R.I.P. Fountain Street

Friday, March 23, 2007

The grand experiment is over. It was nice while it lasted.

Back in December 2005 Southeast Missouri State University art professor Sarah Riley opened an art gallery in a Victorian-style home at 34 N. Fountain St., the Fountain Street Gallery. Her purpose was to provide a constant home for contemporary art in Cape Girardeau, which had not existed to that point.

"It will be an adventure," Riley said at that time.

An adventure it was.

On the first Friday of every month, the gallery provided an art viewing space for people like me, people who may not normally go to the other galleries in town. Art fans of all ages gathered at the gallery, but any visitor to Fountain Street could see what demographic preferred the cozy confines of the Victorian home -- the young, college art set.

Fountain Street was a place they could go to talk about art and life, whatever came to mind. A place where they felt at ease with friends who wanted to view art that attracted them.

Sure, Sarah and company were more than generous with the wine, maybe too generous for somebody like me (I have a tendency to overindulge). But that was part of the atmosphere of Fountain Street -- almost a rock 'n' roll art gallery. Stuffy is the last word you would use to describe Fountain Street. The mode of thinking was come as you are. My weird buddies with tattoos, piercings and sloppy clothing were as at home at Fountain Street as the older visitors in their swanky, night-on-the-town outfits.

The old home was more than just a gallery -- it became a hangout, a destination on those Friday nights. You would visit the other galleries, but your ultimate destination was Fountain Street.

Good things can't last forever, right?

I was a little taken aback when I learned a few days ago that Fountain Street would be closing. After little more than a year, you kind of start to take places and people for granted, thinking they've become a regular fixture of the local art scene. But when I found out about Fountain Street's fate, I was reminded that in the arts, like everything else, change is constant.

No more hanging out on the porch of that Victorian, smoking cigarettes and drinking wine while I wait to meet up with my friends. Soon that porch will be the entryway to a private home, not a hangout for art lovers on First Friday.

I don't want to sound overdramatic, though inevitably I do (I'm a writer, after all). But I think we would be deceiving ourselves if we didn't think Fountain Street had an impact on the local art scene that will last long after the last piece of art is hauled out the door.

Before Fountain Street, Cape Girardeau had no permanent home for contemporary art. Sure there were galleries, but few of them even showed the kind of art Fountain Street displayed on a constant basis: Utahna Hancock's provocative ceramics, James Thurman's cartoonish characters, Jake Wells' altered landscapes, Rochelle Steffen's hard-to-characterize mixed media. I know I'm leaving people out, which just illustrates the interest contemporary artists had in Fountain Street.

But you may notice something about those names I just listed, something that illustrates the Fountain Street "legacy" I mentioned earlier. Hancock, Thurman, Steffen and Wells are all regulars at the arts council, displaying their work with the rest of the Visual Arts Cooperative and gaining entry into juried exhibitions.

And the new arts group they helped found, the Modest Living Artists, continue to show their work with more and more frequency.

Fountain Street showed what was once a conservative local art scene that there is a demand for contemporary art, that people do want to see something different, and that even artists in a conservative Southeast Missouri town on the Mississippi River can show their art in New York's contemporary galleries (like Thurman and fellow gallery artist Kathy Smith have).

People like me, don't worry. You'll still be able to find contemporary art on First Fridays, it just might change location from month to month. But in the past few months Mike Rust's (yes, he is a member of THE Rust family) Gallery 1.2.5 has made contemporary art exhibitions a regular occurrence on First Friday. And the Modest Livers have all but set up permanent shop on the third floor of the Buckner Brewing Co. building.

Contemporary art will go on in Cape Girardeau, in part thanks to Fountain Street. By the time the next First Friday comes around, the gallery will be closed, but wherever I am, I'll raise a glass to Fountain Street and remember those conversations on the front porch. I won't be the only one.

Matt Sanders is the Arts & Leisure editor of the Southeast Missourian and the editor of OFF magazine.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: