Saying Goodbye

Art Uptown Gallery Is Closing, and Big Changes Are in the Works for That Stretch of Main Street

A recent sale means a hike in rent that the gallery can't afford.

By Kim Doleatto August 16, 2023

By now, big changes to downtown Sarasota are nothing new, but here comes another that will alter the Main Street strolling experience forever. After 43 years, Sarasota’s longest-standing art gallery, Art Uptown Gallery, is closing at 5 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 26.

The close is due to a change in property ownership this summer that would bring the rent into the current market rate by at least quadrupling it—a rate the nonprofit gallery just can’t afford.

A sign in the window bids the public farewell.

On June 7, the longtime previous owners sold to local commercial real estate mogul Christopher Brown, under the LLC Big Lot, for just over $2.7 million. The sale was brought on by the unexpected death of one of the previous owners, art lover and Sarasota resident Ellen Heritage. Heritage's “mourning widow just wanted to liquidate,” says Evelyn McCorristin Peters, who is among the gallery's resident artists and also serves as its treasurer.

“Ellen Heritage was a kind woman and supported the arts. She was the only reason we were able to be there,” Peters says.

Thanks to Heritage’s patronage, the 27 artists who led the gallery each paid just $150 in dues every month, which in large part paid for the $1,000 monthly rent.

“It gave us an opportunity to flourish as artists and help the ones living from their art," Peters says. "At some point in time, it would have ended, but we didn't expect it to happen now."

Under the new ownership, the rent was set to jump to $4,000 in the short term. The long-term rate would be $7,000 a month.

“There was no possibility to afford that," Peters says. "We thought about not having paid staff [the gallery has two employees], but we realized there was just nothing else we could do." But she also acknowledges the increases are understandable. “I know that people who make the investment want to make the going rate,” she says.

That rate, for a roughly 2,000-square-foot commercial storefront space in the heart of downtown Sarasota, is “anywhere from $8,000 to $10,000 a month," says Brown, who would know. He owns 35 pieces of commercial property across the county and is the landlord at the Mexican restaurant El Melvin just a couple doors down the street from the gallery. He also owns Joe's, the Summer House, The Cottage, The Hub Baja Grill, The Beach Club and Mad Moe’s Sports Pub and Grill, among other high-profile locations.

“It’s unfortunate,” he says of the gallery closure. “I like to support the arts and thought I was by offering $4,000 at first. But they wanted to negotiate substantially from there. They weren’t even paying insurance and taxes. The previous owners had paid off the building, so it was all just profit for them."

The gallery, unpretentious and inviting, is run by and for 27 local year-round resident artists who do everything from sculpture to glass, mosaic, ceramics, and oil and acrylic paintings. What made it different from most galleries is that only 20 percent of each sale was garnished by the gallery. In many places, that number is upward of 50 percent. The artists also set their own prices, and pieces can range anywhere from less than $100 to $7,000.

When resident artist and gallery member Marlane Wurzbach greeted shoppers and browsers, she encouraged questions and told them, “I know all the artists because I'm one of them.”

Art Uptown Gallery artist Marlane Wurzbach's work at the gallery. This series focuses on historic local buildings.

When there were decisions to be made about the gallery, the artists didn't always agree, but they voted and the majority would win. “We were in control of everything,” Wurzbach says.

Although the foot traffic at its central location was unmatched, the value sat beyond its walls.

“In a lot of galleries, the artists don't get to meet each other," Peters says. "It was a real support system, as well.”

The artists hosted and organized their own exhibitions, with members coming in on the last Saturday of every month to hang their work and strategize for future events. They plan to continue meeting informally and Wurzbach says the sale of the building won’t stop her from producing arts. The gallery's website will have updates and continue to remain active.

“I’m hoping we'll all think of each other to recommend each other if someone finds a new gallery to work with,” Wurzbach says.

"Everyone will have to go back to marketing themselves. You have to market yourself more than you work," Peters says.

In the meantime, eight art studio units on the second floor remain, where artist tenants are paying little to stay—for now.

As for the gallery space, “it won’t be vacant for 30 days. It can be retail or restaurant. There’s been lots of activity and interest,” Brown says. The new lease will be roughly $10,000 a month. “Plus, they’ll pay their share of taxes and insurance,” he says. “But I would like people to know that I tried to work with the gallery.”

According to Sarasota County records, the building was built in 1909. Although it’s not specifically designated as historic, it is part of the overall downtown historic district on the ​​National Register of Historic Places. (Read more about its history here.)

Another beloved destination next door was included in the same deal. Cafe Amici, at 1373 Main St., sold in the same transaction for $780,400, representing a total of $3,500,100 for the buyer.

The Italian fine dining restaurant Cafe Amici, located at 1373 Main St., is staying—for now.

Cafe Amici has been a family-owned, classic Italian local favorite for almost 24 years. Although it’s staying for now, pending negotiation on the new rent, its rent has roughly tripled overnight, says Massimo Nigri, who co-owns the restaurant with his brother Achille.

Cafe Amici's lease is up in April, and although Nigri says the new owner would like them to stay—no wonder; have you tried the osso buco?—he’s weighing other potential locations where the brothers would own both the business and the building.

As for the sudden rent hike, “it’s not [Brown's] fault,” Nigri says “It’s all of downtown. Rents are getting crazy.”

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