AZ Gallery’s new owners expand access for artists of all abilities
Lowertown’s Argyle Zebra (AZ) Gallery has been reframed. Artists Amy Clark and Beth Stoneberg have assumed ownership of the 2,000-square-foot space on the ground floor of the Northern Warehouse at 308 Prince St. They also changed its structure from a member-owned artist cooperative to a nonprofit organization.
“The AZ was having trouble rebounding from the pandemic,” said Clark, a Macalester-Groveland painter. “After more than 25 years as an artist cooperative, we dissolved and reemerged as a community gallery owned and operated by women.”
“It’s like the universe gave us the moment,” said Stoneberg, a painter who lives in Lowertown. “This is what we were supposed to do, to reimagine the gallery and to be here for the community not as individuals but as artists.”
“Our heart is in the Lowertown community,” Clark said. “Lowertown has always been an arts district. We want to make sure it doesn’t lose that identity, and we’ve gotten a great response from the community and the artists.”
56 works by 56 artists hung
For the past several years, AZ Gallery has hosted “Fire & Ice,” an art exhibit held in conjunction with the Saint Paul Winter Carnival. This January, the AZ has opened “Defying Sameness,” an exhibit of 56 works by 56 artists. The art does not follow a theme. In fact, “it disrupts expectations,” Clark said. “It’s about artists allowing their imaginations to break free, persuading others that they see something completely different.”
Clark and Stoneberg have been affiliated with the AZ for years. Clark joined the co-op in 2004 and Stoneberg in 2008. “It was an organization where the membership sort of ebbed and flowed,” Stoneberg said. Artists would pay a yearly fee, help with the operation of the gallery and be guaranteed space and exposure through exhibits.
A different kind of nonprofit
In its new form, the AZ is a nonprofit “but we’re not a 501(c)(3),” Stoneberg said. “We’re a 317A. We basically operate each month trying to break even. We just want to make sure we can pay our bills.” The work is 100 percent volunteer, and no salaries are being paid, Clark added.
To persuade artists to exhibit, the AZ Gallery puts out a call for works five times a year. “There’s no fee,” Stoneberg said. “If a work sells, we keep a commission. There’s zero risk to the artist.
Art can heal and healing is needed
“The old cooperative model worked for a really long time with the AZ having an average of eight to 10 members,” Stoneberg said. “Then the environment changed. We moved into the pandemic. But even before the pandemic, the community around us was changing. Lowertown used to be the hub of it all, the hub of the Art Crawl, and then that started to diversify and spread out.”
With the AZ struggling, Clark and Stoneberg felt an urgency to preserve the gallery and the Lowertown community. “(Artists) were pretty negatively impacted by the pandemic,” Stoneberg said. “They lost studio space. They lost access to exhibit space. We wanted to provide access by transforming AZ into a community gallery. We really believe that art can heal communities. And we think there’s a lot of healing that needs to happen.”
Both Clark and Stoneberg consider the AZ to be sacred space deserving of good stewards. “Who gets 2,000 square feet to just sort of make a dream work?” Stoneberg asked. She credited Artspace, which owns the Northern Warehouse, for providing support.
Gallery expands its support for artists
Over the past year, “we’ve supported 350-plus artists in the gallery and established some really great relationships,” Stoneberg said. “It’s just been an incredible experience.”
The artists who have exhibited at AZ over the past year range from emerging to established. “When you come to one of our shows, you might see an $8,000 painting hanging next to a $100 painting,” Stoneberg said. “We think that’s wonderful. We’ve even found that the established artists are engaging with the emerging artists, so it’s a mentor situation as well.
“We help educate all of the new artists on how to engage with a gallery, because it can be quite intimidating,” Stoneberg said.
Artists need to be around other artists
“We talk about how to hang your work, the best way to display your work, and how to use social media to promote your work,” Clark said. “You don’t become a better artist if you isolate. You need to be around other artists and to have that give and take, talking about ideas and learning from others.”
Clark teaches studio art at Visitation School in Mendota Heights. “I came to the AZ Gallery as a young art teacher,” she said. “One of my students said, ‘You know, Mrs. Clark, you keep telling us we can be artists, but where do you show your work?’ The next day I went down to the AZ and applied.
“As women, I think we’re good nurturers,” Clark added. “We’re carrying on the legacy of the many women in the arts who left so much to us: Sally Ordway Irvine, Kate and Aimee Butler, Katherine Nash, Catherine G. Murphy. These women were vital to the arts in Saint Paul. I think of all the women who opened doors for Beth and me. That’s what we want to do at the AZ—nurture, mentor and let people soar to great heights.”
“Defying Sameness” will remain on view through March 26 at AZ Gallery. A reception for the artists with live jazz and light refreshments will be held from 5-8 p.m. Saturday, February 18. The gallery is otherwise open from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. Admission is free. For more information, call 651-224-3757 or visit theazgallery.org.
— Anne Murphy
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