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LEXINGTON, Ky. — As visitors walked through the historic People’s Bank in Lexington, Kentucky, bits of waxy, tan paint strips fell from the walls. Rubble and debris turned shoes a dusty white as people moved from exhibit to exhibit, occasionally shivering as the building no longer has electricity, heat, or plumbing. Built in 1962, the People’s Bank has distinct glossy, off-teal bricks and a sawtooth, vaulted rooftop. The building is not only one of the finest remaining examples of Googie commercial architecture in Kentucky — it is one of the finest examples in the nation. However, after years of neglect, locals are working to ensure that the building isn’t leveled into a movie theater parking lot.
The effort to preserve street art on buildings (like the city of Bristol making the decision to keep Banksy’s work) is a recent phenomenon, but can art be leveraged as a tool for urban preservation itself? Stuart Horodner, the director of the University of Kentucky Art Museum, is playing a part in answering this question after he rallied local and international artists to bring attention to this overlooked urban space with the pop-up exhibit People’s Portal, over the weekend of November 14.
“When I walked through the space a few months ago, I was struck by the state of glorious decay and formal elegance — the blue glazed brick on the outside and angular concrete ceiling inside, the rooms with peeling paint, and sunlight streaming through the windows. It seemed like a perfect readymade gallery for works that engage issues of architecture, history, time and transformation,” Horodner said. “And the idea of a bank — where transactions happen, and emotional and financial resources are protected — quickly brought artists to mind.”
Curated by Horodner, the event featured emerging and established artists from Lexington, Atlanta, Chicago, and London, all of whom responded to the industrial, dilapidated state of the impromptu gallery space in unexpected ways.
Notably, in what had been an old office, artist Georgia Henkel set up the full-room installation “Bad Timing: Columbarium of distress and love.” Henkel is a collector of animal remains — “cow and sheep bones from the drought of 1993, [a] sad baby duck from day of coincidences, squirrels and opossum from crawl spaces and attics,” she said.“And what remains of Pete, my horse of 30 years.” All these components and more were cunningly arranged and accumulated, leaving the room with a heavy, morbid mood — a metaphor for the building’s history and current state of decomposition.
Other artists, like Didier Morelli and Mike McKay, focused on the interactive aspects of the space. Morelli did so through his performance piece “Architecture without Architects/ Banks without Bankers/ Art without Artists.” Horodner described the performance as a reimagining of Morelli’s 2011 project “Walking Through Walls,” in which Morelli questioned the confines of space and materiality in the physical world through a series of performances in public spaces; while McKay’s collection featured architecturally-driven collages, as well as special patterns of reflective tape that would only appear when photographed from a specific angle with a flash. “It is a way to get visitors to engage with the space around them,” McKay explained.
According to Lexington preservationist Lucy Jones, it’s arts events like these that will ensure the survival of buildings like the People’s Bank. She explained that the building is owned by Langley Properties, a Lexington-based commercial property developer, who needs the land underneath the People’s for future projects, like the movie theater. However, Langley has agreed to work with the Warwick Foundation, a preservationist group, if funds can be raised to move the entire building to another site where it will be reopened as a community space appropriately called the People’s Portal.
So far, $250,000 has been raised from a grassroots funding appeal, but until a final location for the People’s is determined, the final budgetary needs are up in the air.
“That’s why this pop-up is so important,” Jones said. “It’s engaging different members of the community, really emphasizing the unique history, the artfulness, of the structure, and keeping the People’s in the city consciousness.”
She continued: “We are incredibly fortunate that this building has endured the changing trends of the last 50 years and still retains the defining characteristics that architect Charles Bayless envisioned. It is a time capsule which evokes the optimism of the late 1950s and early 1960s. To lose it would have been to lose a piece of our past.”