Having long ago ousted the squatters, banned the bands and turned a derelict northeast Minneapolis warehouse into a clean, well-lighted space housing more than 200 artists and small businesses, Debbie Woodward is completely unfazed by a fragile economy.

"Artists say things like, 'Nobody is buying art,' but that's not true," said Woodward, the relentlessly upbeat manager of the Northrup King building. "People are buying art all the time. You just have to show it and make it accessible in an easy way."

That's a task the Farmington native stumbled into 15 years ago when her father, a developer, asked her to look at a shabby seed warehouse he'd just acquired. There were some squatters, occasional bands and a few artists working there then, including filmmaker Bruce Charlesworth, sculptor Andrew Leicester, potter Donovan Palmquist and others who were "renting 800 square feet and using 10,000 to put together their public art projects," Woodward recalled.

With no plans for the place, her dad said, "Fill it up, and then he left," she said. "I just thought I'd need a cell phone and Mace. I had no idea what I'd fill it up with."

After years of floor-by-floor renovation, rewiring, code upgrades and careful tenant screening, the sprawling 1917 complex that once shipped Northrup King seeds nationwide is now a hive of framers, photographers, jewelers, antique dealers, furnituremakers, illustrators, sculptors, painters, importers and fabricators of all sorts. In the past year several art galleries have relocated there, lured by the building's synergy and the convenience of being able to show clients' art being made.

"I didn't want a free-standing building. I wanted to be around other art and art-related things," said Anita Sue Kolman, whose namesake gallery has its grand opening this Saturday evening.

A former sociology professor, business researcher and museum docent, Kolman became an art consultant about 10 years ago. She ferried art to clients' homes, organized studio tours and staged receptions at private venues. "But then my clientele changed and wanted to see more art than I could carry in my car," she said.

Opening a gallery was a logical next step, and Northrup King fit the bill. She moved there in November and now represents five abstract painters and glass artists, including Dan Mather, who produced the modernist "ice cube" chandeliers decorating Walker Art Center's 2005 addition. Her marketing plan and mix of artists are still evolving, but her goal is to ensure that the gallery is bright, energetic and fun, "because we have fun with the art."

"It might not be the most sensible time to open a gallery, but if I wanted to be customer-focused I needed to do it," Kolman said.

Magnet for galleries, too

Sun Gallery, which moved to Northrup King last summer after a decade in south Minneapolis, offers a mix of Chinese antiques and contemporary art, as well as Chinese-themed lectures and programs about everything from garden design to feng shui and "the year of the rabbit." A native of China, owner Jenny Sun still has a stock of museum-quality antiques that she acquired years ago when the Chinese were cash-starved and overburdened with antiquities. Such material is increasingly difficult to come by now, however, as wealthy Chinese buy up pieces of their heritage and the government has limited exports.

"I'm looking for people interested in art, and I think Northrup King is the place," said Sun, who moved there in part because of a steep rent increase at her former shop.

A refugee from downtown Minneapolis, Kathleen Day-Coen picked the Northrup building because it offered "an outdoor entrance with a retail feeling to it." Her shop, Gallery Co., was previously an all-white modern art gallery that shared space with her husband's architecture firm on the seventh floor of the Wyman Building on 1st Avenue N. Now she's in a ground-floor location overlooking Northrup's sprawling parking lot and nearby railroad tracks.

The industrial setting fits her high-class bohemian aesthetic, which combines Asian antiques, contemporary handmade English furniture, twinkly chandeliers and contemporary Minnesota art, including pottery by Connee Mayeron and photos by JoAnn Verburg. The new venue "feels way more fun and way more me," said its effervescent owner.

Tenants applaud change

Longtime tenant Steve Swanson of Danish Teak Classics has watched Northrup evolve from "an abandoned building occupied by a few Quasimodo characters" into a bustling studio building. He imports midcentury-modern furniture from Denmark, has it restored by an on-site staff of three and sells it nationally via the Internet and locally at his Northrup showroom. What makes the building special, Swanson said, is the on-site mix of talent, from weavers and metalworkers to typesetters and graphic designers.

"There's a whole lot more that could be done to create more buzz and interest here, but this does work for me and it's affordable," Swanson said.

Veteran photographer Howard Christopherson trimmed hours at his Icebox Gallery when the economy soured, but welcomes the influx of new faces. "To me the gallery business has always been dicey, but you're always looking for the sun to come out," he said.

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431