Feb. 6 2013 12:00 AM

Local mall's gallery project dissolves after three years

Less than three years after it began, Meridian Mall’s fledgling “art mecca” will soon be uninstalled, having never made it past its first phase. It’s an inauspicious end to what was supposed have been a bold expansion of the thriving Lansing art gallery scene.

Ironically, it appears the effort is being thwarted by an otherwise improving economy: At least some of the gallery space will be replaced by a national shoe store looking for mall space. And Meridian Mall management says bringing in artist tenants — that would be the international, mixed media collection of Anselmo Gallery and the custom-made glasswork of Craig Mitchell Smith Glass — was only a temporary fix to vacant storefronts as a result of the economic downturn. Moreover, management is still offering space in the mall, just in a different location.

Ric Anselmo says he feels  blindsided.

“It doesn’t seem right,” said Anselmo, owner of Anselmo Gallery. His business will vacate its prime location next to Macy’s by the end of the month. “I created this to be a beautiful place where people could come and look at art, to bring their kids to teach them, and what do they want to do with it? They want to sell shoes here now. Ah.” 

Anselmo turned his head away and threw up his hands in frustration: “Aren’t there enough shoe stores in the world?”

However, Meridian Mall manager Larry Parsons paints a different picture. 

“Ric knew that this was a temporary situation when he signed the lease,” Parsons said by phone. “When we approached him (in 2010), we had space to fill, and we offered him a very special deal to keep lights on until we could find a permanent tenant.” 

Due to a confidentiality agreement, neither Parsons nor Anselmo would give the details of the deal. While the idea was to foster a creative community that would attract other artists to the mall, the only other gallery owner to bite was Craig Mitchell Smith. The two galleries are still surrounded by nine empty storefronts. 

In July 2010, Anselmo, 84, moved his gallery from the 3,000-square-foot space he’d been leasing at 3320 E. Lake Lansing Road in East Lansing to the Meridian Mall, where he was given about 12,000 square feet of elbow room. Anselmo said the mall’s management pursued him to be the first in a hub of art galleries — which only made it as far as two. Craig Mitchell Smith Glass moved in next door to Anselmo in October 2010. Anselmo said the larger space allowed him to provide a world-class service to the area. 

“My collection represents a lifetime of world travel,” Anselmo said. “I set this up to be like a museum, giving you plenty of space to take a couple steps back and enjoy the individual pieces.” 

He shuffles through his gallery, pointing out the favorite pieces in his collection. The engraved elephant tusk, the Chinese silk wall hanging, the bubbling Zen fountains. Soon it will all be moving, destination unknown.  

“Art is not a common thing,” Anselmo says, pausing near some African carvings. “It’s important to be able to interact with it. But it’s disappearing.”

Anselmo, an architect by trade, was born and educated in the Philippines before moving to the U.S. in the 1950s. He designed some of the Lansing area’s iconic landmarks — including the University Club, the MSU Children’s Garden and the firehouse on Abbot Road — and he taught architecture at Michigan State University and Lansing Community College. He was always an avid art collector, and in 1996 he opened the first Anselmo Gallery in East Lansing. And for 14 years, he did just fine. 

“Then three years ago, (Meridian Mall) came to me, begging me to move in,” Anselmo said. “And now they want me to take a space that’s half this big somewhere else — that’s not enough room to show my art. They’re so shortsighted. I’m attracting customers from hundreds, thousands of miles away. Having an art gallery in this mall is better than advertising.”

But Parsons said the mall is responding to renewed interest in retail space. Anselmo’s former slot will become a Shoe Carnival, an Indiana-based footwear retailer with over 400 stores nationwide that sells mens, womens, childrens and athletic footwear, as well as socks, handbags and wallets. He also said that the new tenants will knock out part of the store’s rear wall to create an exterior entrance, giving shoppers another way to enter the mall from the parking lot. Construction is expected to begin in March.

That coincides with Craig Mitchell Smiths departure. 

“As the economy continues to improve, we’re starting to get national companies who are looking to expand into Michigan,” Parsons said. “The state is becoming more favorable to do business. We’ve offered to move Ric to another space in the mall, but he doesn’t seem to want that. We always had the right to move him. He should take a look at his lease.” 

Smith, 49, will leave the mall in March to pursue work in Florida. Although he’s been creating art for almost 30 years, his store in the mall was his first full-time gallery. 

“They made both Ric and I exquisite deals, but I always knew that it wouldn’t last forever,” said Smith, whose 6,000–square-foot gallery is about half the size of Anselmo’s. “I had Plan B in place from day one. They wanted to make an art mecca, but they could only find the two of us.”

Smith talked by phone from Walt Disney World in Orlando, where he just finished installing some of his art in the EPCOT theme park — glass poppies, to coincide with the upcoming film, “Oz the Great and Powerful.” 

“I no longer need the mall — I need a production facility,” Smith said. “Most of my sales are from outside. My lease goes until next month, and I still don’t know yet what’s going to happen. But I’d rather be next to a gallery than a shoe store. I’m anxious.” 

Anselmo said that he’s talking with a leasing agent at the Lansing Mall across town about moving there, but admits he has reservations about both the available store sizes and whether a gallery would be well received. 

Donna Randall, co-owner of Gallery 1212 in Old Town, said she thinks Anselmo is making a mistake by looking toward another mall move. She spent five years in the ‘90s running Nature’s Scoop, a yogurt store adjacent to the Lansing Mall, and said she was always surprised how costs kept adding up. 

“It’s just so expensive in all these ways you never think about,” she said. “You have to stay open for mall hours, for one, and that’s an increase in labor costs right there. You pay for so many little things. Every time it snows, you have to pay part of the snow plow bill.”

Randall moved to her location, 1212 Turner St., in 2010. At 1,100 square feet, its less than one-tenth the size of Anselmo Gallery, but she says space has never been an issue; she has full range of classes, workshops and a rotating monthly showcase. 

“Just because you want a bigger house doesn’t mean you need one,” she said. “I, for one, really appreciate the Meridian Mall for supporting art, and I think Ric should be happy that they supported him for three years. But I understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. The economy has improved, and they want to let someone in who can make them a lot of money. It’s sad to say it, but art has to pay for itself.”