As the Missoula Mercantile finds its new identity as an upscale hotel on Higgins Avenue, another iconic downtown business will also get a new look, replacing an historic diner with a showpiece of contemporary art.
Karen Sippy on Tuesday confirmed that she and her husband, Brian, have purchased the former Uptown Diner property from Midblock LLC and plan to construct a two-story building. When it opens next year, the Radius Gallery will leave its current location on Main Street and take its place on Higgins Avenue.
“We’re just so supportive of the arts in Missoula,” Sippy said. “We want to promote that. The Radius is great about promoting area, regional and local artists, and we’re excited to be able to bring something beautiful downtown with an arts focus.”
While the plans remain in design, Sippy said the building that housed the Uptown Diner will be replaced by a two-story structure. The gallery will occupy the first floor and a portion of the second, while offices will occupy the rest of the top floor and the basement.
The building is being designed by Don MacArthur of MMW Architects in Missoula. The firm has designed a number of other buildings in Missoula, from the Park Place Garage to the Dearborn Condominiums and Polleys Square in the Old Sawmill District.
“We don’t have the specific plans back just yet, but it’s going to be a new building,” said Sippy. “We want it to have that historic feel. It’s going to be right across the street from the pharmacy at the old Mercantile site, so we want it to have that cool, historic feel.”
The pharmacy building represents one of the oldest portions of the former Mercantile building, which was deconstructed last year to make way for a new Marriott hotel. As part of the project, the developers and the Missoula City Council struck a deal to save the old pharmacy, which is being incorporated into the new hotel.
The block’s history and its frontage on Higgins Avenue made the location perfect for Sippy as her family looked to invest in downtown Missoula.
“It’s a prime location,” said Sippy. “We’ve been keeping an eye out for a building for us to invest in, and they (Lisa Simon and Jason Neal) have needed a bigger space. We’ve had our eye out, and this popped up after the New Year.”
Around the downtown corner, Simon tended to the established Radius Gallery on Tuesday afternoon. Come this summer, the gallery will celebrate its fourth year in businesses on Main Street, where it plays host to contemporary art.
Simon said the new space will enable the gallery to showcase more artists while the location gives it greater visibility.
“We’ll get a lot more space and be able to represent more artists,” said Simon. “That’s what we’re most excited about. It’ll give more breadth to contemporary art and really demonstrate what’s out there in contemporary art.”
Regular visitors to the Radius Gallery have come to associate its aesthetics with its current tin ceiling and high, white walls that, when combined with contemporary art, lend the gallery a blend of old and new.
Simon the vision looks to retain that “white box” feel, though the new arrangement will enable the gallery to remain open more times of the year. As it stands, she said, the gallery loses about one month of business each year as it changes out its shows.
“In our current space, we have to shut down between shows, which adds up to a month of being closed each year, which isn’t smart business-wise,” Simon said. “With the new layout, we’ll have the white box exhibit space set in the back half where we’ll change out our shows, and some space up front that’s open all the time.”
By all the time, Simon doesn’t mean 24 hours a day but rather, visitors to the gallery will have something to see, even when new shows are going up.
“We want to really give a contemporary a voice and not mix it with traditional Western, which is kind of a 19th century art,” Simon said. “Even when you look at the West, you’re not looking at the Wests’ past or romanticizing the past. Ours is always forward-looking or contemporary.”
Sippy expects work to begin this year.