Open Source Art Space #1: Brainstorm

Posted on Posted in Ideas, Thoughts

For a very long time (at least since 2008 I believe) I’ve thought it would be really great to run a performance venue. Anyone who’s been around me at all since then has probably heard me talk about it at least once a year. Well, it’s that time again!

The Short Story

Basically I am interested in opening a space geared towards promoting various kinds of original art and performance. The space itself would be a cafe, bar, or something along those lines, and would double as a gallery for (mostly local but not limited to that) artists (paintings, sculptures, jewelry, etc.). Performance would include (pretty much any genre with a slant towards more experimental things of course) music, poetry, possibly dance and theater if space allows. The primary criteria for booking would be that the work MUST be original (no covers, no replicas, etc.). A special effort would be make to make sure the space will allow under 21 patrons as well. Also, the process of setting this up, how it’s run, basically everything that is not “sensitive” information would be open source and freely available to help others who might be attempting a similar venture (hence this post).

The Long Story

I recently performed at an awesome space in Guangzhou, China called Loft345 which is owned and operated by a fellow American. The space had an awesome vibe (open atmosphere, couches and such for lounging, pool table and other general bar things) and of course a stage and pretty good sound system. The guests were very chill. The overall feel was just really nice.

The first night I got there, a local DJ was playing a live drum and bass set and the next night I performed some noise, drones, and algorave sets with Glitch Lich. Some of the same people came both nights and everyone really enjoyed both. I was starting to think that Guangzhou must be a happenin’ place for people into experimentalism. Well according to Loft345’s owner: it isn’t. There was a scene around five or so years ago but this it basically disappeared. In fact, Loft345 is the only space he knew of in the area that was anything like it. And what’s more, he owns a similar venue out in Rock Island, IL called Rozz Tox, a location not particularly known for experimental art either. Now, not everything they book is experimental, but the fact that both of these places exist and have audiences who are supportive of it all, even in locations that don’t already have an existing scene, was quite inspiring.

Talking with the owner, I got a sense of what to expect if I were to attempt to open such a venue myself. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been thinking about this for quite a long time already and this experience has renewed my drive to actually make it happen. I also mentioned the idea of open sourcing the process of opening and running the place, to which Loft345’s owner replied “I wish someone had done that before I opened this place!”

Now for some of the main ideas.

Location

Originally I thought that to have a place like this, you had to be in an area that already had similar venues (Oakland, San Francisco, New York, etc.) but as I saw with Loft345 and Rozz Tox that’s not actually the case. This is actually good news because, although places like the bay area have an existing audience, a well known fact is that it’s difficult to get people out to your shows there because they are all at other shows. It’s also quite expensive of course. The flip side is that I obviously want a place where there is actually potential for patrons and performers. This lead me to thinking about places that have a vibrant artistic community but currently lack this specific kind of outlet for less mainstream things.

So, my current first choice is in or near Boulder, CO.

Having lived there for three years while completing my doctorate, I have a pretty good feel for the area. There is a great deal of creativity and a very supportive community centered around (but not limited to of course) the University of Colorado. In fact, many of the things I would love to present at this space happen at CU already.

“So why would we need somewhere else?” you may be asking. Well, although CU itself is a great outlet, there are currently no other options in the area. As I said, I lived there for three years and was always looking for small places not affiliated with the university to perform at and there was nothing. Denver in theory has one or two venues that book “weird” things but a) I was never able to get booked there and b) Denver is too far from Boulder to just go without really wanting to see a specific group. I also know from many conversations with my fellow experimentally minded musician friends that I was not the only one wishing there was such a place in the area.

My second choice is around Monterey Bay, CA. This is for a lot of the same reasons as Boulder (the bay area is too far to go on a whim, there is a university, etc.). The main difference is that I personally do not know that area as well and don’t have the same connections as I do in Boulder.

I’m open to further suggestions and contacts of course!

The Space Itself

One of the most attractive aspects of all the venues like this that I’ve seen over the years is that the owners typically live on site. The Totally Intense Fractal Mindgaze Hut in Oakland for example is a warehouse with the main floor being a performance space and the “attic” being living quarters. At Loft345 the owner lived across the hall from the bar and owned a few additional units used for housing artists in residence. I’ve always though that was a really cool idea (yes it would probably get old quickly, but still). This isn’t an absolute requirement BUT it would also help cut down on my costs since I would not need to have a separate apartment as well.

This has led me to be mostly looking for “mixed use” spaces like warehouses, farms, etc. The more modular, the better. Really as long as can support utilities it would be great. The main area should be large enough for a modest crowd (100ish people?) and of course have enough space for various size performance situations (from solo computer up to 15 piece chamber ensemble or so). It would be great to have local painters, sculptors, and the like exhibit their works too (for sale of course). The general feel would be casual with a slight leaning towards strange/grunge/post-industrial or something like that.

I’m torn between trying to pick something in a convenient location and having enough space to make everything work. Working with the Boulder idea, something around Pearl or the Hill are great for foot traffic but a) have insane rent and b) would likely have issues with loud music. Something out in Gunbarrel or a similarly sparse area would have lower rent and fewer noise issues but would be more difficult to get to (and certainly have fewer random passers-by drop in). Very much looking for input on this front!

Performances

As this is primarily a performance space, the goal would be to have live acts every night we are open (Tuesday through Sunday?). This could range from solos, small groups/bands, larger groups/bands, acoustic, electric, whatever. As stated earlier the most important thing is that the work be original (cover bands have plenty of places to play already). The next part of the selection criteria be that whatever it is, it is well rehearsed/presented. Want to do improv? Great, make sure you do it well though! What is “well” you ask? That’s up to me since it is my space after all (although I’m pretty accepting).

I am not trying to book only one style or genre either. Yes, I have a bias towards noise, experimental, drone, and -insert random classifier here-, but I will happily book singer/songwriters, jazz, EDM producers, you name it, as long as it is original. The goal is however to create an outlet for artists who have few other local options. Basically if you could easily get booked elsewhere, you will still be in the line, just further back than those who couldn’t.

This is not limited to music either. Dance, poetry, theater, any kind of performance is possible as long as it can work in the space while still allowing patrons to do their thing.

I also very much want the space to be all ages and generally family friendly. If there is a performance that is not, that would be heavily advertised in advance.

Revenue

This is all well and good, but how will it be paid for? Good question! Honestly this is the part that still needs the most work but here are my current thoughts:

Like any place like this, the main money maker is drinks. I don’t know all the details but I believe a place can have a beer and wine license and still allow people under 21 (as long as they card and don’t serve alcohol to minors of course). So probably no hard liquor. Many breweries in CO work that way and have Izze Soda (a Boulder company) and other such drinks available as well.

Limited food would probably be available as well, though this will NOT be a restaurant. Once again, I am not totally clear on the legal requirements but I believe you must have some form of food available if you are serving drinks. I would however love to do what Wild Woods Brewery and some others do and have a food truck nearby. I also would allow any/all outside food, much like Gravity Brewery.

One more key goal of this endeavor is that I want to guarantee that performers always get paid (although I can never guarantee how much). Acts would get a percentage of bar sales for sure. If they would like to have a door charge, 100% of that goes to them (they of course need to think about how that would affect their turn out). If they want to have a tip jar, that also goes straight to them.

This will need to be worked out more but that’s the current state. My main goal is to be able to keep the place open and not need a second job.

Licenses and Legal Things

Currently I’m very unclear on exactly everything that would need to happen legally for this. I know I would at least need a beer and wine license, probably a food license, and would need to make this a company. I’m not sure if an LLC is best or if this sort of thing would qualify for a non-profit if it were run correctly.

Other Ideas

These are all things that would be awesome but are not critically important to the over all concept. Being a home brewer, I would love to be able to brew and sell small batches of beer on site (draft only). I do not know if this is covered under the beer and wine license I would need or if it would require an additional license.

In the same vein, if this ends up with on a farm it would be great to grow hops since I would at least use them and there is a perpetually impending hop shortage. It was suggested that in that case it may also be a nice idea to have a community garden at the space. This would help the community building side of things but I don’t know the legality of it at all.

It would be great to partner with as many local entities as possible to really make this a part of the greater community. A big part of why I want to do this is to give back and support the next generation of people who may wind up doing the same thing eventually.

That’s it for now. Any/all feedback would be greatly appreciated!

5 thoughts on “Open Source Art Space #1: Brainstorm

  1. Wow, Cole. You’re talking quite a challenge. The Rock N Soul, which was at Arapahoe and 50 something street went under a year or more ago. I understand their rent was high and there was no break to be gotten from landlord Teboe.

    Rather than starting from scratch in terms of finding the space and the proper mix of food/alcohol/beverage sales, could you approach an existing restaurant or brewery or venue with a plan to bring live performance to their space?

    Could you talk to people who already offer their homes for house concerts and see if you can get a regular performance thing going at their home(s)?

    There’s now a big variety of restaurant/micro-breweries all over the front range. I don’t know the full count of how many in Boulder, but if you were to investigate each microbrewery, you might find one with a space that lends itself to live music/performance. And then you pitch the owner/manager your idea.

    The possible benefits of connecting up with an existing brewery or restaurant is much lower start-up costs for you. No need to sign a lease or redesign an interior or create an industrial kitchen. Maybe you would help a brewery build a stage in the corner or along one side of their space for the performers.

    Years ago, in NYC, there was a busy, bustling restaurant not far from the theater district with a basement. I don’t know how it came about but that basement became a theater space with live performances almost every night of the week. The restaurant was the West Bank Cafe and they called the theater space the “Downstairs Theater Bar.”

    Restaurant patrons upstairs would become audience members downstairs just by walking down a flight of stairs. There were tent cards on the tables and handout/schedules by the front door promoting the performance of that week or that moment.

    The comedian Lewis Black was one of the principals of that theater space, as performer, producer, writer, director and MC.

    I used to go to the Midnight Free Show – a variety show with regulars and guest artists. Upcoming performances were promoted and sampled by the audience at that weekly Saturday variety show.

    You can always start from scratch (start your own space that you build up from an existing building, start your own bar, menu and dance floor, pool table, whatever it may be. . .

    However, if you start from scratch, I strongly suggest surrounding yourself with a team of people who have the expertise that you do not.

    Beware of the self-delusion or magical thinking where you say, hey, it will all work out.

    Yes, it could all work out.
    And another possibility is that you could lose every dime you put into this enterprise.

    Be sure to bring into this endeavor the people who have already successfully run bars, restaurants
    and other businesses.

    You are inexperienced in this project. So your creative team must be very experienced in what they do.

    All that said, I think it’s really cool that you want to do this.
    Yes, the world can use more venues that support local artists and creative people.

    Best wishes,
    – Ira

  2. Cole, I can think of another model that may not be what you ultimately want, but could be a way to begin. There is currently a series of monthly performances called, Bouldering Poets, produced by several local poet/spoken word artists/ musicians.

    They are not committed to one performance space. They produce and promote performances at Shine, Johnny’s Cigar Bar, 303 Vodka and maybe some other venues as well. They maintain and build an email list and stick to a particular format of three featured performers doing 20 minutes or so each followed by an open mic (and maybe a musical act, I’m not sure.)

    I’m not suggesting changing your whole concept. I’m just presenting the possibility that maybe your venue is flexible, changeable and sometimes virtual.

    Maybe what you build is an audience that’s into the diverse performers you choose to present and the shows you choose to produce.
    Maybe what you’re building is a brand, “Unique performances presented by Cole Ingraham.”

    The venue or the building or the food and drink available might become secondary to the fact of creating a series of performances that audiences come to understand will strive to be unique, creative, original and available nowhere else.

    Perhaps that’s the “Cole Ingraham brand.”

    Your bring an audience and an amazing show to an existing bar or restaurant and that bar or restaurant might want to pay you as a valuable consultant/producer who brings them new business, customers and potentially press coverage that brings them even more business and enhances their reputation as being the place to be.

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment Ira: all very good points. in 2012/13 I was actually booking music for Gravity Brewing in Louisville on the side which launched their current music goings on. Plus having run the 2013 International SuperCollider Symposium I’m used to dealing with the local businesses in this regard.

      The difference between then and now is at that time I had an assistantship from CU and an apartment. One of the key points about this idea is (from the end of the revenue point) “My main goal is to be able to keep the place open and not need a second job.” Simply running a series is of course less risky and far easier/cheaper to get but would end up being basically for free (there’s no way I could live off that and (or) make sure the artists get paid).

      The other thing is making sure audiences for these performances were not at odds with the usual patrons of a place. The last thing I would want is to have some place let me use their space and have a performance I book drive out their usual customers. This was a struggle when I was doing these things before. The benefit of it being a venue dedicated to this sort of thing is that people would know exactly what they are getting themselves into when they show up. That and if a show happens to hurt business, it’s on me and not someone else who was taking a gamble on my behalf.

      That being said, if there were some way for a modular version of this to happen that could resemble a livable job for me I would be totally open to it.

      At the moment this is a very all-in idea because a) why not, b) it’s now or never for something like this and c) I’m feeling rather “go big or go home” lately. Still, if the odds be not ever in my favor I wouldn’t do it. I feel that a calculated risk doing something awesome while my situation is still flexible enough to deal with it no matter how it goes beats potentially ending up doing something else that I’d rather not and thinking that maybe I should have seriously considered something like this. I can still be swayed either way though of course =).

  3. Hi Cole,

    Lots to consider here! I think you’ve gathered the right category of questions to ask, but I encourage you to dig down DEEP in terms of finding the answers. For instance, I think you’re correct that the venue needs to have both the right kind of space *and* the right location for your target market, and you’re correct in your observations about the Boulder options (Pearl/Hill vs. Gunbarrel). Thing is, that leads me to believe that Boulder may *not* be the right place for this venture. Don’t let your familiarity with the community bias your assessment: Boulder already has sooooo much going on, with LOTS of places for people to gather, drink beer, and watch Live performance. True, not performance of *this kind*, but that’s parsing a pretty fine line. I’ve heard time and again that if you want to open *any* kind of venue in Boulder you’d better have deep pockets to sustain your operation for at least the first year. Ouch!

    Instead, I would look for places that are more up-and-coming in terms the art scene generally. Maybe some emerging neighborhood in Denver (though I don’t really know Denver very well), or some other place entirely. I wonder about Pittsburgh, for instance, which has affordable rents, lots of funky spaces, and a vibrant arts scene (but nothing like what you’re suggesting). Are the common factors in between Loft345 and Roz Toxx that could help guide your choices?

    Anyway, my point is be sure to do very thorough homework on this. Ira raises a good point about assembling a team that has experience in the areas you lack — esp. in venue/bar management, which is sort of a science unto itself. Not trying to discourage — it sounds like a very cool idea! But you need to make sure you have a clear sense of who the market is for this and the best way to reach them. Entertainment venues of all kinds are tricky because they are “dark” for much of the time and have high fixed costs (i.e., if you’re open on Thursday night and have a light crowd you still have to pay your rent, utilities, staff, etc.). So having a really sound business model is critical. Perhaps you could think about some kind of space that has multiple uses in order to open up additional income streams?

    I’m thinking about this place in Pittsburgh that was called the Brew House: part artist colony, part gallery & performance space, part school. It ultimately failed, but not because it wasn’t a great idea; the business model was flawed, that’s all. If just a few factors had been shifted they might have been able to create something VERY cool.

    Maybe we can Skype sometime? I want to help you work through these questions!

    1. Thanks Jeff, many more great points!

      Since people keep mentioning having a solid team: I totally agree of course. Maybe the way I talked about it made it sound like I am planning to go solo with this but I’m very aware that many aspects of this are far beyond my expertise.

      I’m more than open to having the space double/triple/quadruple as other things by day. Part of the initial idea and what Loft345/Rozz Tox do is basically like an artist colony, and I did want to have this function as an (day time) art gallery as well. I don’t totally understand how those monetize themselves right now (more research needed). Pairing this with a school, recording studio, or whatever else would be great as long as it doesn’t spread things too thin. Dealing the the background details of a bar/venue (inventory, booking, paperwork, etc.) takes a good deal of time each day, as do the administrative aspects of running all the other potential parts of this. There would need to be a careful balance between staff to handle everything (all with rather specific skill sets) and not having that cost more than is being generated.

      I’m not 100% set on anywhere specific for this yet. I of course see ups and downs of Boulder as you pointed out. Pittsburgh may be a viable option. Detroit possibly too because of rent *BUT* I don’t know that the community would support something like this there (need more input). Also, by Boulder/Gunbarrel, I don’t mean specifically in the city; anywhere in the I-25 corridor, up closer to Fort Collins, something like that would be places I would consider. Denver itself is currently pretty low on my list if for no other reason than rent honestly isn’t that much lower than Boulder and they do have this kind of thing in some places.

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