Art League and 21c Hotel bring excitement to Main and Upper streets

The McAdams and Morford Building at the corner of Main and Upper streets. The Lexington Art League is planning to lease the third floor for a new contemporary art space Downtown. Photo from the National Register of Historic Places via Wikipedia.

For more than a year, members of the Lexington Art League have been excited about the prospect of a establishing a downtown venue in addition to its home base in Loudoun House, on the east end of Lexington.

That excitement spiked last week, when Art League ­leaders found out who their new ­neighbors are likely to be.

The Art League recently made public its plans to take over the third floor in the McAdams and ­Morford Building on the west corner of Main and Upper streets, ­cater­corner from the old First National ­Building. On Tuesday, the league and everyone else learned that the First ­National Building will be converted into a 21c ­Museum Hotel. That effectively will create a contemporary art intersection in downtown Lexington, which currently does not have a major non-­commercial visual arts venue.

Art League executive ­director Stephanie Harris says the decision to move into downtown was part of a five-year strategic plan whose final objective was “to establish a ­contemporary venue in the heart of ­downtown Lexington.”

A year and a half ago, Harris says, the Art League got to work on that objective and settled on the McAdams and Morford building.

This artist's rendering of the planned Lexington Art League space downtown shows an open floor plan and built in equipment in the ceiling for multimedia installations. © Jere Sullivan, architecht.

“The fact that 21c is now going to be joining the downtown community really does change the dialogue completely,” Harris says. “It will be a huge catalyst for change of the cultural ­climate in our community, and I think it is exactly the thing our community has needed to take it to the next level.

“All of these arts ­organizations, visual arts ­organizations, have been ­doing really strong, really good work. But it was ­really time for us to get some information coming in from the outside. And what better resource than a first-class museum where we can now see things and have those resources right at our fingertips?”

The original 21c Hotel, in Louisville, has earned international acclaim for its innovative contemporary art museum and incorporation of art into all aspects of its design.

Far from seeing 21c as a competitor, ­Harris sees synergy, as does Mayor Jim Gray, a contemporary art aficionado and collector.

“This is one of those times when one-plus-one is more about calculus than math,” Gray said. “It adds to the promise of a more ­dynamic city creating jobs and economic opportunity.”

Harris says, “It’s the ­cluster theory and the idea of a cultural destination, so it’s not just one lone ­institution standing in the middle of the Cheapside Park area. It becomes, ‘What are the smaller galleries like in the area? What are the organizations that are just around the corner?’ Then people that come to stay in 21c have the opportunity to authentically engage with our visual arts community.”

And it is an active ­community.

Besides being home to many visual artists, ­Lexington has The Art Museum at the University of Kentucky. Downtown boasts a number of commercial ­galleries, including Ann Tower Gallery, which is part of the Downtown Arts ­Center. The Art League itself has ­programmed a number of downtown galleries, ­including the mezzanine gallery in the Government Center at Main Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

The difference, Harris says, is that the McAdams and Morford building will be the Art League’s own space and that unlike commercial galleries, not-for-profits such as the Art League do not have to program with selling art in mind.

Harris says she quickly fell in love with the circa 1846 McAdams and ­Morford ­building for its iron facade, large windows and ­artistic past as a theater. For ­decades, the building was home to the McAdams and Morford drugstore. The building’s first floor now houses the bars Hugo’s and Harvey’s.

“I loved the thought of breathing new life into an old creative space, and it just has a lot of the structure needed to open everything up and have a big, fluid arts space hovering above downtown Lexington,” Harris says.

Architectural designs have been drawn for the space, and Harris says $75,000 is the ­threshold at which work can begin.

Since embarking on the project, Harris says, the Art League has raised $40,000 through a mostly quiet ­capital campaign.

The campaign will ­become public this week with pARTy, an Art League event in the Fifth Third Bank Pavilion during Friday’s Gallery Hop and into the evening. It will include music and activities including artist trading cards and “video bombing.” It’s all to raise awareness and ­excitement about what the group hopes to bring downtown.

The league will ­maintain its offices and ­primary venue at the Loudoun House, at Bryan Avenue and ­Castlewood Drive. The league will present ­exhibitions and provide ­artist studio spaces there and will engage in projects with the neighborhood.

But Harris says there is a distinct possibility some Art League signature events and exhibitions, such as the annual Body, Figure, Nude exhibit, might find their way downtown as the Art League works to create an exciting venue in the heart of the city.

“There can never be too much art in a city center,” said Amber Scott, the league’s media outreach director. “There can never be too much culture ­downtown. With 21c coming and with us moving down there, it’s going to be a win for ­Lexington all around.”

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