzling sunlight glints of a piece of glass art by Taylor Kurrie called Homegrown Play that is on display in the front window of Midtown Gallery.
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