In 2003, before Amherst Street morphed into the bastion of cool it is today, Doreen DeBoth made a bold decision.
On this gritty drag in a proud neighborhood that had seen better days, DeBoth opened a modest studio in an old storefront on the 400 block. It was one of the first visible signals that a change was afoot on this half-mile stretch of Amherst Street, which over the past decade has bloomed into a bona fide cultural destination.
DeBoth’s gallery, Artsphere, is in the midst of a monthlong 10th anniversary celebration, which culminates Saturday with a talk from photographer Bogdan Fundalinski and artist Michelle Mazur. It’s a celebration that DeBoth and Artsphere, important catalysts and beneficiaries of the ongoing Black Rock revival, richly deserve.
Earlier this week, I sat with DeBoth in the front room of her gallery space at 447 Amherst St., across the street from its original location, as she reflected on a decade at the helm of Artsphere.
There is little particularly edgy or hipsteresque about Artsphere, a renovated former funeral parlor DeBoth shares with her daughter’s hair salon. It’s a place where the floral aroma of hair products wafts from the salon into a sort of homey gallery space where you are more likely to encounter idyllic watercolor scenes of pastures and prairies than avant-garde installations.
That makes DeBoth’s role in kicking off the transformation of this neighborhood into a haven for the city’s young arts culture even more interesting. But the aesthetic of Artsphere or the artists who exhibit there isn’t really what matters when it comes to the resurgence of the street. What matters is that DeBoth went first.
She brushed off her decision to open Artsphere on Amherst Street, writing it off as a pragmatic choice based more on the proximity of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and the Burchfield Penney Art Center than on any grand desire to infuse new life into the area.
“I thought this was an absolutely perfect place to have a gallery,” she said. “I didn’t have any qualms about being the first one. I guess I believed in myself, and I believed it would work, and I was going to make it work. So I did.”
During the past decade, DeBoth has worked with neighborhood residents to build an archive of historic photographs of Black Rock, to promote the neighborhood’s important role in the War of 1812 and to produce educational material and murals about the area’s history. In addition to hosting dozens of exhibitions, Artsphere has served as a hub for community members to meet and share ideas about how to improve the neighborhood and honor its historic importance.
On the back cover of a catalog marking the gallery’s 10th anniversary, Amherst Street architect Max Willig sings DeBoth’s praises:
“The revival of Black Rock, a historic community that is seeing a proud revival of art, music, architecture, food and culture over the past few years, has been the collective effort of the people who proudly lived there and those who’ve moved to the neighborhood to join in bringing the vision of what could be, to what it is quickly becoming,” Willig wrote. “Doreen single-handedly began the renaissance of the cultural soul of this community.”
Though that might be overselling it just slightly – others, such as Black Rock developer Susan Cholewa, 464 Gallery owner Marcus Wise and many other longtime neighborhood residents and businesses, played integral roles as well – the sentiment is right on.
Without DeBoth and Artsphere, it’s unlikely Amherst Street would look the way it does today.