June 27, 2002

Make empty storefronts art-full

Filed under: Art and About Changing the World — admin @ 3:39 pm

I have an idea.

It’s a phrase that makes my family shudder when they hear it. You see, if I say it aloud, it usually means I have an idea that I can’t pull off by myself and my family knows they are first people I will recruit to help make it happen.
This time, though, my family gets the idea off. This idea will need action from the artists and commercial property owners of Lamorinda.

I drive down Mt. Diablo Blvd. in Lafayette from one end to the other almost every day doing errands. As I sit at the stoplights, I look at the empty storefronts and wonder who might be coming into town next to sell their wares. I know I’m not the first writer in the Sun to comment on how slowly those empty storefronts get filled. And I’m sure I’m not the first one to sigh as I drive by and observe the depressed image that empty storefronts convey.

Why not fill those empty storefronts with art?

Actually, I can’t take any credit for this idea. Putting art from the Lamorinda Arts Alliance members in the empty storefronts of the Rheem Shopping Center is something Bege Elrod organized for years. Bege has moved on to share her talents with some lucky community in Oregon and I was dismayed to notice recently that Rheem no longer has art in their terminally empty storefronts.

With great hope, I popped over to Orinda’s Theater Square to see what’s happening in their empty windows. It was in Theater Square that I first learned about the value for artists in displaying their work in empty storefronts. Piedmont artist Chris Johnson founded a company called Window of Opportunity which hooked artists up with commercial landlords in a mutually beneficial relationship. The artist had a chance to show his or her work to the public and the landlord had a less pathetic looking piece of property.

Guess what? No art at Theater Square anymore but plenty of empty stores. At least Theater Square has some strips of designer butcher paper running the length of the empty windows with catchy phrases printed on them about what’s new and exciting at Theater Square. The butcher paper hides the emptiness well, but I also think it would be a nifty neutral backdrop for some art.

Those of you who are not artists might be asking the question that I once had to ask Bege and Chris: Why would an artist want to display his or her work in an empty storefront? I have learned after talking to the many artists in this community about the dearth of exhibition venues and the competition to get into a traditional gallery space. Artists need to be as creative in finding spaces to show their work as they are in producing the work. Lamorinda has some wonderful banks, retailers, coffee places and doctors offices who turn their walls into galleries for the art community. Rotating exhibits keep these spaces looking new and fresh and vibrant — and they’re inhabited. Imagine the life and hope some art would breath into an empty space.
Back in Lafayette, there’s an opportunity for art in empty storefronts on Mt. Diablo Blvd. to reach an audience that Rheem and Orinda can’t reach as readily — those of us in cars waiting at stoplights. The beautiful brick and glass Loire Court, across from Trader Joe’s, is an impromptu gallery waiting to happen. It’s been empty for a year and a half. Don’t tell me that it doesn’t need a little pick-me-up to draw attention its way.

And the Town Center formerly known as Toon Town (seems unfair to call it Toon Town now with that new, subdued earth-tone paint job) is close enough to the street for a large canvas to easily catch the eye of someone driving by.

Who knows? That someone may eventually stop, park and walk over to the window to see the painting more closely. That someone may decide, while he’s there, to stop into one of the stores or restaurants. That someone may have a positive experience in that store or restaurant and come back. And then the owner of that store or restaurant may tell a potential leasee about the good foot traffic on Mt. Diablo Blvd., and the fact that people stroll in after stopping to look at art.

Hey, I know it sounds a bit idealistic, but whatever’s being done now to rent those spaces isn’t working. Couldn’t hurt to try a new approach.