Melissa Merli: Indi Go lights it up downtown

Melissa Merli: Indi Go lights it up downtown

After hearing people say they couldn't find the Indi Go Artist Co-op, Jim Barham decided to do something about it.

He had its facade at 9 E. University Ave., C, lit up. Big time. With indigo blue LED lights.

SeanMurphyLIGHTS, which designed the lighting, had the blue LED fixtures custom-made for the facade as well as a warm white LED fixture for the steel beam and decorative cast-iron rosettes that cross its mid-section.

The lights are set to an astronomical time clock, meaning they turn on at sunset year-round.

"They turn off at 3 a.m. so all the folks coming home from their night out have an opportunity to see it," Murphy said.

It looks fantastic. The rosettes really pop.

To help pay for the project, Barham took advantage of the city of Champaign Storefront Improvement Program.

Using TIF (tax increment financing) money, the program pays for 50 percent of the cost of first-floor improvements and 25 percent of upper-floor facade renovations.

The Storefront Improvement Program was the idea of T.J. Blakeman, implementation planner for the city. The program started a year ago and recently was funded for its second fiscal year, which started July 1.

During the first year, 10 downtown Champaign businesses, including Indi Go, received grants. Among the others:

— Jane Addams Book Shop, 208 N. Neil St.

— The Cattle Bank at First and University. Home of the Champaign County Historical Museum. It refurbished windows.

— Cream & Flutter and Figure One, which are next door to each other on Walnut Street. They put up a new awning.

Blakeman said one of the best examples of the Storefront Improvement Program is the work at 57 Main St., which once housed a pawn shop.

A new storefront is being constructed there for a new restaurant-bar. The former Vriners next door will receive the same treatment, he said.

Other grant recipients during the first year were Christopher's Fine Jewelry and Dandelion. They plan to build balconies on upper floors and a storefront for a new retail space between Christopher's and Specialty Stamp & Coin on Taylor Street.

The Storefront Improvement Program is intended for all sorts of facade improvements and restorations, not just lighting. But Blakeman likes what SeanMurphyLIGHTS did at Indi Go.

"It's going to really help anchor that block," he said. "Indi Go becomes a lot more visible on University Avenue, which is great not only for Indi Go but the businesses that surround it.

"I would love to see all the businesses on University Avenue in that area take advantage of it."

Barham, owner of Barham Benefit Group, an insurance brokerage firm, started Indi Go on a whim during the 2009 Boneyard Arts Festival to provide a sculptor friend with a place to show his larger pieces.

At first, Barham rented the bi-level space. Then, in late 2012, he bought the building; he plans to keep it an art space.

Shortly after the closing, Blakeman told Barham about the Storefront Improvement Program. Barham knew Murphy, who has designed lighting for theater and dance programs here, mainly at the Parkland Theatre and Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.

(You've likely seen SeanMurphyLIGHTS designs at other places, too: KoFusion, Big Grove Tavern, Destihl, Dublin O'Neil's and 301 Mongolia, all close by in downtown Champaign.)

Before moving here 13 years ago, Murphy worked at a large architectural lighting firm in New York. In recent years, his company, based in downtown Champaign, has concentrated on commercial and residential lighting design.

Barham considers Indi Go more of a community center than art gallery. With that in mind, he does not charge rent from artists, musicians and other groups who ask to use the venue.

He does charge a 25 percent commission on pieces sold. If the proceeds are designated for a charity, Barham gives his commissions to the charity.

Indi Go puts on several shows and events each month.

"We want to give as many artists a chance to show as possible, but also we found usually after the first opening night or special performance that the traffic goes down," Barham said. "I also kind of joke that I have ADD (attention deficit disorder), so I keep it moving."

For his work with Indi Go, Barham received the 2011 ACE Award for advocacy.

Change of guard

Barham always employs a part-time gallery director for Indi Go. The current director, Eszter Sapi, a printmaker from Hungary, will leave soon as she was unable to obtain an extension on her visa. Succeeding her will be Caroline Baljon, who is new to town and who, like Sapi, has a master's of fine arts degree.

"She's a very impressive young lady," Barham said. "Her fiance is at the UI getting a law degree. She has an unbelievable pedigree."

Barham added that he hates to lose Sapi because "she's phenomenal."

Curated in

Two artists with local connections have been curated into the Biennial 27 at the South Bend (Ind.) Museum of Art.

The juror, Lisa D. Freiman, recently was senior curator and chair of the Department of Contemporary Art at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. She left that position to become, on July 1, the first director of the Institute for Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Perhaps most notably, Freiman was the American commissioner for the 2011 Venice Biennale, where she presented work by Allora & Calzadilla, who blend installation art and performance.

Freiman chose 11 artists from among 230 applicants for Biennial 27. Among them are Meredith Foster of Urbana and former Champaign resident Maxwell Stolkin, who lives in Mooresville, Ind.

Foster will show photographs and drawings and Stolkin, sculptures and installations. The show runs from Saturday through Oct. 6 and is meant to be an "up-to-date dialogue of art happening in our own backyard," according to the museum website.

Stolkin attended Centennial his freshman and sophomore years then moved to Indianapolis. He studied literature at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., and studied in Mainz, Germany, for two years.

He is moving to New York soon for a five-month residency with the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. Such residencies are highly competitive.

"They will be supporting my work by giving me (and approximately 10 other artists) free studio space from August until December and also opportunities to present my work through open-studio events and visits from other professionals and curators," he said via email.

Foster was the subject of a Studio Visit in this newspaper in December 2010. Her work has been described as a "poetic meditation on space;" she told me it's "mainly about the space we inhabit."

She received an MFA in drawing in 2009 from Washington University in St. Louis and has a bachelor's of fine arts degree from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Dream season

Chicago's Goodman Theatre's 2013-14 season will emphasize women directors and playwrights, among them playwright  Cheryl West, a UI alumna and a former C-U resident.

Three of the five shows slated for the Albert Theatre space were created by women: West's "Pullman Porter Blues," Rebecca Gilman's "Luna Gale" and Mary Zimmerman's "The White Snake."

West's early work premiered in Champaign-Urbana.

"Her play 'Jar the Floor' was one of the first things I reviewed for The News-Gazette back in 1989," critic Julie Kistler wrote in her blog at "It was fabulous. 'Pullman Porter Blues' premiered last year at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, where it was described as a 'captivating coming-of-age story ... woven with iconic blues music.'"

"Pullman Porter Blues" is scheduled to open Sept. 18 at the Goodman; its longtime artistic director, Robert Falls, also is a UI alumnus.

News-Gazette staff writer Melissa Merli can be reached at 351-5367 or Her blog is at