Drive-by viewing

Windows on Lake Street

Erin Burns is one of three artists whose paintings are showing at the Windows on Lake Street, a half-block-long series of windows that doubles as an exhibition space that can be seen from the sidewalk.

Erin Burns is one of three artists whose paintings are showing at the Windows on Lake Street, a half-block-long series of windows that doubles as an exhibition space that can be seen from the sidewalk.

Photo By David Robert

I’m roaming around town with a carful of friends and an out-of-town visitor at 9 o’clock on a Friday night. The out-of-town visitor asks what’s new in the Reno art world. All the usual spots are closed for the night.

“Let’s go check out the window gallery,” says our designated driver. He turns up Lake Street. The gallery is open.

It’s always open. It’s a “phantom gallery,” which is usually an empty commercial space where artists negotiate the use of the window space to display their work. Usually, phantom galleries are temporary—when the space gets a tenant, the art is sent packing—but this one, called The Windows on Lake Street, is a permanent fixture on the back on the Reno Events Center.

The exhibition space’s seven metal-framed windows, spanning half a block of the Events Center’s concrete façade, were actually designed to be display cases. Each one measures about 8-by-8 feet and 6 inches deep, so the artwork shown there can be large enough to see from the car—or even from the balcony of the motel across the street.

In addition to having a permanent location to ensure long-term survival, the project also has an unusually solid administrative base and a list of institutional affiliations. It’s funded by the city’s Arts District Commission (a sub-committee of the Reno Arts & Culture Commission), and it’s run by Truckee Meadows Community College photography instructor Dean Burton and University of Nevada, Reno sculpture instructor Tamara Scronce.

Phantom galleries have a substantial history, having shown up in various forms in several cities. Burton recalls that the high vacancy rate in downtown Tucson, where he was an art student in the early ‘90s, provided opportunities for artists to show their work in windows there. Locally, Windows on Lake Street’s predecessor was Gallery 123, in the large windows facing the sidewalk at the Ross Manor apartment building on First Street.

Showing art in a window has the obvious benefit of helping artists widen their audiences, but this type of venue presents certain limitations. Photography and other light-sensitive media are out of the question. So is anything involving glue or other materials that are likely to be damaged by heat.

"[The windows] get direct sunlight all morning. You could fry an egg on them in the summertime. They’re black. When we went and looked at them, they were radiating heat,” Burton says. He tells of an ill-fated experiment where some prints melted off their plexiglass backings within a few hours of being hung in the windows in the July sun.

The display spaces are only 6 inches deep, so the artwork has to be more-or-less two-dimensional. Paintings seem to best fit the bill. The current exhibit features large canvasses by three UNR students. Erin Burns’ light-colored, sketch-like figures, Evan Dent’s close-up portraits, dripping with aggression, and Brian Porray’s forlorn, cartoons-on-acid creatures are all large enough to see from the road and detailed enough to make a stroll down the sidewalk worth the effort.

According to Burton, keeping the spaces lit and filled with art is worth the effort, too.

“It’s way better to have artwork than empty windows,” he says. “You can take a dead street corner and do something with it. It gives people something to look at in strange places.”