Blue Collar Impresario: Jerry Gray’s Mission at Bozart’s Gallery

This is an article I wrote for the cover of this week's The Star.

The balmy spring air that wafted in through the open front door at Bozart’s Fine Art and Music Gallery on South St. Clair almost matched the affable and contagious optimism that owner Jerry Gray exudes when talking about his goals for the site.

“We hope to be much more than just another place where paintings hang on the wall,” he said. “Ideally we will be a catalyst for greater awareness of the arts in Northwest Ohio, and our presence has already helped bring the work of dozens of visual and musical artists to a wider audience.”

Gray is an atypical gallery owner, and this is not just reflected in the roughhewn and sparse aesthetics of the building. He lives on site in a small apartment carved out of the space with his five-year-old German shepherd Jobo, and to help defray expenses he works as a bartender at nearby taverns.

“Bozart’s is really my life,” he said. “Everything I earn, I pour right back into the place.”

Passersby in Toledo's Warehouse District might mistake the unassuming building for a more mundane use, and among the more recent tenants at 151 S. St. Clair was a towing service. The building that houses the gallery was constructed in 1910, and the place also housed a cement mixing facility in the early 20th century. Gray noted that the 10,000 square foot structure required a significant amount of renovations before Bozart’s hosted its first show in July 2009.

“This is a crazy old building, and I’d have to describe it as a work in progress itself,” he said, pointing out odd angles in the structure’s beams and joists. “When we moved in there was just screwed-in sheets of Plexiglas covering the window openings, and we had to add a bathroom, replace doors, hang drywall, paint everything, and tuck-point the brickwork inside the place.”

Bozart’s is pronounced with a hard Z sound and spelled like what Gray called “an American bastardization” of the French architectural style beaux arts. In the past year the gallery has hosted a wide variety of shows, some featuring solo artists and others that were group showings. The gallery’s recent “Works” production in February utilized an unusual format.

“For three weeks in January a dozen artists worked on site to create pieces for the show,” he said, adding that the gallery relies largely on word-of-mouth and online social media for exposure. “In total we exhibited over 150 pieces to a crowd of hundreds of people who trudged out here on a Friday night in February with over five inches of snow.”

Gray, who is a native of the small town of Delta, has been a fixture in the Toledo arts scene since 2000, and he spent several years living and working at the Collingwood Arts Center. He also operates an art studio and production facility called Quest for Fire in the downtown Secor Building with local artist and producer Kerry Krow.

Gray sees Bozart’s as a “logical extension” of his concurrent work with Krow.
“Though I did not necessarily realize it at the time, everything I have been doing the past decade has been working toward a site like this,” he said. “Ideally we want to expand Bozart’s to include a storefront area so that we can further help artists find audiences and aficionados for their work.”

Among the factors that separate Bozart’s from other area galleries, said Gray, is that the site is “an artist’s gallery.”

“By that I mean that artists are invited to take control of and essentially create the space in which their pieces are displayed,” he said. “They have a great deal of control over the lighting, the music, the ambience, and even the food at the showing – we had vegan artists bring food that reflected both their philosophical and artistic aims.”

Gray said that while Bozart’s does not keep regular hours, the gallery is always available for showings by appointment. In addition, Bozart’s hosts showings that run two to three weeks in length.

“A lot is dependent upon the schedules of the individual artists,” he said, adding that many artists work “regular jobs” to underwrite their work. “We also open up for selected events in the area, like the Arts Commission’s ‘Gallery Loop’ and when there are other occasions when a crowd is likely to be nearby.”

The next major exhibition that is scheduled for Bozart’s is titled “The Bald and the Beautiful,” which opens May 7 from 5 pm to 12 am. The show features the works of local artists Michael Ziegler and Luke Ellison. Gray expressed a great deal of enthusiasm for the upcoming exhibition.

“This is going to be a really fun kind of show, definitely not the sort of stuffy elitist exhibition people sometimes think when they hear the word ‘showing,’” he said. “I think people will be amazed at the excellent work that is being created almost in their own backyards.”

Gray, whose own work revolves around mixed media pieces, said that he works with a “fairly large” circle of musical and visual artists in his quest to bring to light local talent.

“So far I have mostly been working with people I have known for a long time and who I trust,” he said, adding that financial arrangements between gallery and artists have been on a “relatively informal” basis. “People who might be interested in what we do should just stop by at a show and get a feel for what Bozart’s is about.”

Bozart’s Fine Art and Music Gallery is located at 151 South St. Clair in Toledo’s Warehouse District. For more information about upcoming shows or private viewing contact Jerry Gray at 419-464-5785.