Leah McFarlane still remembers what the ceilings looked like before the Stevens Square Center for the Arts (SSCA) moved into its current space on 3rd Avenue.
Three years ago, crumbling ceiling tiles, broken light fixtures and water damage greeted visitors to the former police substation at 1905 3rd Ave. S. Today, the newly refurbished storefront is a thriving community art gallery with 18 major exhibitions under its belt.
Its most recent exhibit was “The Art of Change,” a project that included photography with distinct themes, including one devoted to voting with pictures of polling places and voter registration drives, photos of the working poor, and photographs of local immigrant and refugee communities. The exhibition was co-sponsored by OVEREXPOSURE, a group of local photographers that use photography as a community-building tool.
At a recent SSCA forum called “How Art Builds Communities,” Neil Cuthbert of the McKnight Foundation, lauded the arts center.
“I wish this place was around when I was in this neighborhood,” he said. “It’s very hard to work in a small apartment.”
At the Sept. 14 forum, SSCA Board Member Zachary Korb discussed some of the challenges facing Stevens Square, a neighborhood on the southern edge of Downtown.
“The community is already there. The question is how do we connect with these communities and get them to share with each other? Art is the way,” he said.
Korb said that the SSCA is becoming an artistic project in its own right. Instead of working in isolation, the organization has encouraged local artists to become a part of the wider community, giving the residents of Stevens a chance to meet people face to face.
Located just above the 3rd Avenue Market, the SSCA was founded in the summer of 2003. The brainchild of Julie Filapek, the SSCA grew out of a partnership among 14 local artists, JAS Apartments and the Stevens Square Community Organization.
Lured by the promise of cheap studio space, the artists immediately saw the potential benefit of having 5,500 square feet in which to display their work.
“Sometimes seeing something is as important as talking about it,” Korb said. “Actually going up in the space, it lets you sort of envision what the possibilities are.”
Having signed the lease, the initial tenants were faced with the daunting task of transforming a run-down commercial space into a neighborhood center for the arts.
Since its early days, the SSCA has begun to attract attention with nontraditional installations such as “The Next American City,” an urban planning exhibition, and “The Happy Show,” which featured an 8-foot sculpture made out of balloons. The SSCA has also emerged as a major sponsor of the neighborhood’s Red Hot Art festival, which celebrates work by local, emerging artists.
Though governed by a 10-member board of directors, the 35-member organization is similar to an artists’ co-op. Members receive a number of benefits, including discounts on space rental, free website hosting and the opportunity to exhibit their work in the annual member’s show. There are currently 12 artists renting studios within the building.
When the SSCA first opened, critics complained that it looked more like a “church basement” than a gallery. Bands would blow a fuse at every opening. And then there was the IRS. When the arts center received its nonprofit tax-exempt status in July 2006, the IRS had a major stipulation: the neighborhood art gallery wasn’t allowed to sell any paintings. “We had to sign something saying that we wouldn’t sell artwork anymore,” said SSCA Treasurer Kathy Fernandez. An all-volunteer organization, the SSCA had previously charged a 30 percent commission on sales. “We use those funds just to stay afloat.”
“In some ways it simplifies what we do,” said Korb. “It makes volunteering easier. You don’t have to learn how to use the credit card machine.”
But things are changing. The bad wiring and the broken ceiling tiles have all been replaced. There’s new track lighting in the gallery, and a neon sign above the door.
“We’re always trying to upgrade the space,” Korb said.