NEW YORK — When Phillip March Jones started the non-profit art space Institute 193 in Lexington five years ago, his goal was to bring wider attention to little-known contemporary artists in Kentucky and the South.
Now he has taken that work a step further, opening a New York branch of the Paris-based Gallerie Christian Berst Art Brut. Already, his shows have a Kentucky flavor.
The gallery opened Oct. 30 on Manhattan's Lower East Side with Do the Write Thing: Read Between The Lines, a collection of pieces by 17 artists who live on the margins of society and use the written word as graphic elements of their drawings.
Among the artists featured was Beverly Baker of Versailles, who has Down syndrome and is a member of the Latitude Artist Community in Lexington.
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The gallery's next show, which opens Jan. 10, is, Making Pictures: Three for a Dime, which until recently was on display at Institute 193's small space at 193 North Limestone Street.
That show features tiny photo booth portraits that Jim and Mancy Massengill made in the 1930s as they traveled around rural Arkansas. Their goal was to earn extra money during the Great Depression, but decades later these souvenir portraits look like playful, strange and even haunting works of art.
Art Brut is a French term to describe art produced by people outside the mainstream of artistic culture and conventions. It is about the human urge to create for the sake of creating, rather than for academic or commercial motivations.
"We're essentially interested in people who are doing things out of a very personal and private impulse," Jones said. "It's really a private exercise, one that's based on their own vision without any concerns for audience."
Jones, who grew up in Lexington, has had a diverse career as an artist, writer, curator and publisher. He worked with the Souls Grow Deep Foundation in Atlanta and is curator of the University of Kentucky's Chandler Hospital art museum.
Institute 193 has published a number of books based on its shows. Others have published two collections of Jones' photography: Points of Departure, a collection of roadside memorials, and Pictures Take You Places.
Jones had been shuttling between Atlanta and New York for two years when the Paris-based gallery hired him to create its New York space. Last summer, he moved to the city and started searching for locations. He settled on a dilapidated former hardware store and synagogue at 95 Rivington Street, just a few blocks from the New Museum, one of New York's leading contemporary art museums.
The split-level space has the main gallery upstairs and a downstairs area Jones calls the workshop, which will show new discoveries or smaller exhibitions related to the main show upstairs.
When I visited there in early October, the place still had a long way to go and Jones was busy juggling contractors. But three weeks later, everything was done, and Jones said nearly 500 people showed up on opening night.
Art Brut would seem an odd genre for a gallery whose business is selling art. But like any genre, it has its devotees. "The goal of this space is to unearth these various things happening all over the world and to share them," Jones said.
Baker has been displaying her work for more than 15 years. It has been exhibited three times before in New York and is in the collection of the Museum of Everything in London.
"For years, she has been making these drawings and paintings," Jones said. "I don't think she's really concerned with who's looking at them and what they think of them. I think it's something she has always done and will always do."
Although Jones has turned over the day-to-day operations of Institute 193 to interim director Coleman Guyon, he remains chairman of the board and sees a lot of future synergies between it and his New York gallery.
"Over the next few years, there's probably half a dozen artists from Kentucky I would like to work with," Jones said.
"In Atlanta or wherever I've been, I've always been an advocate for artists from Central Kentucky, because it's my home but also because there's really great stuff happening," he said. "I think this will be an even more tangible way to do those things."