A fire-damaged former formal-wear store in a historic downtown building is being remodeled and will open this fall as one of the largest art gallery spaces in Duluth.
Joseph Nease purchased the former Arthur’s Formal Wear building at 23 W. First St. in December and has launched a major renovation of the two-story, nearly 10,000-square-foot property. A contemporary visual art gallery will open on street level in October.
“It’s bigger than we were looking for but it’s in the right place and the price was right,” said Nease. “We’re really excited about having a gallery here in downtown. We think it’s a great location.”
Nease and his wife Karen, a painter, operated a contemporary art gallery in Kansas City, Mo. for five years beginning in 1999. After regular Minnesota vacations, they moved to Duluth four years ago and have immersed themselves in the local art scene.
Nease said the plan is to open a version of the Kansas City gallery in Duluth.
“We still have contacts in Kansas City and know artists in that region so we will be showing a lot of their work here,” he said. “People will get to see new things that they haven’t seen before in this area. I guess we’ll see how it is received.”
The 2,500-square-foot exhibition space will feature two or three contemporary artists per show in a museum-style setting. The installation work of Kansas City artist James Woodfill, Iowa new media painter Matthew Kluber and Duluth multi-media artist Kathy McTavish will be featured in the inaugural gallery show Oct. 21 to Jan. 6.
The museum-style shows will be similar to some Duluth Art Institute exhibits in the historic Depot. But most downtown art is viewed through studio art crawls, exhibitions at restaurants, bars or coffee shops and salon-style shows at galleries with adjoining framing or gift shops.
“I just felt that we needed to introduce this approach to Duluth,” said Nease. “People will be seeing something different and we think they will like it.”
Lizzards Art Gallery and Framing owner Jeffrey Schmidt said the new gallery will be a welcome addition to downtown. Schmidt has operated Lizzards in several Superior Street locations since 1991 and is currently carrying work from Karen Nease.
“Joe and Karen have a great reputation and had a wonderful gallery in Kansas City,” said Schmidt. “We’ve been waiting on this for awhile so I’m really excited about it.”
Schmidt said the Joseph Nease Gallery will draw more art lovers downtown.
“I was worried that the craft district in Lincoln Park was going to take a lot of attention away from our side of town,” said Schmidt. “So I’m happy to see Joe opening here.”
Nease said he was attracted to the historic buildings in the busy downtown area with its community of arts-related businesses. He said recent developments like the closing of the First Street Bottle Shop for a planned apartment and office development should help the First Street corridor grow.
Nease installed a new roof and estimates he will have around $500,000 invested in the building and its remodel by October. In addition to interior work, Nease plans to install new front-entry glass doors and add a sign to an exterior eastside wall. The wall will also be used for an annual Minnesota art competition display. Plans for the second floor are still under consideration but could include artists studios.
According to the Duluth Commercial Historic District registration form for the National Register of Historic Places, the building at 23-25 First Street West was built in 1916 as Max Bloom Furniture. More recently, Arthur’s Formal Wear occupied the building’s lower level and Horton’s Gym used the upper space until 2008, when a fire forced both businesses out.
The Duluth Fire Department told the Duluth News Tribune at the time there was no significant structural damage in the blaze.
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