Now Open on Cherokee: Virtuoso, an Art Collective With No Plans to Pay Rent

click to enlarge Jessie D. Meese, left, and Julianne Wise spearheaded the plan for Virtuoso Collective.


Jessie D. Mees, left, and Julianne Wise spearheaded the plan for Virtuoso Collective.

The newest business to open on Cherokee isn’t really a gallery and isn’t really a shop — it’s both. And it’s also one of the best consignment deals artists could ever imagine.

Virtuoso Collective (2616 Cherokee Street) sells the work of artists living in and around Cherokee Street, and it takes a broad definition of what that work might be.

“We have printmaking, we have T-shirts, we have paintings, we’ve got ceramics, we’ve got handmade, fabricated jewelry,” says co-founder Jessie D. Mees, “which is what I do. We’ve got candles.” There’s even hot sauce, where the peppers were grown just a few blocks away. The most expensive item is a painting, priced at $15,000. The least expensive is just $3.

But no matter the artist, no matter their craft, they’re all getting the same deal. Virtuoso takes just a 10 percent cut of any sale — an extraordinarily low rate made possible by the collective’s unique origin story.

Last winter, South Side Spaces owner Jason Deem announced that he was subdividing the former Rent One building on Cherokee and giving free rent for six months to one lucky tenant. The winner was to be chosen by the Cherokee Street Improvement District.

The neighborhood’s plethora of creative hustlers ensured no shortage of applicants. The 75 contestants were narrowed to six finalists, who presented before the district board. Mees says she and co-founder Julianne Wise kept it simple: “We just wanted to create a storefront that all the incredibly talented and local artists can participate in.”

Emily Thenhaus, the Cherokee Street Improvement District executive director, says the idea resonated with the community members who attended the meeting where presentations were made and ultimately chose one lucky proposal.

“I think Jessie and Julianne’s proposal was such a winner because they sought to use the space not just for themselves but for all Cherokee Street artists,” Thenhaus says. “Virtuoso Collective is more than just a cool storefront selling great gifts and art. It’s a means of driving revenue to so many of our local artists.”

Virtuoso is organized like a co-op, so artists have to agree to volunteer one day each month. Beyond that, there are very few rules. Items have to be handmade, of course. But that’s about it — within reason.

“Honestly, I think the main limitation is the size,”  Mees says. “We’re working with just a little under 900 square feet. So it’s like giant sculptures are out.” She adds that the building also has a few restrictions: “We’re not allowed to hang things from the ceiling because of the historic tin ceiling. So as much as I love to have big sculptures and chandelier-type things hanging from the ceiling, we just don’t have the capacity to do that.”

Mees and Wise didn’t have to look far to find the 30 artists now on display in the storefront. Both have strong connections in the area. Wise worked at Yaqui’s for six years and, when she started a screen-printing business, Love Shack Press, on Cherokee five years ago, Yaqui’s was one of its first clients.

“We hang out every day on the street and hang out the bars, and we’re like, ‘Wanna join?’ They’re like, it was a very automatic ‘yes,'” she says.

As for Mees, she herself is an artist who makes fabricated jewelry. Virtuoso’s plan was inspired by a similar venture she saw in Denver, where she lived before moving to St. Louis two and a half years ago.

“There was a cute little concept that was close to my house that was similar,” she says. “It was all local Denver artists. You walked into this tiny little shop, and you were like, ‘You can’t buy this online. You can’t get this from China. It’s not mass produced. These are real people, and this is their artwork.’ And I just love that idea.”

So far, Cherokee and its visitors do as well. Mees and Wise say the August 19 soft opening (during the Cherokee Brewed Arts Festival) was a big success, and they look forward to more opportunities to bring in shoppers and art lovers. They plan to keep hours from noon to 7 p.m. (later on First Fridays and other evening events).

After the free rent has run its course, they hope to keep the collective going, though they’ll likely have to change the financial terms for artists. (The 10 percent they take now is designed just to cover utilities, and rent would be a different equation.) But for now, they’re pleased with how the experiment is going.

“I think it’s a really special place,” says Wise. “It showcases art really well. I’m proud of us.”

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