Institute 193 is a one-man operation, which means Philip March Jones has to do everything from curating the art space to cleaning it.
And he notices something when he washes the windows: "You can see prints from people's faces, their noses and hands," Jones says.
He doesn't mind cleaning those prints. It means people are interested in seeing what's going on in his year-old North Limestone space.
"We're essentially a public space," Jones says of the Institute, which sits with a large street-facing window on Limestone, between the Robert F. Stephens Courthouse Plaza and Third Street. "When we have a show up, we leave the lights on so people can look in and see what's happening."
What's happening at the Institute has come up regularly in conversations with Lexington artists and arts leaders this year, both for what Jones is doing in his nearly 500-square-foot space and what he is doing outside of it.
The current exhibit is a retrospective of the late Lexington artist Charles Williams, which opened Thursday. It is a collaboration between the Institute, which is showing some of the artist's smaller pieces, and Land of Tomorrow on Third Street, which is showing larger pieces, including sculptures and a 91/2-foot-tall Batman.
Jones' Institute also has launched exhibits and books of works by Lexington artists Bob Morgan, Louie Zoellar Bickett II and others, plus it is planning an exhibit and book of portraits by Guy Mendes.
The Mendes and Williams exhibits are scheduled to travel, and Jones has worked on a collaboration between Latitude Artist Community and Lexington musician Ben Sollee.
"Phil has worked hard to transcend the associations and limitations implied within a traditional gallery/artist/community relationship," wrote Bruce Burris of Latitude, which has had several artists featured at the Institute. "Additionally, Phil provides regional artists a shot at connecting to the larger art world."
Robbie Morgan, who has been behind several area projects, including a local performance by the Chicago-based Neo-Futurists stage group and the Change for Art parking-meter program, says, "We need him. We need the Institute. It and other spaces like it will push us forward, open up lines of dialogue that are just below the surface.
"Phillip, through the Institute and the artists shown, is pushing us to see ourselves and the community and people around us in a new way and often through works ignored, hidden or just emerging."
The Institute is one of those difficult-to-describe entities in the arts. It is a gallery that hosts exhibitions. But Jones says he is cognizant that there are limits to what can be done in the small space, and he seeks out collaborations, including working with Land of Tomorrow to give a broad look at Williams' work. There are even projects that never darken the door of the space, such as helping to hook up Latitude artist Jessie Dunahoo with Sollee to create a set for a July concert by Sollee, Daniel Martin Moore and Jim James of My Morning Jacket.
"We're sort of a think tank for Southern art — an incubator, a distiller," Jones said. "Some artists create work for us, so we're a catalyst."
Jones, 29, is an artist in his own right who grew up in Lexington, was educated at Emory University in Atlanta, the Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne and Auburn University, and has exhibited in New York and London. He returned to Lexington by choice, seeing a place where he could have an impact on the local art scene.
"I could have opened a commercial gallery if I wanted," Jones says. "But that's not what I wanted to do."
Jones says he was interested in highlighting the work of local artists who he thinks have existed on the margins of the local arts community, and helping to create a larger space for Lexington in the national arts dialogue.
"Phillip reminds me of my late friend Jonathan Williams: an artist who seeks out other artists," Mendes wrote. "Jonathan was a poet and publisher (of Jargon Books) from North Carolina who made it his lifelong quest to find interesting artists where they were least expected, which is why he came to Lexington to find Gene Meatyard and Guy Davenport back in the '70s. Phillip carries on this tradition with energy and intelligence."
Mendes wrote that the Institute exists well beyond its small physical space, in Jones' brain and on the Internet. Mendes was a beneficiary of the Institute's Web presence in August, when Jones put his book on Kickstarter, a fund-raising Web site, and the book nearly doubled its goal of $5,000 by raising $9,200.
The six books that the Institute has published in its first year are one of its calling cards.
"I don't publish the books to make money," Jones said. "But they have been important because they are a formal treatment of somebody's work."
Jones says they also are crucial in getting exhibits into venues out of town, which Jones hopes to do with greater regularity.
Referring to the exhibits, books and collaborations, Jones says the Institute "has been successful every way except financially." He also says that Lexington is now being listed on the c ontemporary art Web site Whitehotmagazine.com.
Because the Institute is something of an undefined entity in the first place, he says, he is not sure how it will develop. He does hope to expand its reach and to bring more people onboard.
"I can't pay anyone right now; I don't even pay myself," says Jones, who makes a living from his own work and other projects, including work as a French translator during the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.
"I don't want it to be just me," Jones said. "It's about an idea, not a person. My goal is for it to grow and a few people take it over staying true to the core mission: creating interesting and important intellectual properties."