It's night time in downtown La Crosse. The storefronts in the historic downtown area are mostly dark, except for a few brightly lit window displays interspersed throughout the area along the river. A small crowd gathers in front of a glowing window, gazing and pointing at colorful paintings and sculptures by professional local artists.
Walking through downtown La Crosse on a warm spring evening, it's a lovely sight to behold. But what is this artwork doing here in the window of an empty building, and who put it here?
This novel use of empty space in La Crosse is what's called a phantom art gallery. Phantom art galleries are temporary exhibition spaces created by community artists who work together in order to enliven street-level downtown windows, empty storefronts, and public spaces with colorful artwork exhibitions and installations that are viewable and accessible at all hours from the sidewalk.
But this notion of placing art in an unexpected context is more than about simply beautifying drab downtown areas: it's about economic development for community property owners, businesses, and artists alike.
Utilizing a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board's Phantom Art Galleries-Wisconsin program, the City of La Crosse Arts Board, the Pump House Regional Arts Center, and Downtown Mainstreet Inc. (a nonprofit organization founded by local businesses and financial institutions to help restore the downtown district's role as the center of the Coulee Region) are working together with area artists to transform these vacant storefronts into beautiful showcases for art.
The Wisconsin Arts Board's innovative Phantom Art Galleries-Wisconsin program, which kicked off this spring, encourages artists, arts professionals, and arts organizations to partner with downtown development entities—and vice versa—in order to revitalize their downtowns by providing additional funding and technical assistance in order to turn vacant storefronts into temporary art galleries.
The Wisconsin Arts Board has for years developed rural and urban models for partnerships that ensure our vibrant, creative communities become the breeding ground for entrepreneurs and new jobs. With leadership representation from across the state, the Wisconsin Arts Board is a nationally recognized leader in supporting grass-roots community development and creativity in education while at the same time leveraging impressive private philanthropy with the influential imprimatur of state grants.
"Phantom galleries increase awareness of the importance of local artists in the cultural and economic development of a city," says the Arts Board's Karen Goeschko. "Sharing art with communities in this way is a great opportunity for emerging artists to not only get noticed, but to answer the call to bring more art and culture to the streets of downtowns throughout Wisconsin. Everyone walking by will have a colorful, art-filled gallery experience."
Indeed, the impact to a community can be striking. In La Crosse, a small city with thirty to forty vacant storefronts in the downtown, Pump House Arts Administrator Matthew Duckett works with the city's Arts Board to arrange for art exhibits at various strategic locations with Phantom Art Galleries-Wisconsin program funds from the Arts Board. Artists' works are available for purchase, and Duckett says he rotates the art every month to give it plenty of exposure across town. In some ways, the concentration of phantom art galleries in a specific part of town works to create a kind of cultural district. This is "the spirit of the initiative, to motivate and activate the artists in town," says Duckett. "I think it's widely understood that artists are very good at moving into blighted areas or less economically developed areas and sort of turning all that around."
Goeschko notes how art can dramatically impact a space that was once seen as depressing. "These projects revitalize the space so much that they actually appeal to people who would be investing in either renting or buying those spaces. So, it's in the landlords' best interest to engage with the project, because it helps people see the space in a completely different light."
Phantom Art Galleries-Wisconsin projects are also underway in Chilton, Manitowoc, Marshfield, Platteville, and Superior. For more information on the Phantom Art Galleries-Wisconsin program and other Wisconsin Arts Board programs that enhance our communities and stimulate economic activity through the arts, visit artsboard.wisconsin.gov.