Feb 082010
Authors: Lincoln Greenhaw

The slumping economy has been hard on small businesses in Old Town like the Repeat Boutique, which formerly occupied 239 Linden St.

After the old clothing store left the building last year, the storefront was an empty one, that is, until Nov. 15, when a coalition of bohemian artists set up shop in the building through a relationship with another group of seemingly unlikely allies –– realty companies.

Dawn Putney and her husband Tom Campbell founded the venue, which they are calling the “Art Lab.” They got the idea for it from seeing paintings hung up in empty buildings on a recent trip to New York City.

Working from that idea, the couple fostered relationships with local realtors to fill properties that were lying stagnant as a result of the economic downturn. Their idea was to use the properties as backdrops for the artists to pursue their creativity.

The building owners benefit as the art drives foot traffic to their shops for art events. Also, the shops are taken care of for free –– all the artists in the co-op have to do is either pitch in for the utility bills or help clean up the space.

“Our goal is that everyone who uses the space leaves it in better shape than they found it,” Putney said.

A variety of tastes

At the beginning of Tomas Herrera’s acting workshop at Art Lab, each actor collapses onto the floor in a relaxed heap. It’s an exercise to promote body awareness, which will become controlled movement.

To the little girls who skip by outside and stop in front of the window, it just looks strange, but they quickly resume skittering down the sidewalk.

Herrera, who teaches with OpenStage Theater Company, a Fort Collins theater enterprise dedicated to local productions, is one of many artists who occupy the Art Lab, which moves from place to place in the city.

The democratically controlled venture is comprised of painters, musicians, dancers and other artists, and works throughout downtown in empty stores, staging concerts and workshops.

But the lab likely wouldn’t exist without the vacant space.

Herrera said the realty companies negotiate empty space with property owners, and the Art Lab moves around accordingly.
When Putney and Campbell started the project in August, the venue was in a building on Mountain Avenue.

“… it’s a traveling space,” Herrera said.

Though the lab is a moving target for audiences, it’s been successful as a small, multi-purpose venue.

The once-empty windows at the co-op now display a parade of attractions: a harpist, a group of intense Brazilian drummers or a ballerina in mid-pirouette.

The atmosphere was especially bright and crowded last Friday, when the lab hosted an exhibition of paintings by Barbara Leyendecker for the monthly “Gallery Walk” in Old Town. Leyendecker, a veteran Fort Collins artist, said the Art Lab was a long time coming.

“They did a couple of things over on Mountain Avenue, and it was absolutely fascinating to see them bring people in off the street,” she said. “One guy who was higher than a kite was playing gorgeous piano. It just gave these kids and people, well, a home to go to.”

The exhibition was accompanied by a concert that was typical of the co-op’s mission to catch art that would normally fall through the cracks.

The Kinard Middle School House Band is made up of kids who don’t fit into normal band or orchestra. They’re part of a larger effort to expand a rock music curriculum across the Poudre School district. Because they’re of middle-school age, and can’t play in bars, they tend to take gigs where they can find them.

“They performed as the first intermission act at the Colorado Eagles Game,” said Suma Thomas, one of their organizers. “We rented a flatbed truck … and we pulled them out onto the ice, and they performed their Lynyrd Skynyrd medley.”

The show on Friday was their first gig in Old Town. They played two 45-minute sets, ripping through the closing medley from the Beatles’ “Abbey Road.”
Strengthening art and business ties*

At first, bohemian artists, real estate companies and downtown businesses might seem like strange partners. But the artistic happenings draw people downtown to shop or to look at properties who wouldn’t otherwise, so everyone benefits.

“You can see all the pizza boxes out there,” Campbell said. “Talk to Cozzola’s about the intersection between art and commerce.”

Putney said that when artists find out that the space is donated and that “nobody’s trying to get rich” off the space, they are enthusiastic about the situation, but there have been misunderstandings with artists in the past.

“We own a marketing firm, and we meet so many creatives who are in that conflict,” she said. “They don’t want to sell out to the man, but they really need to make a living. We keep hearing the starving artist mentality. … There’s no reason that creatives can’t make a living doing what they’re doing.”

Expanding initiatives

The co-op isn’t only about performance space. Putney and Campbell have in mind a kind of survival boot camp for Colorado artists.

“This is phase one of Art Lab,” Putney said. “We’re really hoping to start doing some training and some classes to help artists run their businesses as businesses.”

In view of this goal, Art Lab is hoping to hold workshops in marketing, Web site design and business for all kinds of creative pursuits.

Herrera, the acting teacher with OpenStage Theater, said Fort Collins isn’t an ideal environment for artists, but the Art Lab offers a mechanism to improve it.

“I grew up here. I always knew I wanted to be in the performing arts. Everyone leaves … because you can’t really have a career here.

“My secret hope is that artists could start to make careers here. … People go to work, watch TV and consume information that is all produced on this global scale, rather than seeing creative stuff that’s going on in their own communities and letting that inform them about the world they’re living in.”

Art Lab also teaches craft, with classes in everything from comedy and painting to modern dance. Many of the instructors would have a hard time teaching without the co-op.

“My thing is that I don’t turn any child away,” said Heather Zoccali, the founder of Motif Movement Dance Center. “What would I do without the Art Lab?” she asked. “I still wouldn’t turn a kid away, but I’d probably be working for free.”

Staff writer Lincoln Greenhaw can be reached at news@collegian.com.

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