Space: the final frontier

The unused buildings in Reno are ripe for takeover by local artists

The warehouses on Dickerson Road have become a hub for artists.

The warehouses on Dickerson Road have become a hub for artists.

Photo By allison Young

Roughly two years ago, on Dec. 30, 2010, with the advent of a new year, the RN&R published one of our occasional theme issues, wherein every article connects somehow to some central concept. In the past, these themes had been recognizable objects, things with which most of our readers were probably already familiar to one degree or another, like bicycles and marijuana.

But for that New Year’s issue, to ring in 2011, the theme was something a little more radical, a concept that we spent a big chunk of the paper explaining: the renaissance generation. In her cover story about the subject, author Patricia Martin described a type of cultural renaissance, where artists of different stripes collaborate with each other and with forward-thinking entrepreneurs on large-scale projects. She described the conditions necessary for such a renaissance: An economic depression or other crisis that creates a vacuum to be filled; a few creative visionaries to act as catalysts; easy access to information; a dense but accessible, affordable and environmental urban core; and a friendly, cooperative spirit among the locals.

“Sound familiar?” wrote Martin. “Reno is filled with the artists and thinkers, movers and collaborators who exemplify the trend. Maybe you know someone who goes all out for Burning Man every year. Maybe you know a business owner who gives back to the community in unique, charitable ways. From the university to the Nevada Museum of Art, from the 15-minute commutes to the bike paths that bisect the city’s core, from the geothermal and biofuel-powered casinos to the wind turbines on City Hall, even in the midst of foreclosure and employment crises, there are many indications that Reno is in the early stages of a cultural renaissance.”

Now, as 2013 gets underway, it’s time to revisit this idea. Has Reno experienced this cultural rebirth? Or have at least a few more phoenix feathers emerged from the ashes?

Erik Burke is a Reno artist who often travels around the country and abroad working on large public artworks, like murals. He says he’s seen this kind of cultural rebirth and renaissance first-hand in places like New Orleans, Detroit and Brooklyn.

“I’ve been noticing it slightly in Reno, but not to the degree of other places I’ve lived,” he says. “But there are those opportunities that are coming to fruition. There are changes and people taking advantage of how cheap it is to live here, but at the same time, we have a Virginia Street with so many motels that are vacant. If that hypothesis were true, I would think that those would be art studios or galleries. But we have so much post-gambling real estate that is not being utilized.”

Still, there are seemingly innumerable new arts venues and studios that have sprung up in the last year or two, many of which are in old warehouse spaces. They are becoming hubs for cultural elbow-rubbing. Burke is involved with West Dick, an old warehouse on Dickerson Road with musician practice spaces, a metal shop and a woodshop. It’s also been an occasional venue for art exhibitions and music performances, and it’s part of a loose cluster of such places along Dickerson Road, including Reno Art Works, a gallery and artists’ workspace, Wedge Ceramics Studio, and Infinity Forge, a blacksmithing shop. There are dozens of different variation of creative collaborative working places around town—Bridgewire Makerspace, Reno Collective, 420 Valley, Holland Project, Wildflower Village, Artists’ Co-op Gallery … the list goes on. So, while the empty real estate might still overshadow these places, creative, collaborative spaces seem to be multiplying.

Local artists of various mediums, and a canine friend, found a creative community in West Dick.

Photo By allison Young

“The impulse for collaboration I think is incredibly simple,” Matt Schultz says. He’s a lead artist with The Pier Group, a group of artists best known for their Burning Man installations. “I think everyone who is creative or anyone who has ever had an idea, I think they struggle with trying to find someone to start it with them. It’s always easier to do something in a group, whether it’s a basic idea or something much more complex.”

For last year’s Burning Man festival, The Pier Group constructed “Pier 2” a life-sized wooden replica of Spanish Galleon smashed into a pier. The sculpture topped many attendees’ highlights lists. The Pier Group hopes to one day install the ship on the island in Virginia Lake. Schultz is also the director of The Roots of Happiness, an award-winning documentary film that takes a critical look at the role of charity in the lives of African orphans. And the artist group is currently working on a large-scale installation for Burning Man in 2014.

“With the ‘Pier’ project, we really fought the entire time to try to bring together both skilled and unskilled people,” Schultz says. “At the beginning of the process … we had 54 people—maybe six were professional woodworkers. The large majority of us had never done anything like this. We only had one person who had ever worked on a tall ship before, and she had done the rigging. So we didn’t understand how to put a ship together. Through time, using all the small skills that people brought to the table, we were able to make ourselves much stronger than the sum of our parts. We were able to come together and build something that a lot of people found really spectacular.”

Another example of a recent artistic collaboration that has brought together a seemingly disparate group of creative individuals is the upcoming revival of 6:01 AM: A Working Class Opera, a play co-written by three locals: rapper Richie “Apprentice” Panelli, spoken word poet, rapper and artist Pan Pantoja, and comedian Sam O’Brien. The musical debuted in 2009 at the Pioneer Center for the Performing Arts. The new production is being presented in a newly built theater, Allie’s Alley, in rear of the Circle of Life Hospice Foundation thrift store in the old Video Maniacs video store on Fifth Street.

“I think that fits right into the Ren Gen thing,” says Aric Shapiro, the play’s stage manager. “It’s ridiculous. Why would you put a theater in the back of a thrift store? But I tell you what, you try it out, it’s awesome. All of the props we need are right there!”

This production also unites stage performers from different artistic disciplines. Some of the cast are spoken word performers associated with the local group Spoken Views. Others are improv comedians associated with the local troupe Empire Improv. The production begins its five-week run on Jan. 17.

“You do this stuff long enough, and people come out of the woodwork that have different things to offer,” says Shapiro, who’s also an artist and a co-founder of Reno Art Works. “There are people that can put money into the pot. There are people that have artistic vision. There are builders. There are people who can design websites. The more you do it, the more you reach out into the community and build these cooperative, win-win networks.”

“There’s no one that, as an individual in this community, is going to stand alone making art,” Schultz says. “My success has been in the people who have helped—the people in the Pier Group. None of these projects would have been done if I stood by myself, yelled at the top of my lungs, and tried to move wood with my mind.”

Erik Burke, Local artist

Photo By allison Young

Open up and say awe

Nevadans love open spaces. This is not a state for agoraphobics. Nevadans love the open desert, long stretches of fresh snow, and the possibilities inherent in an empty room.

“Nevadans, all of us who really enjoy it here and choose to live here, we love the open skies,” Schultz says. “We love open spaces. We love big vistas, long sunrises and sunsets. We like big mountains and long white paths of snow. And I think that continues into the kind of art we create.”

“I think everyone needs some sort of space to feel free, to go to a place and cut out the monotony of day-to-day activities and get down to whatever your craft is, your art is, your vision,” Burke says. “For every artist, they need a space. I think for a lot of artists from Nevada, your idea of space is skewed compared to someone who grew up in Brooklyn, where you’re used to having a tiny little spot. We expect a lot more out here. We grew up with endless horizons. It’s beautiful here. We’re used to all this open space. No boundaries! No limits! Push it!”

This love of openness is hopefully a good thing in many ways—an open space leads to an open mind, perhaps. And that open-mindedness leads to an inclusive attitude among local artists, which might be great for community-building, but negatively affects the local art market.

“At Reno Art Works, a big part of our philosophy and mission is, ‘Hey, professional artists are welcome, beginner artists are welcome, and unrealized artists are welcome,’” Shapiro says. “We want to sell some art, but we also want to encourage people who have never picked up a paintbrush to make something happen. And that’s what a space does. If you’ve got a space to do it, then you’ve got a reason to do it. Just like going to your office. You go to your office to get some work done. You go to your studio to work on art and to share ideas.”

“The biggest key factor about Reno that’s giving it this opportunity for this growth and the chance to make some very unique art is that it’s accessible,” Schultz says. “We’re not a very cliquey city. You can talk to anyone in this city. You can see the mayor on the street and have an open conversation with him. There’s very little pretense. … That openness allows us the feel a freedom to experiment and play around with ideas and do things that are outside the norm. … And right now, at this moment, Reno art is still growing. Our great artists aren’t shining to the point that they’re outshining everyone else who wants to produce art. You can still go to virtually any coffee shop in town, any pizza place in town and say, ‘Hey, I have 12 watercolors, can I do a show here?’ And whatever the quality level, you can get your work shown. That’s hard to achieve in L.A.”

There’s democratic appeal to that degree of accessibility, but some exclusiveness in curatorial decision-making and critical responsibility is also something to aspire toward, especially in terms of developing a local art market where people actually want to buy artwork.

“There’s no one that, as an individual in this community, is going to stand alone making art,” says Matt Schultz, lead artist of The Pier Group.

Photo By allison Young

“I’d love to see the quality go up,” Schultz says. “Ultimately, the success of any Reno artist is going to hinge on the ability to create a market that deserves the prices it’s asking. Right now there are so few Reno artists who are actually making a living. There has been kind of a race to the bottom with the art scene when it comes to selling work here. All of us have some lessons to learn about trying to produce art that represents the time and value of the art, so that when a piece does sell, we get the money we need to survive while at the same time trying to find ways to make pieces that are efficient enough to sell at a low level that can cater to the lower income of the community. So it’s a really tough balance.”

However, many of the upper tiers of local artists are able to sell their work nationally and internationally, through gallery representation or even just via the magic of the internet. In fact, some local artists have an easier time selling work to other markets.

“Here, I wouldn’t be able to price my work at what I should be able to price my work at, or what my going rate is in other cities, because it just won’t sell,” Burke says. “But it all balances out. It’s so much cheaper to have studio space and time and resources here, as opposed to another city where you’re hustling so much to just have a couple hours a week to work on your stuff. Here you might not make more money, but have more time and space.”

Burke has started an artists’ residency program called The Big Little, which brings artists from outside of the community for month-long residences in Reno to work on artwork, including completing public art projects, often in collaboration with Burke. Examples of completed art pieces include a mural on Pine Food & Spirits that Burke completed with New York artist N’DA, and the mural on the Holland Project that Burke made with Montreal artist Labrona.

“I get to bring my favorite artists here and work with them,” Burke says. “I love that collaboration process.”

Through these collaborations with outside artists, Burke is able to import new techniques and artistic perspectives into the community. The flipside of this sort of cultural renaissance, in which outside artists collaborate with locals for the beautification of dilapidated areas of the community is gentrification, the process of renewal that brings an influx of middle-class and affluent people into a deteriorating area but at the expense of displacing the poorer residents who were already there.

“You see the effect of creating big artwork in a neighborhood, and this cultural, vibrant act,” Burke says. “And it’s bringing interest back to the community, but it’s also bringing almost too much interest where it becomes hip and cool, and people move to that neighborhood, and then the coffee shops pop up, and then people can’t afford to live there. But at the same time, you’re making the people who actually live in that neighborhood happy, and like they are important and people actually care about them. And before that, they’ve just been marginalized and forgotten. It’s a weird, strange balance, and though you feel like you’re doing something good, the repercussions are not always positive. … It’s such a weird feeling. It’s like giving someone the best birthday present that you know is ultimately going to destroy them—or might have the possibility to destroy them.”

There’s a fine line between cultural renaissance and gentrification. And gentrification has the potential of erasing whatever unique character attracts artists in the first place. Regardless, Burke says Reno is still at the beginning of this cycle.

Artists Aric Shapiro and Pan Pantoja hang out inside Reno Art Works (RAW).

Photo By allison Young

“It’s at the very beginning of the curve still,” he says. “The price of real estate is low, but not that low, and there’s not enough people here yet.”

“I think Reno’s in a position that a lot of underdog cities have been in over the years, where there’s a whole a bunch of really interesting people who find something compelling about our downtrodden, slightly messy casino city,” Schultz says. “And we do have this issue where, if we build an art community, and we build up a market, it’s naturally going to bring more money in, and more prestigious artists into town, and it’s naturally going to end some of the quality that brought some of the strange weirdo artists into town.”

Schultz and The Pier Group have the startup funds to launch a larger community art makerspace in Reno, one with large scale industrial tools, like woodcutters, metal cutters and 3-D printers.

“We’ve been working on trying to open an art makerspace in town for the past four or five months, and the big challenge we’ve had is trying to find a place that’s central enough where the landlords don’t want to ask for an obscene amount of money,” Schultz says. “The landlords on Fourth Street are very much compelled to think their properties are worth an extremely large sum of money and as we continue to talk to them they continue to throw out numbers that are higher than the Bay Area. … What’s happening on Dickerson is absolutely glorious, but every single one of those groups has basically maximized their space.”

“Dickerson Road is just a great little island between the train tracks and the Truckee River,” Burke says. “It’s a dead end street, and for that reason, it is its own space.”

But Dickerson Road is primarily a place for art makers. Increasingly, art consumers are more likely to be drawn toward Midtown.

“It went from being a dilapidated, underappreciated region to this whole new gentrified, appreciated area,” Shapiro says. “People want to live here. People want to be here. These businesses are more successful because they’re beautiful.”

Many of the buildings in Midtown have been decorated by local artists, like muralists Joe C. Rock. Nonetheless, Burke says Midtown is still not the epitome of cultural redevelopment it’s sometimes being branded as.

“Right now it’s just more businesses popping up,” Burke says. “It’s successful, and it’s smart, and it’s kind of this coming back to the center, which happens in every city. People go to the center, then they move away, and there’s sprawl, and then they come back to the center when it becomes cool and cheaper. Cities kind of ebb and flow back and forth from the central hub. I definitely like what’s happening at Midtown. I especially like because it is near where I live … but there’s better things than hanging out at bars and restaurants—though they’re really important for creating that dialogue and collaboration.”

And even in Midtown, there are still plenty of empty buildings, unused spaces awaiting a creative exploration.

“We really want to get into all these spaces, cover them with paint, make them look awesome, show people what they could be and then hey, find somebody else who wants to rent it out who wants to put in a business that will generate more capital for you,” Shapiro says. “But in the meantime, you’ve got an empty warehouse, an empty space collecting dust? Bring some artists in there.”