By Leslie Albrecht
UPPER WEST SIDE — A lot of people wander into the little building on the median at Broadway and West 96th Street expecting to find a public bathroom — but they get a pint-sized art exhibit instead.
The city-owned structure was a restroom years ago — a sign marked Women still hangs above one door — but today it's an exhibit space for the West Side Arts Coalition.
The nonprofit was founded by a group of Upper West Side artists in the late 1970s who wanted to create a "non-exclusive" venue to show their work, said co-curator Anne Rudder.
Artists renovated the bathroom building and today the structure is known as the Broadway Mall Community Center. Some people mistake the Beaux-Arts style building for an entrance to the 96th Street subway station, which is right across the street.
Artists pay a yearly membership fee as low as $25 for full-time students, then a $60 fee when they exhibit their work. The group mounts rotating exhibits September through June.
For artists struggling to get their work seen, the venue is a low-cost, accessible alternative to Chelsea galleries, Rudder said.
But even longtime Upper West Siders are sometimes oblivious to the small-scale arts center perched in the middle of one of the neighborhood's busiest intersections, Rudder said.
"They say, 'I didn't know this was a gallery, and I've lived on the west side all my life,'" Rudder said.
On Wednesday evening as Rudder and two volunteers unfurled banners that said "Gallery Open," a man toting a briefcase stopped in his tracks as he made his way across bustling Broadway.
He paused briefly, but did not venture into the exhibit. Had he entered, he would have found a variety of paintings, prints and mixed media works in several styles, from abstract to Impressionist.
West Side Arts Coalition has about 150 members from all over the world and about eight core volunteers who hang the work, put out a newsletter, clean up after shows and manage membership.
Many of the founding artists have retired or passed away, and Rudder, 55, said she's hoping to get a new generation of artists involved in the group.
Exhibiting at the space, which is listed in Gallery and Studio magazine, is a way for young artists to build their resumes, Rudder said.
"I'd love to get young people involved so they can take it on and continue," Rudder said. "The older artists are retiring, we have to continue to have a place for artists to express themselves."
Gallery hours for West Side Arts Coalition are Saturday and Sunday, 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. and Wednesdays, 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. On Sunday, March 20, there will be an afternoon of music and poetry in conjunction with the show from 3 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.