Walking around The Gateway, the 11-year-old shopping center in downtown Salt Lake City (and headquarters of this newspaper), sometimes feels like walking around a ghost town.
In some areas of the two-block center, empty storefronts abut each other with depressing uniformity. The Ben & Jerry's store is empty, no longer dispensing Chunky Monkey ice cream. In the food court, Edo Japan recently joined its neighbor, Taco Time, in vacating, leaving behind Coca-Cola dispensers and bare counters.
In the past year, several retailers including Apple, The Gap, Anthropologie, Banana Republic, J.Crew, J.Jill and Ann Taylor Loft abandoned The Gateway for shinier new digs four blocks east at City Creek Center. A few new stores have filled some of the spaces left behind, but the emptiness can still be felt.
The Gateway is in the middle of rediscovering its brand and it may have found it, almost by accident, by emphasizing the things City Creek (which is owned by the business arm of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) doesn't have in abundance: Sunday shopping, entertainment and alcohol consumption.
Last week, for example, the Z'Tejas restaurant celebrated National Margarita Day. And The Gateway has Megaplex Theatres, Clark Planetarium and Discovery Gateway entertainment venues that City Creek doesn't have.
As of a couple weeks ago, The Gateway has something else City Creek doesn't: a showcase for contemporary local art that's free.
The Urban Art Gallery a huge space in what used to be American Eagle Outfitters (another retailer that left for City Creek) boasts works from 35 artists, said Cat Palmer, the Salt Lake City artist and photographer who is the gallery's curator.
The artwork ranges from Jimmi Toro's canvases to Tim Little's scrap-metal sculptures and Brady Canfield's "Wombat Rue" graphic novel series to Stephanie Swift's "Pretty Little Pixel" manipulated photos of Salt Lake landmarks.
"We made our wish list of artists that we wanted here," said Palmer this week, and they all accepted.
The idea for a gallery at The Gateway was born last August when the shopping center's executives approached Derek Dyer, executive director of the Utah Arts Alliance.
The gallery held its grand opening on Feb. 16, and turnout has been strong on the weekends particularly for the Utah Arts Alliance's monthly Connect program. The networking event is held the second Friday of every month.
Palmer said the gallery plans regular weekend events, including dance performances, to take advantage of the large floor space. She also invites DJs to spin records Tuesday through Saturday from 6 to 8 p.m.
"There's a lot of DJs who just want a place to play," Palmer said.
Placing the gallery in a shopping center helps demystify the art world. "It's been really fun to bring this urban feel of art, and something that's a little more accessible," Palmer said. "People think that it costs money to get in here. … We're having to put the word out that we are free."
And, since it's a mall, there are people who have their credit cards ready. Sculptor Joshua Flicker was unloading his works from his car when the gallery opened and sold two of them on the spot, Palmer said.
The gallery helps establish a new identity for The Gateway as a destination that's (comparatively) hip and cool.
"They are focusing on arts and local things. I really love the direction that they are headed," Palmer said. "[The Gateway] said, 'We're accepting our place now, and we're going to roll with this.'"
Sean P. Means writes The Cricket in daily blog form, at www.sltrib.com/blogs/moviecricket. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @moviecricket, or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/seanpmeans.