Nov. 10 2010 12:00 AM

As Lansing Art Gallery moves, historic home is ‘up for grabs’

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    When it comes to location, the Lansing Art Gallery is behaving like a sensible 45-year-old bachelor.

    After a six-year fling, the gallery will forsake a sleek, chic but problematic storefront at 113 S. Washington Square and move a block north to the cheaper, bigger and more accessible 119 N. Washington Square, between the YMCA and Kositchek’s, the gallery’s board of directors announced last week. The move is scheduled for January.


    The basement space lacks the airy glitz of the gallery’s present home, the former Lieberman’s Department Store, which it has occupied since 2004.


    But director Catherine Babcock said the gallery will stay in the thick of downtown while strengthening its core missions of education and showing fine art.


    “We’re giving up a lot, but we’re gaining so much,” Babcock said. “You have to prioritize, and we’re prioritizing accessibility.”


    The new building has elevator access for the elderly and handicapped and a freight elevator for artists to bring their work to the exhibit space. The present space lacks both.


    Babcock said it wasn’t easy to ditch the only storefront designed by leading modernist George Nelson that’s left intact in the United States.


    “We’re going to miss the light, the beautiful windows, the ambience here,” Babcock said.


    Betty Price, who ran Lieberman’s Department Store and commissioned Nelson’s design in 1963, still owns the building. Rather than see the modernist space gutted or renovated, Price let the space sit idle for years, waiting for the right tenant, before leasing to the gallery.


    A year and a half ago, at the gallery’s request, Price lowered the rent from $3,000 to $1,000, which barely covers taxes, insurance, and maintenance, according to Betty’s son, Tom Price, who manages the building.


    The gallery’s lease expired in September 2009, and since then the lease has run month to month. About a year ago, the Prices notified the gallery it was showing the building to a prospective buyer, the Michigan State University Federal Credit Union, but the credit union chose another location.


    Babcock said the gallery was already looking for a new home, but “accelerated” its search after that.


    Tom Price said he was willing to continue month to month, at the reduced rent, until he could sell or lease the space at market value.


    “We’d love to have them stay,” he said.“It’s better to have someone there than not.”


    Babcock said the rent is “cheaper” at the new location, but didn’t specify the amount.


    Saturday, Betty Price received a letter from Babcock telling her of the board’s unanimous decision to move.


    “It’s up for grabs,” Tom Price said. “It’s a neat building. It would be great to keep it as it is.”


    This
    year, Michigan’s historical preservation office launched a project
    identifying and promoting the state’s mid-century modern buildings, and
    named the former Lieberman’s to the list.


    Tom Price said he’s interested in finding a way to tie the building with the project, perhaps as a showcase or museum.”


    “We
    could definitely work with him on tax credits and easements to protect
    the building,” Amy Arnold, a state preservation officer and organizer of
    the Michigan Modern project, said Tuesday.


    The Lansing Art Gallery is losing a distinctive home, but its new location has humble but significant offsets.


    The
    space has been vacant since its most recent tenant, the printing shop
    for the city of Lansing, closed in 2007. That’s a plus for the gallery,
    which will inherit a sophisticated $40,000 climate control system
    designed to keep paper from curling.


    The
    move will also expand the gallery from 6,000 to 7,400 square feet. For
    the first time, Babcock said, there will be adequate classroom space for
    the gallery’s expanding educational mission.


    But
    Babcock said access was the key issue. Some elderly patrons couldn’t
    negotiate the old building’s modernist floating staircase, and the
    wheelchair-bound were flat out of luck.


    What’s more, many grant sources won’t provide funding to arts organizations unless they are accessible.


    Visiting
    the space last week, Babcock climbed a wide, shallow Art Deco stairway
    to the lower level, where a new, smaller museum gift shop will greet the
    visitor. The staircase and showcase window are inherited from the
    original tenant, Grant’s Department Store.


    At
    the bottom of the stairway, a large central space opens to the right.
    When movable walls are installed, the gallery will have more flexibility
    than the present location, with its two separate second-floor exhibit
    rooms.


    According to the lease agreement, owner Ken Stockwell and partners will be responsible for major renovations such as knocking down walls, while the gallery will redo the floor and install track lighting.


    Babcock is especially elated over the freight elevator.


    Over
    the years, she said, many artists haven’t been able to show at the
    gallery because they couldn’t have maneuvered their work up the floating
    stairs.


    “We’ve
    managed to get 10-foot paintings up here by lifting it over the railing,
    but when it’s both big and heavy, that’s when it really becomes an
    issue,” she said.


    Babcock said the gallery’s board of directors “felt strongly” about staying downtown.


    “We
    left the Center for the Arts (the gallery’s home for 29 years before
    moving to its present location) thinking that if the people won’t come
    to the art, we’ll take the art to the people,” Babcock said. “We still
    feel that way. The accessibility downtown is much greater.”

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