Avenue for the Arts Program Creates Strong Sense of Place

By Camille Allen, Communications Intern

Downtown Grand Rapids between Fulton and Wealthy Street lies the South Division commercial corridor, a street blossoming with art, culture and character. Every month, Avenue for the Arts shines a spotlight on this street with their First Friday event, which brings attention to the Grand Rapids art scene and the small, local businesses that line the street. Avenue for the Arts is a program supported by CEDAM member Dwelling Place, and the program aims to strengthen the creative community in Grand Rapids by creating a collaborative event in which business owners, residents and visitors alike can participate.

Rachel Hurd is a Learning Lab intern for Avenue for the Arts invested in the event and its effect on the community.

“First Friday is an event we hold the first Friday of each month, and it captures the business owners, the restaurants and bars and all of the studios on the avenue,” Hurd said as she showed us around the Avenue for the Arts studio where they exhibit and sell artwork by local artists. “Our mission is to encourage people in Grand Rapids and visitors who are interested in the art community to bridge the gap between artists and art enthusiasts.”

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Artwork by Debra Dieppa (left) and artwork by Mary Tobias Prevost shown by Rachel Hurd (right) 

A stroll down South Division Avenue highlights the strength of the art community in Grand Rapids. It proves to be a marketplace of creativity, with niche stores, specialized studios and a diverse selection of restaurants. There is also a blend of new and old on the avenue — you can find stores that have stood strong for decades managed by the same people, as well as galleries run by art students fresh out of university. Among the latter are resident gallery owners Maddie May and Gina Masterson of Bend Studio.

“We are normally open by appointment,” May said, “but we are open every First Friday with a new exhibition for the month, so every first Friday you can find a new show. We also do a lot of community stuff, but art is our main focus.”

Their involvement with Avenue for the Arts is largely due to the initiative displayed by Dwelling Place’s neighborhood revitalization specialist Jenn Schaub.

“I was really inspired to do this because Jenn Schaub does the First Friday monthly programming,” May said. “I was really interested in challenging myself to come up with monthly exhibitions. I know Gina and I really wanted to spotlight local artists, but also national and international artists.”

The two are part of Dwelling Place’s live-work space housing program, and their street-side space boasts living quarters in the back of the building.

“We rent through Dwelling Place,” Masterson explained. “So we live here, but it is also a commercial property, a live-work space.”

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Maddie May and Gina Masterson (left) and a gallery attendee perusing artwork at Bend Studio (right)

The organization provides apartments tailored for creative business owners and entrepreneurs, with the appeal of a studio and the amenities and comfort of a loft, all at an affordable price. This initiative allows these artists and entrepreneurs to be surrounded by other creative minds, and facilitates the transformation of the avenue into an arts neighborhood.

Avenue for the Arts not only includes art galleries in their First Friday events, but also small businesses and stores like Vertigo Music, a record store that has been on the avenue for over 17 years.

“Jenn Schaub reached out and she’s been very proactive and has got everybody involved,” said Baker. “She lets me know the information that is pertinent to Vertigo, and we are always open the days of the events that are happening for Avenue for the Arts.”

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Vertigo is located at 129 S Division Avenue, Grand Rapids, MI

Many small businesses are battling the convenience of online shopping, and there has definitely been a shift in consumer behavior in the music industry.

“My whole industry has changed so dramatically in that everything has gone digital, with the exception of the small niche category that is vinyl, which is exploding.”

Dwelling Place’s Avenue for the Arts program recognizes that both small businesses and a strong art presence is vital to the strength of local economies and communities. The intersection of the two, as highlighted by initiatives like the live-work space program, is helping Dwelling Place create a sense of place one Friday at a time.