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Galleries flourish in mall

by Jay Hamburger OF THE RECORD STAFF

From his gallery’s perch a few steps above the sidewalk, oil painter David Merrill this weekend will survey the crowds at the Park City Kimball Arts Festival, expecting that some of the art lovers will stop in to browse his landscapes.

At 64 years old, the onetime art director for Time magazine has run a 1,138-square-foot studio and gallery in the Main Street Mall since October, joining other Park City artists who have converged on the mall.

They have turned the hulking building into a local art bazaar of sorts. Jewelry, paintings, stone art and other crafts are sold at the mall, making it the largest concentration of such businesses on Main Street, widely considered as Utah’s ritziest art marketplace.

"The fact that you’ve got an accumulation of galleries all in one spot is very desirable," Merrill says on the eve of the arts festival, still the signature event on Park City’s busy summertime calendar. "We’re all here together. There’s a lot of camaraderie."

The artists and others who sell artsy goods have, in essence, transformed the mall, long seen by many in the city as an underperforming retail space sitting on a prime spot on the west side of Main Street.

The artists typically display their creations in windows and doorways, making strolling the mall more inviting, and have billed their space in the mall as "The Galleries @ 333," named for the address of the Main Street Mall, 333 Main St.

Crowds, however, have been sparse in the mall for years and, even with the artist takeover of some of the space, it is not a big attraction for Parkites and visitors.

But Merrill, whose paintings can be seen from his Main Street-facing windows, says that the artists can enliven the mall, drawing people to the galleries and then to other stores inside.

"People come by, see my stuff out here, they may walk up the stairs," he says.

Park City’s local art scene effectively stretches since the 1960s, when, as the ski industry launched, Park City drew free spirits, artists included, and people on ski vacations with bank accounts that allowed them to buy art.

The art market along Main Street has turned upscale, with some galleries selling works by the masters and others stocking their walls with contemporary pieces. Prices frequently reach into the five digits.

Local artists like Merrill and others in the mall have tried to stay competitive with the trendier galleries and, before converging on the mall, a group of Park City artists operated a co-op on Main Street that was disbanded to allow the expansion of the Park City Museum.

"It absolutely will feed on itself. It will become known as the spot for local art," says Angie Price, the president of the Park City Professional Artists Association and a jewelry artist who sells her works in Park City Colors, a gallery in the mall run by painter Renee Mox Hall.

The more the better

At about 85,000 square feet, the mall is among the biggest buildings in Park City but lots of observers have seen the mall struggle as people skipped it to stay outdoors. In 2001, there was talk of a major renovation of the mall, including retrofitting it with condominiums, but those plans were scrapped before major public discussions occurred.

Russell Wong, whose family has owned the mall since 1994, says the artists started renting space about a year ago, as the co-op lost its City Hall-owned Main Street space.

He refuses to disclose the rents the artists are paying but says that, generally, rates in the mall are reasonable compared to those on Main Street. Wong likes having the artists, who replaced retailers and office workers, as tenants, and credits Felix Saez, whose Stone Art Gallery opened in the mall in 2002, with drawing the others.

"It helped by having him there, almost like an anchor," Wong says, adding, "It’s tough being an artist and staying in business. It’s tough because of a lot of the rent structures on Main Street."

Saez, who sells his pieces and those of about 12 other artists in his gallery, says he moved into the mall so he would be surrounded by stores like Southwest Expressions, which sells American Indian and Western collectables, and Park City Clothing Co., two longtime tenants.

"The America I know of (shops) in shopping centers, malls," Saez says, hoping that the artists in the mall band to advertise the mall as what he describes as an "art destination."

The artists have not run the other retailers out of the mall. Clothing stores remain open, as do a candy shop, a collectable store and a store that sells fossils. After 13 years in the mall, Doug Hollinger, the owner of Park City Clothing Co., says the artists have re-energized the place.

"It’s just generated more traffic coming into the mall. It has been noticeable. Business has been up," he says, preferring the galleries to vacant storefronts. "We haven’t had the strong tenants at that end in the past. With the artists, that has changed. It’s nice to have the lights on."

This weekend is the first arts festival since The Galleries @ 333 started and the Kimball Art Center, the festival’s organizer, expects more than 40,000 to visit Main Street, where artist booths will be positioned up and down the street.

Merrill, the oil painter with a gallery in the Main Street Mall, signed a one-year lease for the space, which ends in October, and is anticipating the weekend’s crowds. He sees the art scene as big business in Park City and says the galleries in the mall boost that part of Park City’s economy, which he says trails only the ski industry and its related sectors, in importance.

"What will be good for the mall and good for Park City is a concentration of art galleries," he says. "Because art is probably Park City’s second draw, the more you can make of it, the better it is for Park City."


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