Since last spring, James Barham has been operating Indi Go, what he calls an “artist co-op”, at 9 East University in Champaign. The mission, in Barham’s words, is “to provide space for emerging artists from our University and our local communities.” Barham has hosted roughly one or two events per month since the co-op began last spring, including a recent performance by classical guitarist Rachel Schiff, as well as having a number of galleries featuring the work of various artists.
The space is funded in its entirety by Barham’s regular business, Barham Benefit group. Barham is a licensed insurance broker, and according to his business’s web site, “The sole purpose of Barham Benefit Group is to find the best coverage for the best price and with the best service for your individual and group insurance.”
The co-op operates under the philosophy that “Visual space has essentially no owner.” Barham explained that when visiting Beverly Hills years ago, he saw a neon sign on the outside of the Luxe Hotel on Rodeo Drive that read, “Visual space has no owner.” The statement—which is actually a quote from the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein—intrigued Barham. “I took it as meaning, you can look at a building, and who really is the owner of this space we’re seeing?”
Consistent with the philosophy, Barham tries to bring events and exhibits to the C-U area that might not be seen or heard otherwise. Since he isn’t even trying to break even financially, he feels that he can do things that traditional for-profit galleries can’t do. He said, “It turns out that there’s been a real appeal to this space. There really aren’t many true galleries in the area – not to knock them, because they’re trying to make a living. And God bless them, but since my goal isn’t to make money, I can do a lot of different things. For me, that’s the fun of it.”
Barham, a Champaign native, has lived in both Santa Barbara, California and in Kailua-Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii, but feels that these locations lack the sense of community that C-U has, basically because they’re so expensive. He said, “In California, it’s so hard to make a living. People tend to connect for business reasons. They don’t have time for much else. When I came back to Champaign, I got really involved with community stuff.”
For years, Barham has given money to various local charities and organizations, and now raises money for them in a different way—by allowing his space to be used for fundraisers. An example of this is a recent fundraiser that the Champaign County Forest Preserve District held at Indi Go.
He said of Indi Go that, “I almost see it as a community center.” At one point, he had the idea that, “not only would I give emerging artists a place to show their work, I realized I wanted a place to fundraise. Through my business, I’ve always given money. Now instead of money, I’m going to give them space.”
He also recalls the satisfaction he feels when bringing emerging artists to the public: “Two other artists we’ve had in here had never made a gallery sale. To watch them do that for the first time was the coolest feeling in the world.”
The project has turned out to be something larger than Barham originally intended. Barham, who is also a landlord, had a sheet metal worker named Ryan Slattery as a tenant who was creating metal sculptures in the garage Barham rented to him. Although Slattery saw his pieces as basically a hobby, Barham was excited about the pieces and wanted to bring them to a bigger audience.
Eventually, Barham got in touch with architect and property manager G.T. Hardwick about renting the space at 9 East University across the street from the City Building. Barham wanted to do just a two-month lease in order to have a temporary gallery for Slattery’s work, but Hardwick was unwilling to do anything less than six months, so Barham signed a lease for that amount of time.
The gallery was a success, earning Slattery his first gallery sales. Barham elaborated, “It was neat, all of a sudden, to start seeing this guy consider himself an artist.” Other early events went well, including a party for 40 North | 88 West and Barham decided, “I just want to keep this going.”
He’s done so, using the space for, among other things, a wedding and a performance by a local group of tango dancers. Barham recalled of the latter, “They had a 45 foot mural. We had a five-piece tango orchestra. These were basically world class musicians from the university. There were about sixty dancers in here, and these were the real deal. There’s a very phenomenal tango subculture here in town.”
Artists and groups can contact Barham to request use of the space, which is available for pretty much anything that captures Barham’s interest. Almost all money from sales of art pieces goes back to the artists themselves, and performances are often simply benefits. For instance, donations taken for the recent Rachel Schiff performance—with about 50 people in attendance—went to Swann Special Care Center in Champaign.
However, most events come together just from word of mouth. Barham mentioned that the local press has been helped raise awareness as well: “The Buzz mentioned some events. Smile Politely has been good to me. And lately, the New-Gazette has covered some artists.” The good publicity has helped bring in volunteers, which the project still needs.
Previous tenants of 9 East University have included a leather goods shop, a law firm, a hair salon, two different art galleries, and, most recently, a furniture store.
Barham recalled the scramble he and his volunteers went through to get the space ready for its first event: “We came in and painted it all one color. I literally came up with this idea and three weeks later it was ready. We put in probably 300 work hours in a week. We re-sanded the floors, and finished them. Every surface in here has been repainted. It was a lot of work.”
Smile Politely writer Michael Curtin offers a good description of the space itself in a review of a past Indi Go gallery: “It’s an old, beautiful space with a wall of glass on the front of the store, nicely scuffed and aged wood floor, a beautiful ceiling and a nice spiral staircase connecting the upper and lower levels. The space is small but inviting, like the room’s squeezing you just a little.” As such, it’s a great place to experience visual art.
For acoustic musicians like Rachel Schiff, the hardwood floors and stark walls provide good amplification. The sound at her recent show was fantastic. For louder, electronically amplified acts, not so much, as the sound tends to bounce and echo once the volume gets too high.
Barham said that Indi Go is something that will “hopefully keep going for many years,” and is currently going through the process of making it into a nonprofit for tax purposes. He is enthusiastic about the local arts scene in general, especially the Champaign branch of applied theater company Class Act.
Barham admitted that the Indi Go isn’t an entirely altruistic endeavor, and noted that he’s gained at least one new client for his regular business through the networking he’s done putting on events. On the whole, though, in a strictly financial cost/benefit analysis, he’s not coming out ahead. In fact, he joked that “Indi Go” sounds a lot like “In goes my dough”.
However, he feels that it’s been worth it: “It’s really something to give back. My mother was very artistic, although I don’t have an artistic bone in my body. I’ve had a lot of artists say that they were looking for something like this. I’ve given a conduit for artists and like-minded people to discover each other. I love being the connector. Until I opened Indi Go up, I didn’t realize how much talent, how much neat stuff, is going on in this community.”
The next major event at Indi Go will be a gallery of paintings and drawings by artist Jason Patterson. The opening reception is Friday, February 5, 2010 from 7-10pm. The series is sponsored by the cities of both Champaign and Urbana as well as the University of Illinois. Proceeds will go to the Don Moyer Boys & Girls Club.