It took more than six months to clear out the potted plants and detritus from stray cats that choked their future gallery space. That was just the first in a long string of challenges that confronted husband and wife Ron and Sarah Jane Fellin as they infused the Peanut Gallery with life.
After almost eight and a half years, numerous art shows and happenings, and $20,000 of their own money to keep it running, a fire in an adjacent building that was being demolished forced the Peanut Gallery to end its run this past fall.
Local artist Lisa Mahar, who had shown work there, said the gallery "always had hip music and a bohemian atmosphere, almost like you would see in a more metropolitan area. It was always a little edgy and off the beaten path."
The Peanut Gallery, which was on the outskirts of The District in Rock Island, was one of two local venues that cultivated exhibition opportunities for fledgling artists (and musicians). The other was downtown Davenport's Mode Gallery, which closed in late summer and was replaced by a more traditional gallery, Leger.
This one-two punch to the young, experimental, and scrappy art scene has left a void. "I feel like there is no place for the fresh-out-of-high-school or -college artist to show," said painter and St. Ambrose alum Heidi Hernandez, who exhibited in both spaces. "Especially if it is crude or shocking. Also, I do not see a place where the underground music and art interact, now that the Mode and Peanut Gallery are gone. ... It is important that music and art have a place to live where there are no boundaries."
Although the two spaces closed their doors just months apart, their life spans and purposes were different. The comparatively long-lived Peanut Gallery was primarily a semi-private working space that also publicly showed work. Mode Gallery, which was open for nine months, was seen as an economic-development tool to generate traffic and encourage symbiotic tenants in the Bayer building, which was searching for its own revitalization.
An Extended Living Room
The late Steve Ontiveros, a friend of the Fellins, found the building that would house the Peanut Gallery - early 20th Century bulging with history and desperately needing TLC. "Like so many times before, Steve showed up with something for us," Ron said. "This time it happened to be a building." Although this building was not love at first sight, it met a need and the Fellins recognized its potential.
Ron's and Sarah Jane's desire was to have the Holy Grail for all producing visual artists: inexpensive studio space. The Fellins also wanted to create a new space for artists and musicians to hone their craft and showcase the fruits of their labors. So without a business plan, they dove into the trenches and opened the Peanut Gallery.
It would be difficult to classify the Peanut Gallery as a financial success for the Fellins. According to Sarah Jane, "I think we broke even four times in those eight and a half years. But, it was our studio ... . That was our playroom, our extended living room, our place to have our friends, our place to make our messes."
Ron noted that the Peanut Gallery that people experienced four or five times a year during Gallery Hops was not really the Peanut Gallery. The soul of the place could be found the other 360 or so days of the year, when it was a production facility for the Fellins. Innovative mixed-media and batik artist Sarah Jane preferred to work by the morning light that flooded in through the big shop windows. Ron, a relief plaster sculptor and "texturalist," could be found later in the day working or reading while catching some WVIK or KUNI. How they used the space most of the year and what it meant to them were where the building's value really lay.
Studio space in the Quad Cities runs in the neighborhood of $2.50 to $7 per square foot annually. So an equivalent to the Peanut Gallery, at roughly 6,000 square feet, could have devoured $15,000 or more just in rent each year. The Fellins were able to secure the space, pay utilities, and host at least four opening events a year on roughly $2,300 a year.
To help offset their operating expenses, Sarah Jane and Ron rented out the small rooms above the gallery to various musicians. They also charged 20-percent commission on all artwork sales. While not the no-commission policy of MidCoast Fine Arts, it was a far cry from the 50 percent charged in larger markets. Little could help dent the $800 right-hook of a heating bill they received one winter. Breaking even would have been nice, but the Fellins were in it more for the space, the experiences, and the lifestyle.
And the gallery was a cultural success. When you look back on its roster of exhibiting artists, you see prominent names including Eric Mart, Les Bell, Rachael Mullins, Terry Rathje, Felix Morelo, Anna Moore, Nicole Miller, Justin Elvidge, Jeff Tady, Karen Blomme, Heidi Hernandez, and the Fellins themselves, to name just a few.
"Group shows are great because they really bring art-makers together," Hernandez said of the Peanut Gallery. "I have met some amazing artists because of such shows. The atmosphere made it easy to approach and question an art person. ... Most of all I became more confident."
The Peanut Gallery's activities encompassed much more than exhibiting visual art. Sarah Jane taught batik and drawing classes. The Penzie Players used it as a temporary performance venue. The MidCoast Film & Arts Festival held a workshop in the space. A bevy of musicians found a willing venue within the Peanut Gallery.
Embracing the Unpolished
The Mode Gallery, under the direction of artist Nicole Miller, was theoretically more of a sales and exhibition space.
"The owner of the building told me about a storefront that had not been used ... for several years," Miller recalled, "and I had the idea of starting a gallery. I was told that if I fixed it up, I could get a year in the space for free."
But there was a difference in expectations for the gallery between Miller and the building's owner. Miller wanted to emulate the Peanut Gallery, while the owner hoped for consistent traffic that would generate business for other tenants of the building.
"I didn't expect to sell too much work; I just wanted to bring something different to the Quad Cities," Miller said. "I liked the way the Peanut Gallery did things. They were just open for specific shows. ... But because the space was attached to the coffee shop, the owner of the building wanted it to be open on business days. He wanted ... a salesperson there to try and actively sell the work."
Because Mode was expected to generate traffic and revenue, it had a more aggressive show schedule than the Peanut Gallery - a new show every six weeks compared to roughly one per quarter. "Every time I put on a show, I paid for the postcards, the food and the wine, and the transportation," Miller said. "I spent the majority of my income on the gallery."
Mode offered a Sunday figure-drawing class and also had studio spaces for rent, which "gave us some volunteers, and helped pay more bills," Miller said.
Miller started Mode with shows of local artists but eventually shifted to a regional focus. "Because I was using more local artists, and we were newer ...we'd get a lot of donations," she said. "When I started doing regional artists, our attendance and donations dropped off quite a bit."
Although Mode showcased an impressive array of visual and musical talent - including Roy Staab, Teresa Mesich, Seth Sprott, Parts & Labor, Driver of the Year, Emily Stout, Erin Wilbur, Kettle, Triklops, and several who also showed at the Peanut Gallery - it wasn't generating revenue for the building. And when offers started to come in from paying tenants, the writing was on the wall ... .
While there are certainly several venues for visual artists throughout the area, few are willing to embrace the occasional unpolished roughness and level of diversity that the Peanut Gallery and Mode nurtured. And both venues consistently attracted people in their 20s and 30s - a coveted demographic.
Since the Peanut Gallery closed, Ron and Sarah Jane spend more time at home - a place that they used to jokingly refer to as their "locker."
The name "Peanut Gallery" was an homage to the landlord's grandfather, who was called "Peanut Charlie," and the name has been retired with the location. Ron and Sarah Jane don't have specific plans for a specific location, but they are already kicking around names for a new place.
In a post-Mode world, Nicole Miller says she has"a 'real' job" and is "trying to make some money so that I can afford a place with a studio and start making my own work again." And she is talking about organizing a show to potentially coincide with an upcoming Gallery Hop! event.