‘It was ours’: Lawrence artists reflect on Art Love Collective closing its doors

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A young but important staple in the Lawrence arts community has closed its doors. 

Art Love Collective was only open for about 14 months, but in that short time, the colorful space at 646 Vermont St. became a meaningful part of the local arts community. That’s especially true for artists who didn’t have space elsewhere. 

“I don’t know how huge people realize this is going to be,” said Sam Azzaro, who was among several artists who also had studios at ALC — and who said they never felt like other spaces were made for them as a queer and trans person. 

About 40 artists were actively involved with ALC when it closed, said Moniquè Mercurio, Art Love’s director of operations. 

Many of them are still awaiting payment for sold works. 

The latest co-owners were Morgan England (formerly Morgan Long) and Taylor Overton.

Overton’s attorney, Mack Curry, disputes those titles. He said LLCs have “members” with “ownership interests,” but that Overton was not a member of the LLC. Documents were drawn up, but Overton never signed them, Curry said.

England partnered with Hollie Blakeney to open Art Love Collective in March 2023. 

Chloe Anderson/Lawrence Times Art Love Collective co-founders Morgan Long (now England), left, and Hollie Blakeney in April 2023

England said she saw a saturated art community that claimed to be inclusive but closed its doors to people perceived to be uneducated or too young, and to people of color. 

“I wanted to change that standard,” she said. “It seems like the energy around that was so widespread that something like this was bound to happen, and sometimes the moment chooses you.”

England said she took a leave of absence in late March of this year and hasn’t been acting as owner since then. She said she found out the week ALC shut its doors that it was closing. 

England said that serving artists in the way she wanted to serve them in this town was “more complex, expensive, and political” than she ever anticipated.

In addition, England said making the mission happen under a for-profit model “put us in places where we had to choose between the dollar and the mission.” She didn’t start Art Love to get rich, but “to create a space for artists to share resources, collaborate and lift one another up, so choosing the dollar over the mission was never an option for me,” she said. 

ALC was so accessible for artists in part because it only kept 20% commissions on sales, giving artists 80%, Azzaro said. 

“It’s impossible for a for-profit structure to work that way,” Curry said during a joint phone interview with Overton Friday evening. “But again, the idea was that the community loves Art Love Collective, we love the space, we want to promote the artists, unlike a lot of the other places and galleries that do try to stay open by other means, by taking more from the artists. Art Love Collective wanted to give back more, but it’s just not feasible to continue doing business that way.”

Blakeney would disagree — she founded Chartreuse Art Gallery in St. Joseph, Michigan as a for-profit on the same model, and it’s been up and running for 20 years now, she said. 

For ALC in Lawrence, however, Blakeney did think converting the business to a nonprofit was the best route, and she had started doing the work to make that happen. For a number of reasons, it didn’t, and Blakeney exited in October. 

Blakeney was not happy to leave the collective — she said the whole situation was so hurtful and upsetting to her that she couldn’t even drive past the building for months.

“But at least I had hope that they would still be able to serve the community. And this is just kind of the icing on a very, very bad cake,” Blakeney said Friday of ALC closing. 

‘The most peaceful, nurturing, soft, safe space’

Art Love opened its doors and intentionally turned the spotlight on LGBTQ+, Black and Indigenous artists. 

“I think that Art Love Collective brought a sense of hope and inspiration to not only Lawrence as a whole, but specifically the BIPOC and queer communities, because it was ours,” said Mercurio, Ohlone Costanoan Esselen Nation.

“It was the most peaceful, nurturing, soft, safe space that so many artists were able to flourish in. And so I think that Art Love Collective was vital to the growth of art in minority communities.”

Artist Tokeya Waci U Richardson, Oglala Lakota / Haliwa-Saponi, said ALC was a beautiful space for people who are not in the social norm, and for people who get overlooked and don’t know how to brand themselves. 

“Being able to share my Native American art and pieces of my culture with other people, I was able to educate a lot — helping people to not be so ignorant to my culture, or help them understand why certain things are considered racist or, you know, that there’s more to me and my people, rather than just what’s not said in the books,” Richardson said. 

He said ALC helped people realize how many Native American people occupy Lawrence, and how many different tribes are represented here.

Losing it was backtracking on all the work that Mercurio, England and Kassidee Quaranta, communications director for ALC, had done, Richardson said. 

“It created a safe space for all walks of life to come together,” Quaranta said via email Friday, and she was able to connect with “so many artists of different facets.”

The events ALC hosted really brought the community together as well, Quaranta said. 

“I hope that there are more places that welcome in and support Native artists like we did,” she said. 

Art Love set itself apart for Azzaro.

“You look at other galleries — and, you know, no shade to those other galleries — like, it’s a ‘Here’s a landscape with sunflowers, wooo, Kansas!’ and not ‘Here’s my life,’ you know what I mean?” they said.

They said their mannequin piece is an ode to their experience coming out as a queer, trans, nonbinary person. 

“No other gallery, I think, in Lawrence would have accepted something like that, but Art Love did that,” they said. “It did that for so many people. And that’s what I think is so hard about this.”

“… It gave me a community of people like me,” Azzaro said. 

‘A huge strain on my life’

Some people saw red flags in the weeks and months prior to ALC closing; others were blindsided. 

When Art Love’s fate became clear, Mercurio said she started calling artists to come get their things. 

“I didn’t want people’s livelihoods to be caught up in someone else’s poor choices,” she said.

Artist Brandt Minden said ALC closing has affected his life in many ways. He’s lost a community that he loved being part of, and a home for his artwork. He’s also lost the shared studio space he was part of.

“ALC was my home away from home,” he said in an email Friday. “To have it suddenly gone with no warning made it all the more devastating.”

He appreciated the sense of community and the events ALC hosted, which included mental health workshops, support groups and art activities.

“As an emerging artist in the Lawrence area, ALC gave me a lot of exposure in the art community. It gave me the chance to show & sell my original work, and, I had a whole community of local artists who I enjoyed getting to know,” Minden said. “It also boosted my confidence in the work that I do. I got to do things I never would’ve imagined myself doing thanks to ALC. It was so great while it lasted.”

Making the situation more difficult for many of the artists is that they have yet to be paid for recent sales.

Richardson said Overton owes him for an original work that was damaged at ALC, as well as for work that has been sold. Minden said he hasn’t been paid for any of his sold works since March. 

One person who did work for ALC said they stopped because it took months to get paid and their calls, texts and emails about payments were ignored. Another said their last check bounced, though they did finally get paid. 

Many employees’ and artists’ checks bounced, said Quaranta, who joined the team in fall of 2023. She said she didn’t think there was a single month when artists were paid on time, and her last check was almost two months late. 

“This created a huge strain on my life as a single mother with no fall back who is responsible for everything that comes to raising my child,” she said. 

England said that “There was a gap in payments as we were working out next steps,” but all Art Love employees have been paid, which Mercurio confirmed.

“As an artist myself, I understand how important it is to get artists what they’re owned and it is my highest priority right now to make sure everyone is made whole to the best of my ability,” England said. 

Curry said that “despite (Overton) not having even membership interests,” she is trying to “keep the community as whole as possible.” 

“Ms. Overton and her spouse have just decided to contribute their own personal funds to paying off, one, all the employees but then also, two, making sure that the artists get their payments before July,” Curry said.

Overton, who was announced as co-owner of ALC in January, said Art Love reminded her of places from her childhood, and she first got onboard because she wanted her son to grow up remembering places like it — places that are “just unapologetically Lawrence,” she said.

She said she hopes more spaces like ALC can emerge, and that the artists who filled the space and made it beautiful will be able to continue to grow and learn. 

‘Trying to cultivate space in my community’

Quaranta said ALC closing is a loss for her as an artist and for the art community as a whole. 

“I know it will be hard for me to have as much courage in connecting with artists but would like to think that the relationships I built won’t fade away even though ALC has closed its doors,” she said. 

Mercurio said they had to take some mourning time because the loss of ALC has been gut-wrenching. She said she never stopped pouring herself into the space, “even when we were facing really rough times.” 

But “I’m a resilient person, and the closing of Art Love Collective doesn’t mean that I’m going to stop trying to cultivate space in my community, throughout Lawrence,” they said. “I already have some really cool things in the works that I want to do, some spaces that I want to bring the Art Love Collective artists into and continue to share them with the community.”

One of those spaces will be the Haskell Open Market, set for 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, June 29, Mercurio said. That will be in the parking lot of the Haskell Cultural Center and Museum, 2411 Barker Ave. Mercurio is hoping a lot of ALC artists will join. 

Mercurio said they plan to reactivate Merc Tribe Designs because the name is fairly well known, “just to let people know, like, ‘Hey, this is a safe place, I am a safe person, I keep showing up again and again and I will continue to show up again and again for my community.’” 

August Rudisell/Lawrence Times Art Love Collective, 646 Vermont St.

Azzaro landed at a studio space at Art Emergency, but they’re not sure where others will go. They don’t know where to go next as far as a gallery space, either, because they don’t know who would be open to showing their work, plus they worry about the higher commissions other galleries might take. 

Azzaro said they will have new art on their website, mxofbizarre.com, on Saturday, and they’ll be at LOLA Pride, set for 3 to 7 p.m. Saturday, June 29 at Maceli’s, 1031 New Hampshire St. 

Richardson said he can be found at the powwows at Haskell, and where other opportunities arise in Lawrence. He has also been going to First Fridays in Kansas City, and his favorite spot to set up there is at Café Corazón, a Latino and Indigenous family-owned business in the Crossroads district. 

“They accept anybody who just wants a good life for everyone,” he said, similar to ALC. He said the hope is “for all of us to continue to find opportunities to prosper in our work.” Richardson would encourage people to reach out directly to artists if you want to purchase their work because it means a lot more. 

England said she’s still the same artist on the other side of this — “just with much more understanding of how the unfortunate game of business and politics work.

“I plan to keep advocating for inclusive art, and creating my own work. I hope the collective will live on and have a higher standard of how they are treated after the doors of Art Love close,” she said. 

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times January 2024

We asked the artists mentioned in this article how people can continue supporting their work. (Former Art Love artists: Please reach out if you’d like to be added to this list.)

• Sam Azzaro: mxofbizarre.com; Instagram: @mxofbizarre 

• Andy Connolly and Cicada Open Mic: Instagram: @AmmoniteAndy

• Morgan England: Instagram: @morgancelesteart; @morgancelestephotos  

• Bailey Mareu: baileymareu.com; Instagram: @baileymareu

• Moniquè Mercurio: Instagram: @merctribe_designs

• Brandt Minden: Instagram: @brandtmindenphotoart 

• Kassidee Quaranta: kassideequaranta.com; Instagram: @kassideeq 

• Tokeya Waci U Richardson: coupcountdesignz.com; Instagram: @coup_count.designz 

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Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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Kaw Valley Almanac for July 15-21, 2024

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Gray coneflower, Ratibida pinnata, is a long blooming native perennial whose name refers to the gray cone under the brown disk florets, here being visited by a bumblebee interested in their sweet nectar.


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