For more than a decade, the name “Art Sanctuary” has meant a home for all kinds of art. Even though that home began as a moveable feast, popping up for single nights at area bars or for epic potluck art parties at founder Lisa Frye’s house, the hope has always been that Art Sanctuary would be a physical space.
When the group — led by a partnership between Frye and local photographer Frankie Steele — found a warehouse on Shelby Street in the up-and-coming Germantown neighborhood, it seemed like Art Sanctuary would settle in and stay. But problems with red tape and zoning threatened their future and their ability to host large-scale events and performances.
As of Tuesday, Nov.29, the red tape is clear, the zoning issues are settled, and Art Sanctuary is ready to invite the public back in, which they’ll begin doing almost immediately with the Flea Off Market in residence every weekend until Christmas.
Insider caught up with Frye and Steele about their history, their vision and how it all got so complicated.
“Art Sanctuary was created because, at the time, there was not really a place for local artists to do a lot of things,” recalls Frye. “NuLu did not exist; all the galleries that were around had things from out of town.”
So the answer for a time was to host temporary takeovers.
“We’d do these hit-and-run art shows. They were called art soirees, and we did maybe three a year,” says Frye. “We’d have over 70 local artists, we’d have at least 10 types of performance: dance bands, spoken word. Pretty much any kind of art.”
For a time, Art Sanctuary teamed with the Alley Theater at a space in Butchertown, another old building that wanted tenants who were willing to put their work and hopes into the property. When that partnership dissolved, Frye and her Sanctuary were looking for a home again.
This was back in 2011, and around this same time, Steele, a freelance photographer, was exploring the idea of creating a shared workspace for artists or business startups.
He started running a collective out of the Ice House building on Main Street, but rent rose when the KFC Yum! Center opened. Steele started looking around in his neighborhood of Germantown, and he found 1433 Shelby St., an industrial building along the Louisville Rail corridor.
It belonged to master electrician and business owner Dennis Becker, who bought the building at auction as a side project and was renting it out as boat and RV storage.
Steele proposed a plan to turn a portion of the 26,000-square-foot building into shared space, and Becker agreed. The key to Steele’s plan was that he wouldn’t try to take over the whole building at once. He would slowly rehab the space, piece by piece. Since Becker already was renting portions out piecemeal, it was a perfect fit.
Steele approached Frye with an offer to team up — and she turned him down flat.
“She said, ‘Thanks, but no thanks,’” recalls Steele.
Frye claims she was a little less polite: “I said, ‘Hell no,’ and walked out.”
Undeterred, Steele continued with his plan. “So I spent the next six months continuing to renovate, paying for it out of pocket,” he says. “I would come over, work on the space and clean.”
After six months, Steele invited Frye back for another tour. “I got the second floor cleaned up, and I called Lisa and said, ‘Why don’t you come back and look at it again?”
Frye remembers thinking, “He’s serious. This is somebody who’s loyal to the cause.”
The duo then joined forces.
The rehab on the building progressed in stages. Artists began to move in; now more than 30 artists have studios. Art Sanctuary took over the smaller of the two large rooms and started hosting events.
But when they tried to take over the larger room, they ran into problems.
“A portion of the building was built before zoning existed, so it never got zoned,” says Frye. “When they built the rest of this, it got zoned as manufacturing, and instead of lumping the (rest of the building) in with the actual building, they lumped it in with the neighborhood. So it was zoned residential.”
It’s even more absurd than that: Only about a quarter of the building was even in a residential zone.
“You could stand there and be like, ‘This is residential, this is manufacturing,'” says Frye, illustrating her point by hopping back and forth over an imaginary line in the middle of the room.
A key to running the shared space is the income provided by rentals. Without the ability to rent out event and performance space, Art Sanctuary’s progress stopped in its tracks.
Steele and Frye began the exhausting process of rezoning the small portion of the building that was zoned residential. Then the fire marshal got involved and decided significant upgrades were needed for the entire building.
“Zoning was several big scary presentations, with a board of like 30 people, in court. We had to get a lawyer, which (Becker) got, which was awesome, because we couldn’t afford it,” says Frye.
The two praise Becker frequently and also name an unexpected hero: Fourth Street Live.
“I can’t stress that enough, not the national — not Cordish — it’s actually the local Fourth Street Live group. Tiffany Wakeley is the PR director down there,” explains Steele, who frequently shoots photos for the organization and had mentioned Art Sanctuary’s problems to Wakeley. “They have an annual philanthropy budget, and they wrote us a check for a little over $13,000.”
That check paid for upgrades to the fire safety system, a step crucial to getting the fire marshal to sign off.
For Steele, Frye and the rest of the members of Art Sanctuary, the future looks bright.
“The sky is the limit,” says Frye.
The two were somewhat slap happy when they spoke with Insider, rejoicing in the removal of the huge stressor that had been barring their path.
Next up, Art Sanctuary hopes to rent the space to a variety of fairs, events and performers. They also hope to bring more artists into the fold.
“I’d like to start adding to our education and those other programs,” says Steele. “We have space set aside ready to go for an artist-in-residence, we just need funding. And that’s really the big thing now.”
To check out Art Sanctuary, schedule a tour by calling Frye at 386-7114. You can also hit up the Flea Off Market throughout weekends in December. Art Sanctuary is located at 1433 S. Shelby St.
Disclosure: The author of this article rents space at Art Sanctuary.