The Early Years
St. James Court Art Show ® was founded on October 12, 1957 by St. James Court Association president, Malcolm Bird. Back in 1957, St James Court Association was faced with an empty treasury, mounting debt for recent fountain repairs, and an immediate need to generate funds. The Art Show seemed to be a perfect means to pay the bills and bring residents together.
The Art Show started simply enough. “At first, it was to be an art exhibit only, although open to anyone wishing to enter an exhibit. The pictures were hung on a clothesline extending from tree to tree,” wrote Marguerite Gifford in her 1966 history, St. James Court in Retrospect.
In the early years, music was a part of the Art Show including special programs of chamber music, choral performances, and big band concerts. The Art Show also provided an opportunity to celebrate the history of St James Court. Plaques were placed on certain houses to honor their notable residents – poets, authors, and mayors.
In 1965, the Art Show’s profit was $700, sufficient to purchase and install twenty gas lights the following year. Ms. Gifford wrote, “They shed a gentle twinkling among the trees and a refined illumination giving emphasis to the atmosphere which prevails in the Court.” By 1967, Malcolm’s last year as chair, attendance reached 40,000. According to newspaper coverage, 200 exhibitors offered a “mélange of paintings, antiques, photographs, flowers, painted stones, portrait sketches, ceramic and assorted bric-a-brac.”
The Walking Tour and Cooking Guide of St. James Court declares “Although we are indebted to Malcolm for many things, the Art Show is foremost because we all know without this money-making event we could not have undertaken and completed the expensive projects that have made it possible for us to preserve this landmark (St. James Court).” The momentum of these improvements spurred housing restoration and a rebirth of St. James Court and Old Louisville that continues today.
Building a Cultural and Artistic Legacy
Another era began when Ann Higbie and Oscar Stremmel succeeded Malcolm Bird as Art Show organizers. The two volunteered countless time and energy managing the show for twenty-five years from 1968 through 1992. They led the Art Show to national recognition, a focus on handcrafted art, and, to be sure, increased income. The Art Show tripled in size from 200 to 600 exhibitors. Ann and Oscar are fondly remembered for their accommodating attitude toward artists, visitors, and neighbors. Oscar passed away in 1994 and Ann died in 1995.
In the late sixties, exhibitors were added on Belgravia Court. Connie Light has led the Belgravia Court portion of the show for over forty remarkable years. The greatest pleasure Connie finds in the Show is “opening people’s eyes to the wonder of Old Louisville, the beauty of this jewel of a neighborhood.”
Art Show exhibitors expanded to Fountain Court and Fourth Street in 1975. Mel Young organized the early Fourth Street artists working first with Ann Higbie’s waiting list records. In 1979, Rudy Van Meter and Kitty Clark launched the 1400 Third Street section of the show. By 1994, the show expanded to include artists in the 1300 block of Third Street and at the West End Baptist Church. While these portions are collectively part of the St. James Court Art Show®, exhibitors in each section continue to be managed by their respective neighborhood organizations.
Ellen Patrie, as director, and Byron Wunderlich, as chairman, shared responsibility for the St. James Court Art Show® in 1993 and 1994 and produced the first-ever Art Show Program. During this time, St James Court Association implemented several measures to improve coordination, planning, and quality standards between the show’s participating neighborhood associations.
A Louisville Tradition Reaches National Acclaim
Another phase in Art Show history began in 1995 when Susan Coleman became director of the Art Show. From 1995 to 2004 Susan brought an enthusiasm to the Show that produced numerous improvements for artists and visitors including a professional artist selection jury. In 1995, Gwynne and Grover Potts were instrumental in beginning the annual poster competition that continues today. Louisville Magazine began producing the Art Show Program in 1998.
St. James Court Art Show ® was voted best art show in the nation in an annual survey of artists by the trade journal Sunshine Artist in 2003, 2004, 2006, 2009, 2010 & 2011.
From 2005 through today, the Art Show has been directed by Margue Esrock. Now managing a show with nearly 750 exhibitors and more than 300,000 attendees, Margue is undaunted by the complexity of managing an event with the size and reputation of the St. James Court Art Show®. Like Malcolm, Ann, Oscar and other earlier organizers, Margue appreciates the satisfaction, pride and simple fun experienced by the residents and friends of Old Louisville who put together the annual St. James Court Art Show ®.