Florida Keys Business
Sunday, April 1, 2012
Hangin' in there
Guild Hall Gallery is Duval Street's oldest retail shop in situ

Duval Street was all but deserted when Ann Irvine hung the first painting in her gallery. Across the street, the Monroe Theater featured the film "Deep Throat" for more than two years, and a topless woman frequently ran past Irvine's gallery.

The year was 1976. The country was celebrating its bicentennial and Key West was revitalizing its downtown corridor.

Three businessmen -- Ed Swift, Chris Belland and Gerald "Moe" Mosher -- had begun buying and renovating Duval Street buildings as part of the city's Downtown '76 overhaul. Guild Hall, at 619 Duval St., was one of the first properties that caught their attention.

The trio renovated the 1919 building using lumber, columns and staircases reclaimed from burned-out Conch houses, a Tallahassee school and the Mary Immaculate convent. They envisioned on the first floor an assortment of shops that were separated by decorative, wrought-iron bars, and a second-floor art gallery.

"When I first moved in here in 1976, every one of these stalls was a different store," Irvine said, pointing out the only two remaining sets of bars, which are now used as display space. "There was a wine store, another art gallery and other types of places."

Each tenant paid their monthly rent to Swift, Belland and Mosher, who became their landlords when the renovations were complete.

Irvine recalled that the wine shop had gone out of business. The owner had skipped town, but left much of his inventory.

"The artist from another of the spaces used to just reach through the bars and help himself to a bottle of wine," she said, laughing at memories of an island era long gone.

At one point, the second floor was rented to a rock band that practiced in the space and disturbed some of the artists below.

"So after a year, a few of the artists decided we wanted to manage the space, so we rented the whole building and installed different artists in each of the 25 or so spaces," she said.

Guild Hall Gallery was born, offering affordable gallery space to several local artists who worked in various media, including acrylics, watercolors, photography, sculpture, jewelry and weaving.

"When Ed and Chris decided to sell the building in 1986, four of us got the money together and bought it," she said.

Those four artists -- Irvine, Sonia Robinson, Poochie Myers and Susan Sturtevant -- are still the building's owners and are still four of the 25 featured artists in the bright, double-decker gallery that is also a co-op.

All of the artists pay rent for their booth space, which ranges from $100 to $2,000 per month, and work at the gallery.

"The gallery doesn't take the usual 40, 50 or even 60 percent, and the artist has the freedom to do and show whatever they want," Irvine said.

For example, an acrylic painter may opt to try her hand at watercolors, a switch that Irvine herself eventually made.

"They don't need permission from the gallery owner, and they can show whatever pieces they want as long as they don't copy something that's already in here," she said. "And we always encourage our artists to work in the space upstairs while they're here so customers can see them creating."

The second floor includes studio space, where weaver Claire Perrault has set up two looms to showcase her colorful fabrics and scarves. The space also is used monthly by a beading club as well as the local model train club.

"You can buy lots of local art here for under $50," Irvine said. "We really want this place to be a good experience for the customers as well."

The delighted smiles and enthusiastic inquiries of browsers on a recent Wednesday morning was proof that their mission has been accomplished.

"People come in and say how bright and colorful the space is," Perrault said. "I always tell them that the gallery's inside reflects the view outside."

Each artist's perspective of Key West comes to life in their gallery space. There are photographs of a leaping sailfish by Tim Rahn. Glass is fused together in colors that perfectly replicate the waters surrounding Key West.

Irvine's bolder-than-usual watercolors depict familiar island haunts, while other paintings of funny fish, charming chickens and curious cats draw the eyes everywhere all at once, with each glance more delightful than the next.

Although the view outside has changed drastically in the past 35 years, the view from the inside is still bright, tropical and laid-back -- just as it was when Irvine hung her first painting there in 1976.


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