A century-old downtown building that has housed tuxedos, boxers-in-training, a marketing company and more is scheduled to open later this month as a privately owned white box gallery.
As of last week, Joseph Nease Gallery, 23 West First Street, was still under construction with piles of wood, tools here and there, stacks of drywall. The concrete floors and exposed brick will remain unchanged. The movable white walls were in place, but the track lighting was still on the to-do list.
Work by featured artists has begun to pile up, some of it collected in back rooms, and a wooden crate packed with paintings had just arrived via mail and was in a back hall near a new fire exit - the kind of thing you have to add to a building when you turn it into a place where people are coming and going.
Owners Joseph and Karen Owsley Nease, the former a civil engineer who works remotely and the latter a visual artist, have done this before. The Duluthians had a gallery in Kansas City, Mo., also named the Joseph Nease Gallery, for about five years starting in the late 1990s. They plan to incorporate what they've learned - and some of the artists they have worked with in the past - into this new gallery.
"(In Kansas City), artwork looks different," Joseph Nease said. "We'll bring in these artists and give them exposure in a different region."
And for Duluth audiences: "It's never bad to see something different," he said.
The first exhibition, "Three States," opens Oct. 21 and will include new works by Matthew Kluber, Kathy McTavish and James Woodfill.
Buildings are important to the Neases - Karen Nease has two architectural degrees from the University of Kansas, in addition to a BFA in painting/printmaking from Kansas City Art Institute. Part of the lure of the new space was the actual building - and the fact that it was built in 1916.
"We appreciate people who take care of old buildings," Joseph Nease said.
They bought it earlier this year for about $250,000 and by the time the gallery is completed, about another $250,000 will have been invested in it.
It is more space than they need, Nease said. The main gallery, at street level, is about 4,800 square feet. There will be room for exhibitions and works by other artists the gallery represents, and an ability to drop in and browse or shop.
Gallery manager Amanda Hunter is an artist who also has a background in curation. She said she was interested in the way the gallery is committed to developing the careers of its artists. Hunter also predicts that bringing in outside artists is going to directly benefit the local scene.
"It brings new awareness to the whole place," she said.
There is a similarly sized second level - formerly Horton's Gym - which has a carpeted main room and includes office spaces. During a recent visit, the whiteboards still had scribbled notes from another former tenant, the marketing company 50 Below.
This space might be used for classes, storage and/or Karen Owsley Nease's own studio space.
Anne Dugan, an independent curator who teaches art history at the College of St. Scholastica, described Joseph Nease's taste as contemporary and cerebral.
"Karen's background as a painter carries through as well," she said. "This is an interesting mix of an attention to the skill of painting and the actual painted object, along with this attention to fairly conceptual work as well."
McTavish said Duluth is in the midst of a creative explosion, between the craft district in Lincoln Park and the downtown galleries, including AICHO, Prove Gallery and the Duluth Art Institute. Joseph Nease Gallery is part of this.
"It's an alchemy that's happening downtown," McTavish said. "It feels really exciting."
Joseph Nease worked as an engineer while his wife was in art school. Together, they attended student shows, then professional shows. His interest in art grew, too, and soon they opened Joseph Nease Gallery in Kansas City and maintained it until 2003.
Duluth was first a vacation destination for the couple, he said, then it became home.
"For a lot of reasons," Nease said. "The environmental ethics, the politics, the people. I like that people are aware of the outdoors."
Dugan said the Neases have taken their time and really gotten to know the Duluth art scene.
"It's exciting to have a gallery that has a specific voice in the curatorial work they're doing," she said. "They've done legwork with being part of the arts community and maintained their vision and what they find interesting."
Nease's connections to another market - one that isn't focused on the coasts - is exciting, McTavish said.
"For this (upcoming show) we have someone from Iowa and someone from the Kansas City scene," she said. "It's nice to have this bridge with these other places, in the Midwest specifically."
This is needed, Dugan said.
"We become stronger locally if we have voices that can invigorate the conversations," she said. "They have the resources to do that."
If you go
• What: Opening reception for "Three States" with Matthew Kluber, Kathy McTavish, James Woodfill
• When: 2-5 p.m. Oct. 21
• Where: Joseph Nease Gallery, 23 W. First St.
• About the artists: Matthew Kluber, who mixes painting and technology, is a professor at Grinnell College in Iowa and had an exhibition at the Nease's Kansas City gallery in 2002. Kathy McTavish is a Duluth-based composer-coder-media artist-cellist. In addition to this exhibition, she is also showing "Chance," an installation at the Tweed Museum of Art. James Woodfill, a Kansas City artist, sometimes leans functional with his work. He, too, showed his work at the first Nease gallery.