ALONG THE WAY: KENT NEVER GAVE UP

By David Dix, Publisher Published:

A exiting new gallery of 10 distinguished artists has opened in downtown Kent.

The Group Ten Gallery, at 138 East Main Street, exhibits the work of 10 area artists, most of them associated in some way with Kent State University's School of Art either as alumni or retired faculty. They are people who make up the rich heritage of the School of Art, which has historically had one of the strongest art programs of Ohio's publicly supported universities.

The best way to enter Group Ten Gallery is from Burbick Alley, the brick paved lane running between Acorn Alley I and II. It used to be the entrance to the former Portage Travel, operated by T.N. and Christine Bhargava, and before that home to the Print Shop owned and operated by the late Russell Ake.

Hours, so far, are limited. The Gallery is open Wednesdays through Saturdays from noon until 5 p.m. But there are so many beautiful paintings hanging on the walls of the Group Ten Gallery that the hours must somehow be extended for the convenience of potential customers.

As a cooperative, the artist themselves manage the gallery. According to a press release, they, "share the work of hanging shows, staffing the gallery during business hours, and curating exhibitions by guest artists."

Group Ten Gallery is the brainchild of Joan and Ron Burbick, the developers of Acorn Alley and the people who turned the once derelict old Kent hotel into an attractively restored, bustling center of activity for the downtown.

Ron is amazing because he's a former manufacturer who has mastered construction and property management, two very different kinds of businesses.

He keeps experimenting with his downtown holdings to determine what works and what does not. Success of Group Ten Gallery would make Kent even more of a destination point and certainly another reason to enjoy Acorn Alley.

Ben Bassham, one of the 10 artists, who wrote the press release refers to the gallery as , "an ensemble of ten artists from Kent and the surrounding area whose art encompasses a broad range of mediums and styles, from the representational to the abstract, and with an emphasis on the two-dimensional arts of painting, drawing and collage."

"Each artist," he writes, "has an extensive record of juried exhibitions, both nationally and regionally, and numerous solo shows. Their work may be found in many private, corporate, and museum collections. Several members of the group have also taught art at the university level or have long histories of giving private lessons in painting."

Bassham notes that Group Ten Gallery will present a revolving series of exhibitions of members' work with shows changing every two months. Also planned are exhibitions featuring guest artists or shows that explore special themes or mediums, such as portraiture, still-life, works on paper (drawings and etchings, for example) and images of Kent.

The works on display represent a range of sizes and prices, he adds.

Downtown Kent hit rock bottom 41 years ago

Kent's downtown success appears to have happened overnight, but the truth is the downtown hit rock bottom 41 years ago with the fire that destroyed the commercial block at the corner of North Water Street and West Main.

That building, when constructed by Zenas Kent in 1836, was the largest commercial block in northeast Ohio, and until the fire was one of the proudest edifices in the downtown.

For Kent, having attempted to cope with years of anti-war demonstrations, the fire was the straw that broke the camel's back.

Kent looked beaten. I can remember my older brother, Bob Dix, visiting and incredulously asking, "What the heck happened to Kent?"

Efforts at renewal were stirring, however.

A group of business leaders formed the Kent Historical Society and acquired the dilapidated Erie Railroad Depot, sparing it from demolition. They found a tenant, the Pufferbelly, which has continued in business to this day.

Civic leaders, led by banker Howard Boyle, formed the Downtown Kent Corporation, and undertook an ambitious land-banking program with a line of credit supported by the local banks. Boyle, after becoming president of Hometown Bank, had the bank assume control of the land where the commercial building Zenas Kent had built once stood.

He created an attractively landscaped corner lot with a bandstand, moving the Kent Rotary Gazebo across the street.

Kent also switched to a city manager government and its first manager, Roy Stype, was an idea machine very much into promoting a downtown resurgence.

In the 1980s, with then Mayor Nancy Hansford and City Manager Jim Bacon working in tandem and a supportive city council, the first "Streetscape" program was launched. It was eventually extended.

The Kent Environmental Council, having persuaded the community that the Cuyahoga River was better treated as an asset than as a sewer, supported the city and Kent Parks and Recreation efforts to create Riverfront Park. In 2005, during the Steinbrecher era, Kent, with the cooperation of the Portage County Commissioners, added Heritage Park.

Architect Doug Fuller reminded me that the Kent State University School of Architecture and Urban Design in 1993 published a study undertaken by the students and supervised by the late Foster Armstrong, that proposed linking the KSU campus with the downtown.

Kent also undertook a vision exercise. Kent State, when led by President Carol Cartwright, contributed by publishing a voluminous study projecting in detail what Kent could be.

With the Main Street movement's arrival, Ron Burbick set a great example by acquiring three buildings and turning them into the Phoenix Block properties. He then followed up with Acorn Alley I and II and more recently, the rejuvination of the old Kent Hotel.

City Manger Dave Ruller and KSU President Lester Lefton, teamed up. Congressman Tim Ryan secured the $20 million grant for PARTA's parking deck and Ruller and Lefton were off and running.

Their partnership, supported by city council and the Kent Schools, resulted in Fairmont's downtown buildings, the Kent State Univesity Hotel and Conference Center, and the beautiful Esplanade, which in two years will be spectacularly anchored by the new School of Architecture and Urban Design building.

An overnight success? If that's what you call 40 years of never giving up.

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