People who haven't shopped or dined for a year in the space at Broadway and Main Street once known as Victorian Square can be excused if they don't recognize the place.
Gone are mainstays including DeSha's restaurant, replaced by Urban Outfitters, Saul Good restaurant, Alumni Hall fan shop, and Pies and Pints pizzeria.
But one mainstay through the 30-year history of the space, originally 16 separate buildings that were brought together in the mid-1980s, is Artists' Attic, a collection of 21 artist studios on the fourth floor of The Square that is open to the public every day, Monday through Saturday, and for special events, including Friday's Gallery Hop.
"We always have huge Gallery Hop crowds, because you can see so many artists in one place," says painter Mary Seymour Neely, whose work will be featured Friday along with that of sculptor Ed "Fish" Dixon in the exhibit From French Soil to Kentucky Clay. "We love this space, and we think it is unique in the city."
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Painter Darell Lewis Ishmael says, "When people talk about economic development, they talk about the need for an arts district. This is an arts district where 21 artists are together."
Each artist has an office-size studio where his or her work is displayed and in many cases produced. Most of the tenants in the space have studios in their homes or elsewhere, but they say the downtown studio space, which each rents for a few hundred dollars a month, gives them visibility and credibility.
"It's important to have a separate studio from your home," Ishmael says. "It gives you validity, and a studio with a downtown address gives you credibility. People who are buying art generally are not going to come to your home."
This particular address brings advantages, including the camaraderie of other artists. Whether tips and critiques or information about art opportunities, the artists say that being in the space enhances the often-solitary life of an artist.
Painter Eric Johnson, who has a national clientele, also has a studio in Versailles, but he says, "If I just stayed out there, I wouldn't know what's going on."
Even in a group interview, when some artists mention going to Nashville together to buy canvases, relatively new tenant Dawna Bradford-Scripps says, "I want to go the next time."
"People sometimes think of a gallery as a place that is quiet and reserved, but this is quite friendly and welcoming" — even to dogs, Bradford-Scripps says.
Both Bradford-Scripps and Johnson have their dogs in tow, relaxing on the studio floor while they work.
Johnson and Neely say that their initial impressions of Artists' Attic, decades ago, weren't great. They thought there were a number of amateur painters who could afford studio space. But subsequent visits revealed a boost in quality and prompted a desire to be there.
Ishmael is one of several artists attracted by the character of the space, with exposed brick walls and ceiling beams. Ishmael's corner studio features ankle-level narrow windows.
"If I sit in the right place, I can look down on the ice-skating rink," he says, referring to the wintertime attraction in Triangle Park. This weekend, the streets of downtown Lexington will be teeming with basketball fans in town to see the Kentucky high school boys basketball tournament at Rupp Arena and NCAA women's tournament games at Memorial Coliseum (Page 5), but the Artists' Attic tenants say their busy times don't necessarily correspond to downtown's busiest days.
"Keeneland brings in a crowd," Ishmael says. "Breeders' Cup, we expect, will be big. A lot of our clientele is people touring the country who like to buy art."
The artists don't expect much change in their business because of the changes below them. The 20-something crowd generally attracted to places like Urban Outfitters and Pies and Pints generally aren't an art-collecting group, they say. The biggest impact, they say, is in foot traffic after they second-floor access because of construction in the building. To get to Artists' Attic, patrons have to go to the first-floor entrance off Main Street, right after Pies and Pints if you are walking up from Broadway.
The Attic residents say they have been told that there will be more signs in The Square directing people to Artists' Attic. But even if their customers have to make a little extra effort to get to their studios, the artists say, they have a great deal.
"It has been a challenge with the construction and the parking," says Neely, who already sold one painting in her show less than a week after hanging it. "But we still think there's no place like it."