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From her office in the former Gary State Bank tower that looms over downtown Gary, public arts administrator Lauren Pacheco has watched the arts start to invigorate the hollowed-out husk of the once-industrial titan, the city of Gary.

Pacheco, the director of arts programming and engagement at Indiana University Northwest, has seen ArtHouse: A Social Kitchen train culinary entrepreneurs down 5th Avenue; the Decay Devils restore Union Station just north on Broadway; and a sculptor transform a bus stop into a work of public art one can sit on just across Broadway.

Pacheco has gotten permission from the building's owner to transform the sixth floor of the bank tower into an art space that could be a cultural hub for Northwest Indiana, likely dubbed “The Arts Club of Northwest Indiana.”

She plans to convert the entire floor into galleries, pop-up museums, temporary welcome centers for various Northwest Indiana communities, and artist studios.

The space could host exhibits, large-scale installations, performances, music, and other cultural events. It might even be used to host an artist residency program for visiting artists.

“It’s exciting,” she said.

“It’s an amazing, creative use of this floor that re-examines traditional arts. We want to be more playful than a traditional arts institution while offering cultural amenities to the city and Region.”

It’s one of several artist-led efforts to help revive the Steel City that has long suffered from blight, crime, urban decay, and a shrinking population. The Calumet Artist Residency’s Gary Poetry Project covered city buildings in verse, the Decay Devils turned the long-vacant Union Station into an art park, and the Legacy Foundation has commissioned major works of public art like Felix “Flex” Maldonado’s four-story Jackson 5 mural.

Artists leading the way

Decay Devils President Tyrell Anderson said the various efforts helped build momentum and that the different arts groups often supported each other.

"It's a great idea. Some of our best initiatives have come in group settings," he said. "Everything from current projects, the Gary Preservation Tour, and more have all stemmed from group brainstorming events. Putting several artists into one space will lead to larger and more cohesive projects moving forward."

Pacheco’s hope is to reimagine Gary as a hub of arts and culture, where visitors could decamp from the nearby Indiana Toll Road and South Shore Line and learn about more things to see and do in Northwest Indiana.

She has big plans for the sixth floor of the 10-story, 91-year-old bank tower, the tallest building in the city.

“We want pop-up cafes, music, performances, and gallery exhibitions in Gary,” Pacheco said.

“We want to encourage people to visit the city, the historical sites, the cultural attractions, the architecture. We want people to get off the train, bus or highways and experience the cultural heritage and legacy. They can see visitors centers to the neighborhood, Hammond, Munster, Griffith and other communities.”

The art space also could host exhibits from other cultural institutions across Northwest Indiana, effectively advertising for them and encouraging visitors to explore culture across the Region, she said. It could for instance display a few pieces from venues like South Shore Arts, the Brauer Museum of Art at Valparaiso University and the art galleries of Miller.

Creating a buzz in Region, Midwest?

“We could pull in a number of different artists, not just from Chicago and Chicagoland but (also) from Minnesota, Wisconsin and a collection of artists from around the area. We want to encourage tourism, to get people to participate in the art walk of the Miller Arts and Creative District or visit local galleries.

"It would be a non-traditional center that would say welcome to the city of Gary, maybe to urban explorers who just came from Detroit. The visitor room would be curated from groups in Munster or Indianapolis.”

Visitors would learn about the history, architecture, amenities and culinary offerings of Gary and the surrounding Region.

“They would experience the bigger picture of what the Region has to offer,” Pacheco said.

“We definitely want to encourage people to experience Gary but also to see the bigger picture of what they can see and do across the Region. We like the idea of being a one-stop kiosk of all that information, with pamphlets about where to go.”

The Arts Club of Northwest Indiana likely will only be open to the public Thursdays through Sundays. It will aim to employ local residents and offer a platform to independent artists, art collectives and historical preservation groups.

“We want to celebrate the work they’re doing and ask important and critical questions,” she said. “The question is how we make investments in a cultural community heritage site for the city of Gary, how we really invest in the city of Gary.”

Cultural programs will include evening open houses and live music, such as sets from local DJs meant to evoke NPR Tiny Desk Concerts. The goal will be to engage youth, students, and families in the local arts scene.

Pacheco, who’s also spearheaded the #PaintGary public mural project and brought an exhibit of work from VU's Brauer Museum of Art to Indiana University Northwest, hopes to make Gary cool and perhaps create a model for redeveloping the rest of the Rust Belt.

“We want people of all ages to check out the Gary landscape,” she said.

“We’re going to do it as a whole adaptive, reused concept. A lot of the buildings in the city are in bad shape, but we want to have a powerful conversation about the built environment and the future role of those buildings. We want to develop a new narrative for the city.”

Gary must do something to combat decades of population decline, and a time-honored remedy has been to attract the creative class, Pacheco said.

“The city of Gary has an amazing history, people and architecture,” she said.

“There’s an opportunity for trailblazers to come in. Urban farmers could grow produce, artists could have studios and show their work, I would love to do an oral history project and work with community members. I would like to create an art project to gift to the city of Gary.”

She’s now working on raising funds for the project and figuring out how to divvy up the space.

For more information, visit destinationgary.com.

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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.