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What Makes An Art Crawl? 

The conflict behind Plaza Central's Holiday in the Hood

Plaza Central merchants thought the area's October art crawl was a success when more than 900 people showed up. This Saturday, organizers are hoping to more than triple that number. But they'll be doing it without one neighborhood gallery owner.

At issue? Kevin Starr, owner of that gallery, which bears his name, feels the crawl has become a watered-down "beer bust" that's more about commerce than art. The crawl's organizers counter that the crawl is meant to be a democratic event, created to not only promote art but also to advertise the neighborhood and its businesses.

Tim Griffin, one of the men behind the crawl, feels Starr's ego has gotten the best of him. "It was not conceived by me, nor Kevin Starr, but Kevin Starr seems to believe that he created the Plaza Central art crawl when in fact it was a group effort that was meant to represent all aspects of the business district."

Starr, for his part, says Griffin is an "opportunist" who seized control of the crawl for his own gain and steered it from its artistic intent. "I'm not going to have my gallery represented by a man in a Santa outfit flashing traffic," says Starr, describing the crawl poster that Griffin says more than two dozen businesses approved. "This is an art crawl ... it shouldn't rely on shock value." More than 60 businesses have signed on for the art crawl, and 175 artists have agreed to hang works in shops in the area around The Plaza, Central and Thomas avenues. So the brouhaha isn't likely to derail the crawl or distract folks who show up.

But it's a small peek inside how the neighborhood is trying to raise its arts profile, much like NoDa and South End have done with their monthly art crawls. "I've met other business owners I wouldn't otherwise have met," says Chris Boone of the restaurant Creation. "We're all in this together. It's cool. I kind of think that's the spirit of the neighborhood."

Previous attempts to organize a crawl have had limited success, at most. Karl Klaudt, owner of Hair Klaudt, says he tried his hand at it. More recently, Starr, who opened his gallery off Central Avenue about a year ago, was planning one but didn't get it off the ground.

Then Griffin and some friends discussed it. They imagined it not as an exclusive, highbrow event, but rather an opportunity to get bars, restaurants and merchants involved. "As long as you put 10 to 12 pieces of art for sale up that night, we'll include you," Griffin says.

The turnout at the first in October pleased businesses. Blake Barnes, owner of the Common Market, estimates more than 1,400 people came in his market that day -- up from an average 800.

But when talk began of a second one, Starr objected to how it was organized. He wanted it to be open to sponsors like himself. And he didn't want to directly include bars and restaurants -- they would reap the benefits anyway. But when Griffin got a business license for event, Starr felt the move signaled that Griffin wasn't going to listen to business owners, including him.

Then the discord began. Griffin says Starr fired off "vile" e-mails to merchants that insulted their intelligence. He says Starr sent e-mails in his name that purported to cancel the crawl. Starr, for his part, says he's been targeted by hateful e-mails but hasn't sent them. He posted some on a Web site critical of the crawl that he says he started with six friends.

Creation's Boone says he can't understand why Starr is so fired up. "It's weird," Boone says. "Why would you want to stop a positive fun holiday event that's going to help a lot of local business owners, help a lot of local artists get their stuff up who don't really have steady gallery space? Why would you try to undermine that? I don't understand that mentality."

Says Barnes of the Common Market: "Why not just let it be what it is?"

For Starr, though, it's about principle. He doubts participation will be limited solely to businesses that hang art. Moreover, he feels those neighborhood businesses don't support art anyway.

Though he's not participating in the crawl, he's hoping to have a sidewalk art festival in the spring, during the day and without booze.

The night of the crawl, however, he does plan to hand out free T-shirts emblazoned with his new nickname, courtesy, he says, of nasty a e-mail he believes came from Griffin. The name?

"Art Nazi."

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