Visual Arts

Rich Copley: With city takeover, Ann Tower prepares to vacate first floor of arts center

Ann Tower, in what will become the main entrance to her Downtown Arts Center gallery. It will move upstairs after 12 years occupying space on both floors.
Ann Tower, in what will become the main entrance to her Downtown Arts Center gallery. It will move upstairs after 12 years occupying space on both floors. rcopley@herald-leader.com

When the Downtown Arts Center opened on Main Street in 2002, Ann Tower recalls weighing options for her eponymous gallery in the building.

"The initial plan was for this to be two separate spaces," Tower says of the two-floor gallery. "I remember looking at them and thinking, 'Which one do I want?' The downstairs has all these problems not being big enough, and the upstairs problem was that it's upstairs. Then they asked me if I'd like to have both floors."

Back then, the Lexington Arts and Cultural Council, now LexArts, managed the Downtown Arts Center. On July 1, the center was transferred to city management.

And the city has different ideas about what it wants to do with the first-floor gallery space.

"When we were first exploring the change in management, one of the things we discussed was that we would like to make the city gallery, which is on the second floor and LexArts-managed, more visible," says Celeste Lewis, director of the Downtown Arts Center. "We thought it would be great if Ann could stay and consolidate on the second floor. And on the first floor, we could have a gallery with a different group of artists coming and going throughout the year."

So Friday will be Tower's final Gallery Hop with the two-level gallery. Toward the end of the year, she will move her operation to the second floor, and the city gallery will move to the first floor with an eye toward debuting with the next Gallery Hop, Jan. 16.

To bow out of the street-level space, Tower has put together an exhibit looking back and forward at her time in the DAC. The artists include established Tower artists Steve Moseley, whose Patience Bottles present whimsical scenes in bourbon bottles; Lina Tharsing, Tower's daughter and a nationally acclaimed artist; and new client Robert Shay, the former dean of the University of Kentucky College of Fine Arts.

"I had my own vision of what I wanted a city gallery to be," Tower says of her years on both floors. "It was discerning taste, not just showing everybody, being willing to make judgements about what I thought was good and not just what was saleable."

Tower has been through the center's many seasons, from its initial days as an active home for Actors Guild of Lexington to recent years when the theater was often dark, and Tower and Alfalfa restaurant were the active portions of the center.

Earlier this year, discussion began in earnest of transferring management of the center from LexArts, which said it wanted to relinquish the responsibility, to the city.

"We did some discussions with the arts community when we were getting ready to propose taking over management," Lewis says. "A lot of people said they wished there was a place where local artists could show their work. Certainly the visibility of that first floor and being right on Main Street is wonderful. So we decided that was definitely something the community was calling for."

Tower says, "They could have just asked me to leave all together, so I'm really grateful that didn't happen."

Two controversial points of Tower's gallery in the city building was that it was a privately owned, for-profit gallery and that she enjoyed a subsidized rent, which she says is $600 a month, well below market value for the Main Street space. She says she can't pay fair market value running an art gallery.

"Certainly you could running a law firm or financial advisers, or other people that actually make a lot of money," Tower says. "The city decided it wanted an arts center."

And, she says, the idea of a subsidized rent was to allow a gallery to operate in the high-profile space. News of Warhol prints selling for $82 million and black-tie gala art openings might create an impression of a wealthy art world, but Tower says the reality is that it's a tough business to make a living in. And she understands consternation over her rent, but she says that misses a larger point.

"I say to the city, 'Instead of focusing on me not paying enough rent, why don't we make this deal for other people?'" Tower says. "If you want to support art, you've gotta support it. We're not a big enough town. We're not New York City. ... It just comes down to numbers."

Recognizing that she's getting a great deal, Tower says she has tried to be welcoming to the public in her time at the DAC.

Recently she offered a philosophical view about the change: "The space is better up here, but I am kind of sad to not have both floors," Tower says. "I like it up here, and it's still a good deal. It will be a whole lot easier for people to find me up here than on a whole other block."

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