Mobile artist and entrepreneur Trey Oliver III wants to pull new life from downtown’s past.
“Seven, eight years ago, there were a number of galleries downtown. They’re all gone. Kangal is gone. Artology is gone. Innova moved out of downtown after being priced out of St. Louis [Street], which is now a high-rent district,” Oliver said.
Oliver has his own history in LoDa, first as a street vendor fending off accusations he undermined Artwalk.
“People said [Artwalk] was designed for brick-and-mortar galleries and I said, ‘No, I’m not actually, but even if I was, I’m paying for a business license just like everyone else,’” Oliver said. “I just said the heck with it, I’m just going to go inside a gallery.”
He joined Cathedral Square Gallery, the downtown co-op alive nearly a quarter century, first near the Saenger Theatre then seven blocks westward. It changed its name to Mobilia Arts Center in 2018 but closed shortly afterward.
“That [landlord] gave us a really good deal for years, but progress is a two-edged sword. With progress, prices understandably increase and he went up on rent,” Oliver recalled.
Suddenly, there were roughly 40 artists looking for a new place to show their work. Oliver and fellow Cathedral Square artist Hunter Cobb went on the hunt. Square-footage prices were more affordable farther west, but the group was committed to staying in the Hank Aaron Loop if possible.
“We’ve all lived downtown at some point in our lives and it’s just an essential ingredient. That’s part of the ambience, why you go downtown, for museums, restaurants, bars and galleries,” Oliver said.
When the Mobile Arts Council was priced out of their prime spot, a hub of arts identity as much a fixture as the Mobile Symphony Orchestra and Mobile Opera address on Dauphin, it seemed a bad omen. However, what the entrepreneurs found seemed more providential.
The John McGuire building has stood at 358 Dauphin St. for 167 years and apropos to Oliver and Cobb’s recent association, it faces the north wall of the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. The Federal-style building has played host to a string of eateries since the early 1980s, the most enduring of which was John Word’s Place and its current neighbor, Southern National, has made an even bigger splash with a James Beard Award nomination in 2018.
The historic structure reaches a new stage when Lupercalia Arts premieres, with an Aug. 9 ribbon cutting the most hopeful goal. An evolution from Mobilia Art Center, it bears distinctions. It won’t be a co-op but an LLC, and under new leadership.
“We hooked up with Amy Bryan, a certified public accountant. We want a numbers person at the helm and we’ll be beside her to do the art side, the marketing side, while she handles finances,” Oliver said.
By his account, the landlord was accommodating. The upstairs is filled with multiple stories of “luxury apartments” and the owner wanted “a quiet tenant.”
Renovations have been underway since a two-year lease was signed. The previous layout had a restaurant kitchen and a dining and office area on the ground level.
The new proprietor said floors have been updated and restrooms installed. Photos on their Facebook page show construction where the glass wall separating an office and old wine cellar were.
“It’s already beautiful with four doors and three gas lights. We’re looking forward to being open on Sundays for brunch at the downtown restaurants and late on certain evenings if there’s a special event in the area. We’re closer to pedestrian traffic, too,” Oliver said.
Below ground level was one of the most reputed lounges in Mobile, a piano bar that felt straight from Jazz Age Chicago. That too has been transformed as even its 50-foot hallway will serve as a gallery.
“We’re going to play with themes, like Prohibition for that speakeasy part. We also want to have some connection with Mardi Gras, which was how we came up with Lupercalia, the pre-Roman holiday that had some influence on Mardi Gras,” Oliver said.
The aim is for 60 artists with work there. Oliver said 10 are already on board and they want metal, wood and jewelry artists to boot. Some will trade in-kind services for exhibit space priced at $60 to $100 monthly, according to a social media post.
“A city the size of Mobile should be the regional epicenter for all arts — performing, music and certainly visual,” Oliver said. “Come on, people; let’s get our act together.”
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