There Goes the Neighborhood

Can an art gallery in a rehabilitated theater change the picture for East Franklin Avenue?

The scale of the renovation is an imposing thing unto itself. The original theater seated 1,000, and the sprawling interior space has now been partitioned into a large art gallery and a planned 110-seat theater and café. Programming funds are currently slated at between $80,000 and $120,000, a fairly modest sum. The debut show in November and December by Minnesota sculptor Robert Fischer attracted 200 to 400 people to its opening and perhaps 1,000 total by Peterson's estimates. How many people were neighborhood residents is difficult to gauge; Peterson guesses 25 percent. In any case, during one long afternoon visit with Peterson, a reporter never saw more than one other person in the gallery at any time.

The owner of a small Somali grocery store, Vinai Food Market, three doors down was unaware that the New Franklin Theater had started its programming. "It's not open yet," said the proprietor, who preferred not to be identified for this story. When asked if he thinks the building, as well as the entire stretch of road, will be restored soon, he shrugs. "Yeah. I think so. At least they say so. I don't know. We'll have to wait and see."

It's hard to imagine that Phillips residents would have identified an art gallery as a pressing priority for a block that last year registered a daunting 775 police calls (653 from a single neighboring address). Yet Peterson professes an intention to make the programming of the New Franklin inclusive to the surrounding community. "Everything we do here is open to the public and free," he says. "Our education program is free. Our theater rental rate will be very low and available for any purpose." Further, Franklin Art Works has secured a two-year, $50,000 grant from the Governor's After School Program to offer hands-on activities for neighborhood kids.

Curator of neighborhood ambitions Tim Peterson outside Franklin Art Works
Tony Nelson
Curator of neighborhood ambitions Tim Peterson outside Franklin Art Works

What this mission has to do with the kind of art currently filling the large, well-lighted exhibit space is somewhat unclear. David Rathman's Fact and Figures, which comprises 29 watercolor-and-ink posters on paper and is on display through April 8, is a cerebral, and referential show. The work is touchingly rendered and whimsically labeled; its language and narrative games reflect the influence of artists such as Ed Ruscha and Bruce Conner. For instance, "Atlas" (1999) is a careful rendering of 12 insects, each about one inch in length, each given the name of an American city. Another, "Saturday's Library" (1999), is a loose accumulation of hand tools, every one labeled with the name of a male author. The artist's statement reports that he takes his visual influence from high school posters of a certain vintage--1960s-era science and social-studies images, for instance. Yet this description masks the biting humor in Rathman's work, and the angst-filled expressiveness in the strokes of his pen-quill and watercolor brush.

One suspects the NRP did not expend hundreds of thousands of dollars on the New Franklin Theater out of an interest in 1960s-era science posters. Rather, this site, along with the Ancient Trader's Market, a new shopping center-cum-community center just opened by the American Indian Business Development Corporation a few storefronts away, is intended to lift this block's prospects.

Peterson is not unaware of this dynamic. "When we first opened," he says, "I had people come in and say they were surprised to see something so nice on the avenue. They even called it an oasis. But I tell them they should wait and see. There's lots of good things opening up down the way."

Indeed, the plans for redeveloping the area are extensive. At present, money has been allocated, or plans are in effect, to build 7,500 new housing units to help relieve local housing shortages, to create a walking and shopping district around the light-rail transit station that is planned for the area, to narrow Franklin Avenue and add parking and turn lanes, to widen sidewalks and put in Victorian-style street lighting, and to restore deteriorated buildings and replace blighted ones.

Jim Graham, the project manager for Ventura Village, imagines the area restored to a glory unseen since the Depression. "Our idea is to even have a streetcar go down the middle of Franklin just like it used to," he says a bit giddily. "Though that's really far down the future."

How these sundry schemes progress, though, may hinge on how the New Franklin Theater project fares. Barb Lickness, the neighborhood specialist for Phillips at the NRP, speaks about this somewhat reservedly: "At first, no one was educated about what the project would be. But once Ventura Village became abreast of the project, they wholeheartedly embraced it and came forward with a proposal to use more NRP funds to restore the front of the building. Then the neighborhood even came up with additional money. That's when they took off the false front [of the theater] and found the stained-glass window underneath. From our perspective, [the theater] is an important community gathering point."

Graham sounds more passionate about the connection between this fine-art gallery and the rougher streetscape around it. "The theater is a symbol of the neighborhood," says Graham. "Just as we restored it and found that underneath was a grand old lady, so is the same thing true in the neighborhood. Underneath the crime and the dirt is a nonreplaceable kind of beauty....As the theater goes, so goes the neighborhood."

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