If you’re looking for art in Seattle, there’s no shortage of galleries, museums and pop-up spaces to visit. They vary from rotating works to those that specialize in one specific medium. Among the many options for the aesthete is A/NT gallery at Seattle Center in the International Fountain Pavilion. At any given time, an average of 90 works of art are on display, from abstract paintings to sculptures to photographs. New works are consistently shown in the space in part because the gallery is also an artist collective. What sets A/NT apart is that they are all-inclusive. Whatever an artist wants to show has a place in the gallery. Artists are given 100 percent freedom and the work isn’t juried.
“We’re setting an example for artists to focus on creating their artwork rather than focus on trying to convince somebody that their work is worthy to be shown,” said Lonny Johnson.
Johnson is one of the original founding members of A/NT gallery and currently serves as president of the executive board for the all-volunteer organization. This month, a retrospective of his work, called “Zero to 30,” is in the center and south galleries. He began as a jewelry artist and now creates figurative sculpture with alternative mediums. Johnson’s show anchors the celebration of A/NT reaching the 30-year milestone — a feat he wouldn’t have predicted when the initial three-month-long guerrilla art show opened at the old Trailways bus terminal off Westlake in 1987. “The People’s Gallery” soon became known as Art/Not Terminal as people wandered through, searching for the bus. The building at Seattle Center is their third location.
The impetus for the first show was rejection. Johnson said some of the artists had solicited commercial representation from several galleries but were unsuccessful. So, he says, they carved out their own space. Now, 30 years later, the same fiery spirit that drove the artists to create a new venue is still driving A/NT today. Johnson credits their longevity to maintaining a group dynamic within the organization, the willingness of artists to put themselves out on display and affordable rent. As a result, they’ve provided a safe space for artists, where veteran makers can help the next generation navigate the complexities of showing one’s work.
“If an artist hasn’t had a lot of opportunity to display their work in public it can be a little bit of an overwhelming, daunting, fearful process,” said Johnson. “To actually to take their work out of their studio, out of their house, off their kitchen table — wherever they create. Bring it down here, go through the process.”
“Pivotal” is the first word to come to mind when Michelle Ishimitsu describes discovering A/NT. She’s the daughter of a painter and musician and has been producing art for as long as she can remember. She started painting at 15 years old and was looking for places to show her work in part because she was interested in what the public would think. She’d given up on galleries long before happening upon A/NT’s second Westlake location a few years ago. Johnson happened to be working that day and invited her to come back and hang her work in the space. After walking out, Ishimitsu said she jumped up and down on the sidewalk and squealed with joy.
“I was so excited at finding a place that was so welcoming. I’d never heard of a gallery like that,” said Ishimitsu. “I’m wholeheartedly committed to this gallery thriving because of that. Because of knowing that, that impact can happen on fellow artists in this city and I love watching it. I’ve been that person on the other end of the counter now.”
Ishimitsu is vice president of the executive board along with her husband, Mike Piper. Ishimitsu said she’s restructured her life around the gallery and wouldn’t have it any other way. Exhibitions are booked two or three months in advance, while single works can make the cut the day before.
“We try to make it as available as possible for people for both people who plan and those who are last-minute,” said Ishimitsu. “They’re registering their stuff at one in the morning the day before they’re dropping it off and it’s still wet when it comes in and we just make it work.”
Recently, board member Ron Jones began curating the shows, rather than having the artists place the art on the walls themselves as they’d done in years past. Jones has an eye for grouping pieces together and everything is hung at the same height. Johnson takes great pleasure in positioning the lights to give each work the best presentation.
A/NT has made an effort to show art with a social justice theme. Exhibitions in the past have included showcasing work from people experiencing homelessness, incarcerated artists, refugees, people with Alzheimer’s, people dealing with infertility and more. The gallery is surrounded by other art-centered groups, including The Vera Project, SIFF and Pacific Northwest Ballet.
Because of their current location, A/NT gets a lot of foot traffic. Johnson said it’s split two-to-one between tourists and locals. Most people spend at least 20 minutes looking around.
“You never know what’s going to be in here,” said Ishimitsu. “I’ve had a number of people who come here on a regular basis tell me that they make a point to come here every month and they’re always surprised and they always love to go through the whole gallery.”
Those visitors do more than just peruse the space — they also find works to take home. Over the years thousands of artists have displayed work at A/NT and there are plenty of gems to be found.
“It’s not like we sell every day, but when you see the records from the square point of sale and you see somebody who’s just sold the X amount of artwork it’s like wow,” said Johnson. “Their dream came true.”
After three decades, A/NT shows no signs of slowing down. They’re working on becoming a 501(c)(3) and expanding their footprint. They want the community at large to know they’re a welcoming space for all and hope to rise to greater prominence in the years to come. They serve a vital role in being a space for artists to share their creativity without having to prove themselves first.
Lisa Edge is a Staff Reporter covering arts, culture and equity. Have a story idea? She can be reached at lisae (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Lisa on Twitter @NewsfromtheEdge
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