Leo Zimmerman, R.I.P.

Leo Zimmerman

This dreary, rainy morning brings the sad news that Leo Zimmerman, a one-time fixture of Louisville’s art scene and founding member of the Society for the Arts in Louisville, has died (from the C-J):

Leo Zimmerman, an abstract artist who founded The Society for the Arts in Louisville and was at the forefront of the 1950s arts renaissance here, died Tuesday at Norton Hospice Inpatient Unit. He was 83.

Zimmerman’s early art career was as a painter. After graduating from Male High, he served in the Army Medical Corps, including in France after the end of World War II, where he studied with painters he met there.

He returned home in 1946 and earned his art degree from the University of Kentucky…

In 1954, he started an art gallery and materials shop at the old Carriage House on Fifth Street. The shop was in an old stable and the gallery in a hayloft. He shared the building with a theater group directed by C. Douglas Ramey, who would go on to start the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival. Ramey also worked with Zimmerman on other arts endeavors.

The following year, Zimmerman founded The Society for The Arts in Louisville, stating: “Art isn’t a commodity. It’s non-utilitarian, but it’s useful because it makes everybody grow. … Art should be seen and known and talked about. I’m operating on that basis.”

The society was nonprofit, supported through membership dues and advertising income from its publications, beginning with the 32-page monthly “Arts in Louisville Magazine.”

The publication later was renamed “The Louisvillian,” and then replaced by a shorter biweekly, “The Gazette of the Arts in Louisville…

The society also started an arts festival in 1957, and in 1958 Zimmerman founded the Arts in Louisville House on Zane Street. It included a theater, bar, art gallery, music room, library and office. The club would become well-known for its jazz shows, including performances by artists such as Dizzy Gillespie.

The Louisville arts movement became so renowned that Life magazine photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt came to the city on assignment to photograph Zimmerman and fellow artist and teacher Joseph Fitzpatrick, who edited the magazine Zimmerman founded.

The Society for The Arts disbanded in 1963 from “staff cultural exhaustion,” Zimmerman wrote in an entry for “The Encyclopedia of Louisville.”

Soon after, Zimmerman dropped out of the public arts scene…

Though Zimmerman became more of a behind-the-scenes artist (his last public show was in 1989 at UK under the nom de plume Leo Wrye), it’s clear from the excerpts above that he was a major force in establishing Louisville’s art scene. For a city its size, Louisville has always had a fantastic art scene (as long as we can remember, anyway), and we have Zimmerman to thank for that.

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