Sometimes Madison is a small town. I first heard the news of the impending closing of Absolutely Art, one of my neighborhood's most fabulous stores, from the owner's mom.
Sarah Whelan, the grande dame of Madison theater who has been acting and directing for more than 50 years (including in some musicals I've written), sent an email out to her list with a link to a Cap Times article reporting that the gallery will be shuttering at the end of June.
Whelan's daughter, Meghan Blake-Horst, is the owner of Absolutely Art, located at 2322 Atwood Ave. For the last nine years, Blake-Horst has become a super-involved community organizer and champion for local artists. Last year, she was honored with an Isthmus Indie Award for her commitment to the community.
Blake-Horst will not be going away, though, and she's got plenty planned to continue her mission, including launching MadCity Bazaar, a pop-up flea market planned for three dates this summer in the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce parking lot. But the loss of Absolutely Art, which was a thriving neighborhood hub, is going to be rough on the community.
I asked Blake-Horst a few questions to help understand the decision to close the store.
Madland: What do you think of as your biggest successes and challenges in running the store?
Blake-Horst: It is hard to choose one! One of my biggest successes was developing a space for the community to come and feel welcome, while giving our extremely talented artists a place to highlight and sell their work. Also, building a more than just a store or a gallery, I engaged in placemaking initiatives that are valued by the community as well as cultivated partnerships and relationships on a regular basis -- for example, our partnerships with the Little Free Library program, watching it grow from a seed, to an international phenomenon. I am proud of our stewardship of the second Little Free Library in the world and providing the only retail location for the program.
What went into making the decision to not renew the lease?
We have weathered some tough economic and political times in Madison and beyond. This winter proved to be especially tough with the harsh frigid temperatures. No one wanted to be outside, let alone come shopping. We haven't seen sales increases and there came a time when we thought this would be problematic with a new lease at the potentially same or higher rate.
Along with the building issues, it came to two options: moving out or moving on. Moving to a new location did not seem practical to me. The time, identifying the right location, and the cost of moving was not something I was ready to take on. The time seemed right to move on to the next chapter of my life.
You've become a real hub for the art community on the east side. What do you think the neighborhood needs to fill that void?
The east side of Madison is a hub of studios and creative spaces as well as businesses willing to provide space for artists to display their work. I will continue to encourage these businesses to continue to build these relationships, and continue to cross promote and plan events on a regular basis, bringing more people to the neighborhood to eat, shop and play. It would be great to see more retail shops open up in the neighborhood. We have an amazing selection of restaurants and bars; it would be great for these visitors and residents to have more shopping options as well.
Absolutely Art bought art from artists in addition to selling on consignment. How common is this model in Madison?
Most galleries in our area work with artists on a consignment basis but may purchase some of the work they carry at wholesale. Specialty shops like Orange Tree Imports and Little Luxuries do purchase from local artists for their inventory.
I think every business and gallery is different. It was a lot of overhead to purchase the work, but it was part of our mission. It was important to me to make this commitment to our artists. I have heard on many occasions how this helped them cover costs they would not have been able to otherwise. To know I was able to make an immediate difference by buying locally was amazing! I was making a true economic impact right here in my community with people I care for, though I can understand why many galleries need to work on a consignment basis.
Well, all that makes sense, and of course we can't complain about the amount of energy and effort Meghan Blake-Horst continues to pour into this community. But I will mourn the loss of Absolutely Art. I count the store among the places that changed Madison for the better. Some we lost to fire: Club de Wash and O'Cayz Corral. Others were victims of tough economic times or development: Buraka, Chautara, and the Mifflin Street Co-op.
I'm not the only one saddened by the news of the closing. Gloria Van Dixhorn, a ceramic artist who was one of the first artists to sell her work to Absolutely Art, called the news "sad." In an email, she wrote: "Meghan was so easy to work with and did a great job handling and displaying art. I always loved how this gallery captured our artistic and quirky east side vibe. A handmade object reminds us the world is alive. Absolutely Art provided us with 9 years of splendid living."
Blake-Horst has received similar feedback since announcing the closing: "It is amazing to read all the comments that our customers, neighbors and friends have been expressing. It is truly heartwarming and humbling to hear from so many on how Absolutely Art has affected their lives. It makes me very proud that I have made an impact in the neighborhood that I grew up in, helping guide and shape it."