CANTON: The downtown Canton Arts District has become a bright spot in a city that needed one.
A four-square-block area once known for bar fights and dilapidated buildings now blooms with 45 pieces of public art, 26 galleries and studios, and a small theater. Even garbage cans are decorated with original paintings and sculptures.
On the first Friday evening of each month, thousands of visitors converge on the area north of the Stark County Courthouse — its clock tower topped by downtown’s loftiest piece of public art: four golden trumpeters of justice.
First Fridays, now entering their seventh year, feature evening hours at galleries, live music and theater.
It wasn’t always that way.
Todd Walburn remembers what it was like when he and partner Brennis Booth opened 2nd April Galerie in 2003.
“We noticed when we moved in on Sixth Street, there was some activity — some drug activity and some prostitution activity — just right down the street from the gallery,” Walburn said. “As soon as we were there, and people were in and out during the day, that just stopped.”
Added Booth: “We always used to say the only reason you came downtown was to go to church or court.”
Walburn and Booth are the pioneers in the Canton Arts District. Theirs is the oldest art gallery in continuous operation downtown. It has served as the incubator for artists who have since opened their own shops, even as 2nd April Galerie has expanded to 10,000 square feet at 324 Cleveland Ave. NW.
Booth cited two major factors in the 10-year process of revitalizing the northwest corner of downtown: support from the Canton Regional Chamber of Commerce and the arrival of Robert “Robb” Hankins as president and CEO of the nonprofit ArtsinStark more than seven years ago.
“The chamber liked us down here, but they didn’t quite know what to do with us,” Walburn said.
Hankins introduced the art and business communities to each other. He carried a message he had used as an arts management professional in eight other cities.
“The arts can help you renovate your downtown, because we have the secrets: live music, public art and artists’ studios and galleries,” Hankins said. “Much to my amazement — and I’ve made that speech in many places — they said, ‘Great, we’ll be your partner.’ ”
Michael Gill, director of the Canton Development Partnership, a department of the chamber, said what a lot of people felt about the buildings in disrepair.
“The city was not attractive,” he said. “It was pretty dirty, and the Canton chamber basically set out to create a new downtown, if you will.”
Laying the groundwork
Around 2000, several years before Hankins’ arrival, the chamber and city began to lay the groundwork for a cleaner and greener downtown.
The chamber created the development partnership to deal day to day with downtown. In turn, the city gave the chamber $175,000 a year for economic development efforts. Half of that goes toward development work downtown, Gill said.
The Canton City Council approved the legal framework for a Special Improvement District, a quasi-governmental entity with authority to assess commercial property downtown. Those payments fund First Friday concerts, public art, flowers in sidewalk planters and other amenities.
Around the same time, the chamber started the Downtown Canton Land Bank to buy distressed properties for resale or rehabilitation.
The tangible result of the concerted effort, Gill said, was $109 million worth of investment downtown. The city spent about $14 million improving the major corridors of Market Avenue and Tuscarawas Street. Another $54 million built the Ralph Regula Federal Building and expanded Timken High School. The rest was private investment in new construction or rehabilitation.
One of the land bank’s most dramatic transformations occurred at the northeast corner of Fourth Street and McKinley Avenue Northwest, a site that overlooks Timken High and the construction site that will become the Eric Snow YMCA.
The land bank bought the building for $85,000 at a sheriff’s sale in 2007. A “before” picture shows boards in various shades of brown over the large window openings on the 1922 brick structure. It now houses six second-floor apartments, a glass blower and an art gallery that sparkles behind large plate-glass windows. Behind the building is a downtown rarity: a paved parking lot landscaped with flowers and ornamental grasses.
“We really wanted to make sure that everything had the right touches,” Gill said of the project.
The space suits Su Nimon, an artist who opened Journey art gallery in the light-filled corner in July after returning home from 15 years in Denver.
“I thought I was going to die on the vine, but the arts district has blossomed so spectacularly,” said Nimon, one of the artists who credits 2nd April for giving her an early outlet to sell her work.
“If I was in the big city, my chances of success would be less because my expenses would be so much more. We’re still in Canton, Ohio, where the rents are low,” Nimon said.
Marcy Axelband found that living in an apartment above her sidewalk-level studio at 340 Fourth St. NW allowed her to scale back her regular job as a social worker and mediator to spend more time painting.
“I moved here from Chicago,” she said. “Chicago’s so expensive, I couldn’t do this.”
Journey visitor Deborah Peluso, who divides her time between North Canton and the New York City borough of Brooklyn, said Journey compares well to galleries in the Big Apple.
“I think it definitely has a similar vibe,” Peluso said. “It’s much more spacious than most of the New York galleries. ... [The] vibe that this facility gives off is much more welcoming; it’s much more warm. A lot of the galleries that you walk into [In New York] are intimidating, to be honest.”
Glass blower John Boyett moved into the same building 2½ years ago after honing his craft at Hale Farm & Village in Bath Township and at Akron Glass Works.
His Canton Glass Works is seven miles from his Plain Township home. The short commute makes it possible for him to start work at 7 a.m. and still have time and energy to bring 14-year-old son Jordan to the studio in the evening after football practice.
He credits Gill and the Chamber of Commerce for providing space that was in “perfect shape” when he took occupancy.
“They basically opened up their arms and said, ‘Welcome home; we’ll take you,’ ” Boyett recalled. “They pretty much said, ‘We have space,’ and ‘Pick and choose what you want.’ ”
Another difference that Nimon has noticed between major cities and Canton is that in the latter, artists are supportive of each other.
“What we’ve all kind of said down here is it’s a big, like, cooperative kind of neighborhood,” said Michael Nasvadi, owner of the Buzzbin, a live music venue at Fourth Street and Cleveland Avenue Northwest. “[Neighboring gallery owner] Billy Ludwig’s going to put on a festival. I don’t really see that as competition; he’s trying to bring people down here. He can put posters in my windows, and I’ll help him.”
Buzzbin’s conversion from a magazine office to a bar that brings bands in nightly from across the United States and several foreign countries has been a big piece of the success of the arts district, according to Booth, of 2nd April Galerie.
Arts district businesses function interdependently in a kind of cooperative ecosystem.
Although Booth is a partner in an art gallery, his brother showed some of his works at Buzzbin. When Nasvadi decided to move his T-shirt and record sales from Buzzbin, he sent them to a nearby record store that he started with two associates. Stop at Journey, and Nimon will ask if you’ve been to Buzzbin. Go anywhere and someone is bound to recommend you visit another gallery, such as Translations, which offers new shows monthly in a space that once housed a troubled bar. Stay at Buzzbin until craft brew sales stop at 1 a.m., and the staff will let you know that George’s and the Amvets’ club are open later.
“We run a business, and then we try to send people elsewhere,” Nasvadi said.
Downtown’s life cycle might have come full circle in Timothy Belden, whose Joseph Saxton Gallery of Photography occupies part of a 26,800-square-foot building that has been a Cadillac dealership and a parking garage. It now houses a 7,800-square-foot gallery that is open for viewing and can be rented for weddings and other events.
Belden’s father, Marshall, was one of three siblings who sold most of the land for Belden Village Mall in Jackson Township. The mall’s 1970 opening generally is considered the beginning of the decline of a downtown that was once the retail hub of Stark County.
The late Marshall Belden invested a “good bit of the money” from the sale of the mall property into downtown, his son said.
“Of course, dad’s love of downtown was infectious, and like most of us, I think we wind up trying to fulfill our parents’ goals, plans or whatever,” he said.
Belden opened his gallery in 2009 as the result of a visit to the arts district for a First Friday in 2007.
“I was really interested and excited by the buzz that was being created by First Friday,” Belden said. “It was very busy. It was also a very intelligent and sophisticated crowd, and I decided that it was something that would be fun for me to participate in and for my family to participate in.”
The arts district is complemented by traditional arts institutions to the north, including the Canton Museum of Art, Canton Ballet, Players Guild Theatre, Voices of Canton and the atmospheric Palace Theatre. The Canton Symphony Orchestra gives most of its concerts two miles away at McKinley High School.
Hankins said the Canton Arts District is unique because it is compact enough to be comfortably toured on foot. He recommends capping a day of gallery viewing with an evening show.
“If you’re a visual arts person, and you come to the Canton Arts District, Wednesday through Saturday are your best days,” Hankins said. “You will go away raving. You’re going to go away saying this is the best arts experience in Ohio.”
Nancy Molnar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.