Eric Hillenbrand doesn’t have to think too hard to remember when downtown Toledo was a desolate, worn-out shell of its proud past.
Twenty years ago he bought a building at 20 North St. Clair St. in an area that was bereft of energy and people. It was a lonely spot, and his brand new art gallery wasn’t much more than “a little glowing oasis in what was pretty much an abandoned warehouse area.”
Today when he looks out of the building where his 20 North Gallery is now, at 18 S. St. Clair St., he sees the verdant outfield of Fifth Third Field where a half million Mud Hens fans each year have flocked since 2002. Huntington Center is a block away, restaurants are dotted in the blocks around his gallery, and art galleries are scattered all over downtown Toledo.
Buoyed by “blind optimism and youthful vigor,” this was pretty much the Toledo real estate developer’s vision for the downtown area when he opened 20 North in 1993. It was a good run, but on Friday Hillenbrand and artistic director Condessa Croninger are closing the gallery to pursue other interests.
Rather than this being a maudlin time, they both are visibly jazzed about the chance to explore a number of artistic interests and they exude energy and optimism.
“Its something we have been planning for awhile,” Hillenbrand said. “Although we didn’t want to make a big drawn-out affair of our closing, our 20th anniversary season was at least from my standpoint, a retrospective.”
Croninger said more than a year ago they realized that there was an appropriate symbolism in closing after two decades as they concluded “maybe we’ve come full circle. Maybe we’ve fulfilled the mission. So we planned this fabulous year.”
“I couldn’t imagine topping it,” Hillenbrand said. “It’s like a baseball player going out in his final game and hitting a home run.”
■ Creating energy
The gallery fit into a proven method of kick-starting moribund downtown areas hollowed out by suburban sprawl and economic bad times, Hillenbrand said, citing Soho and Greenwich Village in New York.
In both of those neighborhoods and similar ones throughout the country, entrepreneurs brought in galleries, restaurants, and entertainment venues to create new energy. The concept is that once there is a positive vibe, bigger economic development opportunities will arise.
At first 20 North was all by itself as Hillenbrand and artistic director emerita Peggy Grant mounted exhibitions by Toledo artists such as Michael Sheets, along with national and international painters and sculptors.
“There was not another business in this downtown area,” he said. “Spangler Candy had just closed and in fact there were few lights on in this part of town. There were often times when we would have an exhibit and we would be the only ones with lights on for blocks.”
■ An icon
Over time, the gallery’s business thrived and as various development pieces began to fall into place — most notably the wildly popular Fifth Third Field just across the street from 20 North — the gallery took on an iconic status among the city’s art denizens.
It helped that it was successful.
Croninger, who took over as artistic director a few years ago when Grant retired, was at that first exhibition by Sheets and she was thrilled by what she saw. “This is what I thought Toledo could always be,” she said.
“It really made art more accessible to the typical Toledoan. How many people went to gallery openings 20 years ago? And now thousands of people come downtown for the arts every month, for the Art Walks, and we’ve had thousands of people through our door.”
Toledo artist Steve Conine said Hillenbrand brought a passion about art to the job that was evident when 20 North mounted an exhibition. He works in oil on canvas and he said virtually all of the works he displayed in two separate exhibits there sold out.
“It was just kick-ass,” Conine said. “It was like being on stage, like being a rock star. It was the greatest thing.”
Sheets agreed and said that after years of hard work and national recognition, but not much attention locally, it was rewarding to finally get an exhibition in Toledo in 1993.
“I had been showing around the country, I guess as a prophet without honor in his own land. It was the first solo show I had in a Toledo gallery,” he said.
■ A Vision
For her part, Grant played an important role in setting the tone of 20 North, something that both Hillenbrand and Croninger mention about every five minutes in conversation about the gallery.
Hillenbrand called her a “cultural icon” and Croninger said that Grant’s mentorship was crucial in helping her take over as artistic director.
Grant was a long-time supporter of visual arts who oversaw Owens-Illinois’ acquisition of various paintings when she worked there. She said she was “thrilled” when she learned that Hillenbrand was opening a gallery 20 years ago.
“I worked downtown a long time before I became art director at 20 North,” she said. “I knew how important it was [to locate a gallery downtown.]”
She said among the highlights of working there was being able to organize shows like her long-running annual Black History Month exhibit and the annual Derby Days exhibit of equine art.
■ Looking forward
Over the past year, the gallery has featured a retrospective of 20 artists (19 of whom are local) whose works were important to 20 North, an exhibit of the work of renowned glass artist Tom McLauchlin, a celebration of watercolorist Walter Chapman, and an exhibit of the work of Abner Hershberger.
Friday’s “birthday celebration” will be from 6 to 9 p.m. and the gallery’s doors will close for good the next day. Reservations are requested, but not required to attend the event. Information can be obtained by calling 419-241-2400.
Once it is over, Hillenbrand said he will look forward to taking his first vacation in eight years, and investing more of his time in his other artistic passions, including theater. He also will begin looking for a new tenant for the 18 N. St. Clair St. space.
Croninger said she will spend the summer archiving 20 North’s records, which will be offered for donation to the Toledo Museum of Art or the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library, and then focus her attention on her interest in promoting visual literacy and her work with the Toledo Ballet.
“There’s so much more we look forward to doing, artistically and otherwise,” Hillenbrand said.
“There’s going to be that day after where we breathe that sigh of relief and then just say, ‘What next,’ with an exclamation point and not a question mark. That’s a nice way of looking at it.”
Contact Rod Lockwood at: email@example.com or 419-724-6159.