Manchester Center hopes to draw art, people to mall
Tucked away in a quiet corner of Manchester Center is an art studio and gallery that center managers hope will help draw new people to the aging mall.
The Anvil Art Gallery & Studio, where working artists paint and anyone can pick up a brush and try it, is the latest nontraditional mall tenant to move into Manchester, once considered Fresno’s premier shopping destination.
Anvil’s founder, Ramiro Martinez, said he and fellow artists hope the studio will form the foundation for what they’re calling “The Manchester Experiment” — an artistic collaboration with the community.
“It’s a perfect place for art because you’re bringing something to the community that otherwise would go into a gallery or go to a museum,” Martinez said. “It’s closer to the people.”
But the studio is more than that. It’s part of a movement by enclosed malls nationwide to reinvent themselves amid high vacancies and shrinking crowds — a result of changing consumer tastes and the economic meltdown.
Malls across the country have turned retail space into community gardens, leased space to churches, and added aquariums, casinos and gymnasiums.
“There’s a lot of focus on a tenant mix that works,” said Jenny Schuetz, assistant professor at the University of Southern California’s Lusk Center for Real Estate.
University and medical offices, for example, are commonly seen in malls nowadays, Schuetz said. A Cleveland-area mall is even using empty space to create an urban farm and a farmer’s market.
In the central San Joaquin Valley, Sierra Vista Mall in Clovis is likewise reinventing itself into a community center where people can do more than just shop. The mall has filled empty storefronts with a children’s party house and Children’s Musical Theaterworks, and it holds a free summer music series in the outdoor park near the movie theaters.
Manchester Center, in its heyday, was stocked with major retailers. Mayfair Market, Gallenkamp Shoes, F.W. Woolworth and Gottschalks all called Manchester home after the mall opened in 1955.
But over the years, retailers followed new construction north in the city or went out of business. Gottschalks closed its doors in 2009, leaving Sears as the center’s lone retail anchor.
In an effort to fill empty spaces, the mall welcomed Caltrans as its first office resident in 1999. Then, Fresno County’s Workforce Connection, an employment agency, followed in 2001 and the Fresno Adult School in 2005.
Today, there are several clothing and shoe stores on the first floor along with barber shops and an ice cream store. A few storefronts remain empty, and no shops are on the second floor.
The mall’s general manager, Moe Bagunu, said he still believes retail is an essential component at Manchester, and he wants to expand the retail lineup. Last month, the mall added four new businesses, including a dress shop and a barbershop. Bagunu expects to announce plans in the next couple months for a mall renovation and new retailers.
“Our business plan is to migrate offices to the second floor and remerchandise the first floor to retail use,” he said.
In the meantime, the mall supports a weekly farmers market in the parking lot and Bagunu has put the word out in the art community about empty spaces available for artists.
“They were mainly focused on downtown, so we wanted to introduce the arts to the center as well,” Bagunu said.
Martinez moved into Manchester in December at the urging of his friend and fellow artist, Reza Assemi.
He spent five years working downtown in a small 10-by-13-foot studio at Assemi’s Broadway Studios in the Mural District and was ready for a bigger place.
It’s been a good match so far. Anvil has become a regular stop on the Fresno Art Council’s monthly ArtHop tours and its artists have held shows that have brought in good traffic, Bagunu said.
Martinez and a handful of artists work out of Anvil, a 10,000-square-foot space on the second floor, part of a mall expansion that never was finished.
It was a raw space with concrete floors and unfinished walls that “works perfect for an art studio,” Bagunu said.
Now, paintings hang on the walls and the smell of paint hangs in the air. Visitors are often confused about the gallery’s purpose and expect price tags on the art work, Martinez said.
“It’s a space with a million uses without being a store,” Martinez said.
Although professional artists work in the studio, their goal is create a place where the public can come, pick up a brush and paint no matter their skill level.
The artists already have worked with children and adults who walked into the studio with questions.
It’s a chance for the public to explore art and share it with the community similar to other neighborhood-based art centers like the Red Poppy Arthouse in San Francisco, Martinez said.
Art galleries are not unusual in malls, but a working studio is, said Jesse Tron, spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centers, the industry’s trade organization based in New York City.
Rent is usually too high and the space is too big for artists, Tron said.
Martinez said rent is higher than at his old place — he declined to say how much — but he is able to offset it by charging other artists who want to work there and trading services with the mall owners, such as the mural he is painting at the entrance near Sears.
He hopes the mural — a look at how city buildings relate to nature — will become a conversation piece and attract more people to the center.
“I’ve seen what a mural can do,” Martinez said. “They transform places.”
By BoNhia Lee