In her office at Inventrek Technology Park, a photo of Artist Alley in downtown Kokomo hangs over Susan Alexander’s desk. She explains that a recent grant will make three more art alleys possible in the downtown area – an upcoming project dubbed “All Alleys Lead to Art.”
This isn’t out of the blue. Downtown Kokomo has, in the past several years, seen something of its own miniature art renaissance. The courthouse square and surrounding blocks play host to a list of art-centric businesses and galleries. Still other businesses prominently feature galleries and unique, commissioned pieces.
“We have kind of chosen to carve out this niche, which is the arts, and enlivening this space with the arts,” said Alexander, the manager of Downtown Initiatives for the Greater Kokomo Economic Development Alliance. She calls it the next frontier of downtown’s revitalization – an often discussed, sometimes criticized and frequently boasted revamping of the heart of Kokomo.
“It’s a proven fact that the arts kind of lead the way for development,” said Alexander.
This concentrated effort to turn downtown into an art district began about five years ago, when downtown association members and other interested individuals took a trip to Indianapolis to take a look at their downtown’s First Friday event.
It was striking, said Alexander, to see the scores of people of all demographics braving the cold, evening hours to be out and about. And public art was everywhere. It was a vibe officials wanted to replicate in Kokomo, spawning the first days of First Friday, a monthly downtown event, frequently associated with some sort of theme. Art-related activities are a staple, delving into the audio, visual and performance worlds.
It started out small, with only two participating businesses – Main Street Café and Artworks Gallery, but has since grown to include between 50 and 60 participating businesses each month.
Alexander called this a concentrated effort to lay down the base of an art scene – something attractive to draw in people and entrepreneurs.
Another effort was the Artist Alley on Main Street, sitting between the county administration building and Artworks Gallery. That kicked off in 2014, and features a yearly circulation of pieces that are auctioned off online at the end of their time on display, and then replaced with new work.
In the years after, an influx of art-minded businesses would open or announce plans to open. Numerous mediums are currently represented, including visual art, music and dance. Others allow their customers’ creativity to flow with do-it-yourself pieces. Many more fill empty spaces with galleries from local artists.
“Where else do we have in Howard County that could have a conglomerate of artminded businesses?” said Misha Jefferson, a local business owner who recently opened Fired Arts Studio at 106 N. Main St. Her business is nestled between MO Joe Coffee Co. (which features a wall of unique pieces from local artists) and Cobalt Charm, all in the same building.
“There’s a new vibe going on … with trying to bring in the price point of residential living, both right down the street and the luxury apartments behind us, and the new stuff on Market Street – that target market of young families, 30-somethings, 20-somethings that have the expendable income again. … They work hard and they want to be able to enjoy their free time, and most of that is usually either outdoors or doing something artsy,” Jefferson said. Fired Arts Studio lets its customers make their own piece of pottery. Featuring around 150 different types of unfinished pottery, customers create their own unique piece of art. It’s been a big draw for families looking for something to do, and while it’s not the first studio of its kind to open in Kokomo, it has filled in a need, said Jefferson.
“Here’s what I keep hearing: ‘Oh, we go to the one down in Carmel, we always travel all the way to Carmel but now we have one here,’ … That’s what I keep hearing,” she said.
Jefferson, a Kokomo native, said downtown is transforming. As her building was under construction, she was “enamored” to see the Indiana University Kokomo Art Gallery move in next door, new private galleries open in the Artworks Gallery and news of Dancing Raine Studio across from Foster Park on Superior Street.
“It’s coming,” she said. “It’s just, we’ve got to make our downtown a destination area, and how we do that collectively as business owners, and community and government, it’s going to be an effort, and seeing the value in supporting local.”
Cheryl Sullivan, president of the Kokomo Art Association, said a strong draw for artists to relocate downtown was the association’s move to downtown Kokomo in 2011. The association’s relocation was itself the product of city administration’s interest in downtown’s transformation and in public art.
“We liked the idea of an art district downtown, and thought this is where we should be, being the Art Association and the oldest art organization in town,” she said.
The association has downtown roots – it’s where it started in 1926. At the time, it was located in a hotel, where exhibits were displayed in the lobby. Now, located at 210 N. Main St., the Kokomo Art Association building serves as something like an art incubator, said Sullivan. It’s home to the Artworks Gallery – a co-op of around 25 local artists – and several private art businesses on the second and third floors.
The Kokomo Art Association consists of between 120 and 140 artists total. That creates interesting dynamics as the association provides opportunities for young and elderly artists to gather and discuss their work, often learning from one another modern techniques or time-tested methods.
“I don’t think you could walk very far downtown without seeing a mural or a sculpture or see a business that has something to do with art,” Sullivan said.
A strong art scene is economically beneficial, according to Gregory Steel, associate professor of fine art and new media at IUK. It draws people to an area, he said, and often leads them to checking out the surrounding businesses while they’re at it.
Business owners in downtown Kokomo, he said, seem to be on the same page, he said – they recognize that art can represent an economic stimulus. It’s another reason to get people through the door.
“Adding layers and nuances of culture around town – visual art, performance art, music – all of those things will help sort of stimulate that kind of interest in our community, and growth, which will help everybody,” said Steel.
Steel helped start the Kokomo Public Arts Action Coalition, a group of citizens (most of them artists) working to promote and create art in public places. In 2016, the coalition kicked off U-Shop, where local artists created a unique piece for downtown businesses. Each piece was meant to capture the spirit of the business. When presented with the idea, downtown business owners almost unanimously got onboard, said Steel.
Right now, he said, the coalition is advocating for a series of sculptures along the Heritage Trail.
While many themes and the abstract nature of contemporary art are often off-putting to a general audience, Steel said public sculpture projects have a way of diverting criticism.
“I think that art can be something that … enriches a person’s life; that can give them something to look at. They don’t have to know necessarily what it is, or why it’s there. It doesn’t have to be controversial. It can just be something pleasant to look at – something that’s beautiful to look at … I think that much of what this project is about, and I think much of what large-scale public sculpture is about, is really more like that rather than political or social,” he said.
Downtown’s venture into the arts will continue with the creation of three more art alleys, thanks to a Community Foundation of Howard County grant and private donors. Each alley will feature a different medium, so they don’t replicate what’s already been down with Artist Alley, said Alexander. One will serve as a venue for music and performances, she said.
“Downtown is one of the mostly widely held representations of our entire community. It is important for us to have a thriving and vital city center. It represents us all. It belongs to us all. It has some of the most historic building in the community. It houses a lot of our history. It is the one representation that separates us from other communities – it is unique to us,” said Alexander.