Four months left for Two Art Chicks?

by Amy Kingsley

It’s Wednesday afternoon and foot traffic at Two Art Chicks, the purple-painted anchor of a burgeoning downtown arts district, is a little light. A phone behind the counter starts ringing and gallery director Melodi Fentress answers. The caller is looking for art classes, but nothing at Two Art Chicks fits the bill.

“Have you tried the Marshall Gallery?” she asks. “They are crazy about classes over there.”

Fentress’ referral is an example of the kind of collaboration the young curator has fostered during her short tenure at the helm of Two Art Chicks. The conspicuous space has functioned not only as a hub for its own stable of 15 artists, but also as a reliable starting point for those interested in exploring the local arts scene. Would-be patrons who don’t find what they need at Two Art Chicks are often sent elsewhere, to another gallery representing local artists or instructors.

Recently, however, the inquiries at Two Art Chicks have turned to the future of the arts space itself. The building owner, who has leased the spot to the arts space for more than seven years, recently put the property on the block and restaurants – a number of them – have expressed interest.

Rumors of a sale have spooked some of the tenants, prompting Fentress to issue a letter last weekend to the studio artists informing them that for the next four months, at least, the gallery is safe. But by the end of the summer, the gallery that has spawned a number of satellites may vanish into the black hole of downtown progress.

“The best thing that could happen is for us to find an angel investor to buy this building and for Two Art Chicks to move from an LLC to a nonprofit,” Fentress says.

Fentress, who envisions installing a rooftop garden and other green features, is loath to give up her spot on South Elm Street.

“People come in here and say they can’t imagine this block without Two Art Chicks,” Fentress says.

The original two chicks were Anne Wilson and Judy Kastner, who started the gallery in 1999 in a then-moribund strip near the intersection of Lee and Elm streets. Wilson defected during the first year, leaving the place in Kastner’s hands.

The split left the gallery financially vulnerable, and Two Art Chicks nearly succumbed to bankruptcy. But a generous landlord kept them in business until Kasner’s resignation last year.

Fentress, who had been working in the gallery since August 2005, was named co-director with Robin Campbell. The duo inherited a business that was hemorrhaging money and set about trimming expenses.

Advertising accounts were closed and unnecessary expenses trimmed, but the books remained unbalanced. Fentress had an idea.

“I thought ‘how can we get more money in here?'” she says. “‘I know! We should have rock shows.'”

Campbell, who wanted to pursue a career in theater, was dubious, Fentress says. So were the artists, mostly painters, who rent studio space at Two Art Chicks.

Fentress’ timing couldn’t have been better. Two Art Chicks started hosting live music on the same weekend the Flying Anvil closed when local booker Kemp Stroble took a chance on the gallery. The rock shows have been a financial lifeline for the struggling institution. Revenues from the bar have lifted the gallery out of the red.

“The people that come in for the rock shows are not the same ones who usually by art,” she says. “But they talk about this place and tell their parents. Coming here is something they feel okay talking to their parents about.”

Band fliers from recent shows are tucked between paintings on the walls of the gallery gift shop. A column of Pabst cases rises from the floor of a space dominated by the work of painters Erik and Charlotte Ström.

A little more than a month ago, fans lined up from the back door down the alley to its mouth on Elm Street for a show headlined by local stoner-pop heroes Marijuana Wolf. The fact that Two Art Chicks may disappear soon after turning a corner financially frustrates Fentress.

“Each time Two Art Chicks has nearly closed, we’ve come back stronger,” Fentress says. “That’s a sign to me that the universe wants our arts space here.”

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