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Indianapolis Initiative Uplifts Local Creators With Free Rent

Cargo Boutique popped up last year in an old garage just south of downtown. Thanks in part to that trial run, the business is in the process of building out a permanent space. (Photo by Elese Bales; courtesy of Pattern Indy)

A fledgling initiative wants Hoosiers to know there’s more to Indy than meets the eye. And it’s boosting small businesses while it’s at it.

St’Art Up 317, now in its second year, matches small businesses and local artists with landlords with vacant street-level spaces in downtown Indianapolis, giving them rent-free space to design an eye-catching window display or open a full pop-up shop. The selected brands range from handmade leather products and custom mattresses to realistic paper flowers and luxury clothing.

Catherine Esselman, senior project manager at Develop Indy, a Chamber of Commerce program, and Polina Osherov, executive director of Pattern, a nonprofit cultural and economic development organization (and print and online magazine), collaborated to launch the program last year.

“The apartment buildings are doing really well but the retail hasn’t quite caught up. The folks who would open a store are just waiting for more people to be living downtown,” Osherov says. “Because of the work I do with Pattern, I have a lot of interaction with people in the creative economy — artists, photographers, fashion designers, musicians, those types of people. A lot of them work from home and don’t really have a space to display their work to a wider audience … And so, Catherine and I kind of brainstormed about making those empty spaces fill up.”

That led to the first St’Art Up 317, where seventeen businesses filled 15 empty storefronts, and many went on to open downtown leases, Esselman says.

For 2019, the program is getting bigger, with 30 artists. Develop Indy provides funding to cover expenses such as marketing and signage. The pop-ups will be open and on display during the month of May, a month chosen to coincide with the Indianapolis 500, an event that draws fans from around the country.

“Nobody thinks of Indianapolis from outside of Indianapolis as a city where creative can be done well. And that’s just not the case. We have some really amazing artists and creatives of all kinds in the city,” says Osherov.

Vendors are selected by a committee of seven or eight people that includes store owners, artists, and people from the fashion industry. The committee employs a number of criteria in selecting potential vendors, including the potential of pop-up shops to generate foot traffic.

“A lot of it is also sort of aesthetic. When people submit their proposals, we look at if they’re doing a window activation, is it going to be interesting, is it going to be fun? But we try to mix it up. One of our goals is inclusivity and so we try to be super sensitive to making sure that we offer opportunities to people that have typically been underrepresented,” including women entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs of color, Osherov says.

St’Art Up 317 has been a hit with vendors, including Johnetta K. Touré, owner of Classa Boutique, a web-based store that describes its clothing as exhibiting “global chic with an African touch.” Originally from Monrovia, Liberia, Touré donates 35 percent of her proceeds from Classa Boutique toward youth-based programs in the United States and Africa. She learned about St’Art Up 317 from a sponsored Facebook ad.

“I had completely forgotten (about applying) but remembered when I received an email from Polina via Pattern and was super excited. … This is our first official pop-up experience and we want to leave a lasting impact,” Touré said.

Other St’Art Up 317 vendors for 2019 include clothing designers like Witty by Codi, artists like Joy Hernandez and landscape architects Greenscape Geeks, among others. Many participating vendors are wary of entering into conventional leases, which often require multi-year commitments. By participating in a pop-up program, vendors can determine whether their enterprises would generate enough foot traffic to merit taking on an actual lease. One of the program’s success stories is Pattern, which previously operated out of a co-work space, according to Osherov.

“We were able to utilize one of the spaces … in St’Art Up 317 [in 2018]. The landlord wasn’t super taken with what we were offering them in terms of our selection so I was like ‘what about Pattern? Would you consider letting us pop up in here?’ and they did. And then we ended up staying longer and now we’re in a lease with them,” Osherov said.

Osherov, a native of Russia, grew up in Australia. She launched Pattern though contacts gained through her work as a professional fashion photographer in Indianapolis.

“Pattern and everything that comes with it has sort of been kind of an accident, if you will. No one really looks up in central Indiana and goes, ‘I’m going to start a fashion magazine or a fashion centric organization’ because that’s just crazy. But that’s kind of what ended up happening. A group of fashion designers recognized the fact that there’s a lot more going on in the fashion industry in Indy than met the eye but the industry was super fragmented …. So they just decided that they wanted to do something about it. And I just happened to be in the room when this conversation was taking place,” Osherov said.

Osherov and her husband, a motivational speaker, moved to Indianapolis in 1999 from Chicago largely because of Indianapolis’ affordable housing prices.

“My husband and I were renting and we started looking for a place to buy. It was kind of awful because we really couldn’t afford anything [near] the airport. He flew a lot for his job. Somehow I got on the website that shows all the listings for Indianapolis and I was like, ‘look at how much house you can get.’ And so being a practical person I was like, let’s move,” Osherov says.

Despite the practicality of their decision, Osherov was initially less than enthusiastic about leaving Chicago. However, over the years she has become a champion for Indianapolis.

“I was kind of snobbish about it, like, ‘It’s not a real city.’ But it’s kind of grown on me in the last decade or so. A lot has changed in even the last five years. There’s a lot more going on than meets the eye. It’s a great little city,” Osherov says.

St’Art Up 317 will run through May only, but Osherov hopes to get funding to offer a second pop-up season during November and December to coincide with the holidays. In the meantime, Osherov is enthusiastic about showcasing Indianapolis’s cultural talent and vibrancy.

“As an organization our goal is to help creative entrepreneurs reach business success through networking and education and exposure. The big, big hairy audacious goal is to grow the local creative economy. …That’s why we’re super excited to be doing this program, because it feels very timely, like it’s going to have significant impact on the retail and entrepreneurial landscape in the city,” Osherov says.

Audrey F. Henderson is a Chicagoland-based freelance writer and researcher specializing in sustainable development in the built environment, culture and arts related to social policy, socially responsible travel, and personal finance. Her work has been featured in Transitions Abroad webzine and Chicago Architect magazine, along with numerous consumer, professional and trade publications worldwide.

Tags: arts and cultureindianapolis