July 12, 2017 News » Cover Story

Pikes Peak Library District a "white knight" to displaced DIY organizations 


click to enlarge Rear, from left: Bryan Ostrow, Nick Pryor, Naboth Gonzales. Front, from left: Josh Austin, Sean Ostrow, Quintin Gamer, Caleb Butcher, W. Cameron Barrett. - CASEY BRADLEY GENT
  • Casey Bradley Gent
  • Rear, from left: Bryan Ostrow, Nick Pryor, Naboth Gonzales. Front, from left: Josh Austin, Sean Ostrow, Quintin Gamer, Caleb Butcher, W. Cameron Barrett.

No one, not even the organizers of the early March town hall meeting, expected the massive turnout.

About 200 people of all ages, races, abilities, genders and social cliques crowded into the Tim Gill Center for Public Media. They filled chairs and alcoves and spilled into a hallway. They came in business suits and studded denim jackets to show support for the Flux Capacitor, our town's popular, former DIY performance venue that was shuttered last December in a central industrial park due to fire code violations.

The Flux was one of a few casualties, including Mountain Fold Books and Rooted Studio, in the local DIY community last year. They left a good portion of the Springs' underground arts scene feeling lost and scrambling for space.

The Flux team and volunteer organizer Kate Perdoni (a producer at Rocky Mountain PBS, a musician with Eros and the Eschaton, and Executive Director of the Pikes Peak Arts Council) had called on "community stakeholders, musicians, artists, organizers [and] cultural organizations" to attend in hopes that they might find a way to save the community that had grown around the Flux's all-ages, all-genres, all-encompassing approach to live music.

As unexpected as the sheer volume of the crowd was what came next: a rapid series of events that led to the Flux and multiple other local DIY organizations signing on for an unconventional new opportunity provided by Pikes Peak Library District.

In attendance that night, PPLD's Executive Director John Spears found himself inspired by the passionate people who gave testimony on the value of local DIY spaces.

"I was really excited," he says, noting the potential for "a perfect partnership."

That's because the library district has been sitting on an underutilized historic building with 11,988 square feet of space, and Colorado Springs hosts a ready-made DIY community, chomping at the bit to fill it.

"What we were hoping for came true," Perdoni says, "and what we wanted was to partner with an organization or an entity where they would help offer space and we could bring programming to it. ... We just needed one cultural white knight to step up, and that was PPLD."

click to enlarge Kate Perdoni - CASEY BRADLEY GENT
  • Casey Bradley Gent
  • Kate Perdoni

Knights of Columbus Hall sits directly behind PPLD's Penrose Library on Kiowa Street off of Cascade Avenue. Under library ownership since 1991, it serves as a repository for Special Collections materials and provides offices for PPLD's Adult Education staff. But that was never the original intent for the building.

PPLD Executive Assistant Sue Hammond says: "We knew that the Knights of Columbus built this building to be a public community center, and they did an awful lot of stuff here ... It was a community center for the entire city."

The Knights of Columbus, a Catholic-based (though not Catholic Church-affiliated) fraternal organization, commissioned the building's design from noted architect Thomas MacLaren. It was erected in 1928 with the intention of opening it up to the public, especially young people. The group hosted dances, basketball games, ceremonies and a plethora of other events before losing the building due to financial troubles in the '30s. Since then, Knights of Columbus Hall, now a registered historical building, has seen many changes and a few different occupants, but its purpose as a community center has been lost.

Now, PPLD hopes to reinvigorate it, reopen it to the public and reimagine its possibilities, a goal they'd had in mind since before the Flux town hall, though the specifics had yet to take shape.

"I think that the plans that we had were very traditional," Spears says, noting it was "definitely going to be community space for library programming, but I think we're taking it in a very different direction in terms of it not just being programming for the community, but we really want it to be programming by the community."

The Flux Capacitor team will be primary partners in this endeavor. Already the Flux, along with other DIY organizations (more later on each) like Peach Press, Non Book Club Book Club, Bread! COS and Cloud Factory (disclosure: the Indy's Nat Stein is a co-founder of Cloud Factory) have hosted, or plan to host, experimental events in the space, though there are currently a few restrictions in place.

For one, capacity. Rated as "B occupancy" for business purposes by the Colorado Springs Fire Department, the massive building can only legally hold 49 people at a time in its main event space. As PPLD has begun a building assessment through the state historical fund in order to create a solid plan for what it might look like, it has continued discussions with CSFD about the occupancy rating. Hammond says it's anticipated that capacity for the main area will be "greatly increased." Though exact numbers are — pardon the phrase — in flux.

Among some of the renovations already known to be necessary: a new fire sprinkler system, work on the HVAC system, and bathroom plumbing repairs. It will be a hefty project, not including the aesthetic renovations to take place once the organizers know what they want the space to look like.

PPLD has budgeted $865,000 in total to renovate the building. In addition, Meow Wolf — a well-funded Santa Fe-based artist collective that's earned widespread acclaim for a very successful interactive installation — gifted a small grant (an as-yet-undisclosed amount) to the Flux Capacitor, that the Flux team says it will likely use for a new sound system.

Another challenge to those working to host events: The library still uses KCH for business, so certain areas are off-limits until they're able to re-house those resources. And that's a bit of an organizing hassle, as the only public access point lies through the back door and up an elevator.

While it's too much to expect instantaneous changes, a great deal of progress has already been made in a short time. Each of the above organizations has presented their plans, hopes and dreams to the PPLD board, which offered a cautiously optimistic reception. The board's concerns seem to stem from the desire to preserve the historic nature of the building, as well as the hope that it will maintain its integrity as an all-ages venue.

Discussions between the board and participating organizations have gone over everything from alcohol consumption on the premises (currently not allowed, but potentially open to future compromise) to the use of candles. But each organization has found a way to meet its needs and respect PPLD's guidelines all the same. DIY venues almost never receive revenue from alcohol sales — the Flux upheld a BYOB policy — and organizations like Bread! COS and the Non Book Club Book Club seem more than happy to nix the wine and beer in order to utilize a large, reliable meeting space.

Even before specifics of the project were released to the public, members of the arts community showed interest and support. Andy Vick of the Cultural Office of the Pikes Peak Region has toured the space, and Susan Edmondson of the Downtown Partnership is "in love with the idea," according to Spears, though neither organization, two of the city's biggest players in the local arts scene, has provided material support.

As a point of contrast, analogous organizations in Denver have taken more proactive steps to retain DIY spaces displaced during the crackdown that followed the fatal Ghost Ship fire in Oakland last December. Officials shut down Rhinoceropolis and Glob, legendary bastions of creativity on Brighton Boulevard, a formerly industrial strip central to the gentrified neighborhood now branded as "RiNo." City and arts/business district leaders held meetings with local artists to discuss ways to keep DIY alive, but in a safe, sanctioned way. Denver Arts and Venues, a taxpayer-funded agency, pledged $20,000 to support DIY venues. Meow Wolf, who also contributed $34,000 to the effort, will disburse the grant.

Colorado Springs isn't as far along in the cycle of development as its hipper neighbor to the north. But there's motion in that direction, as seen in the latest figures from Americans for the Arts, a national organization that studies the regional arts economy every five years. The report, sponsored by the Cultural Office of the Peaks Peak Region (COPPeR) and released in June, estimates that arts and culture generates about $153.3 million in regional economic activity annually. That's up more than double from 2010. Consider, too, an in-the-works plan to develop affordable live/work space for creatives downtown and it becomes not so far-fetched to wonder whether the Springs may be on the verge of a cultural surge.

And that's a welcome prospect in board rooms and basements alike.

  • Stewarts Commercial Photographers
click to enlarge From 1940 to 2017, a lot has changed in the KCH main hall. - GRIFFIN SWARTZELL
  • Griffin Swartzell
  • From 1940 to 2017, a lot has changed in the KCH main hall.

David Siegel, executive director of the Bee Vradenburg Foundation, has certainly noticed Meow Wolf's success. It attracted more than 400,000 visitors, created over a hundred new jobs and injected an estimated $6 million into Santa Fe's economy, all in its first year. "It proves this model that investment in the arts pays dividends down the road," he says.

Despite murmurings that some local power-players have tried to tempt Meow Wolf to opening a branch here, Siegel feels there's no need to import outsiders when we've already got so much homegrown creative potential. "I think what the MAC [Manitou Arts Center] has done, what GOCA [the Gallery of Contemporary Art] has done, what Concrete Couch [a nonprofit that does community-built art] has done, I mean those are already out there in this community," he says. "And I think this [Flux/PPLD partnership] will continue to prove that model."

In addition to outside support, Spears says that no one within the PPLD organization has pushed back against the repurposing of KCH. In fact, he suggests that few people are even surprised.

"We're already doing all this stuff," Hammond points out, "and it's one more step, one more building."

What she's referring to is using innovative new programming to reach the very demographic energized by organizations like Flux. "Libraries have fallen down when it comes to serving people between 18 and 30," Spears says. "People use libraries when they're kids, and then maybe into college, but I think there's been a bit of a dearth of real offerings to people before they then have children of their own." And while the programming at KCH will be open to all ages, they hope that it will especially appeal to that underserved demographic.

Already PPLD has attempted to reach young artists with programs and resources now offered at Library 21c, such as its makerspace and recording studio. With a recording studio set to open up at Sand Creek Library as well, plus 24-hour access to a meeting room at Fountain Library, there's a precedent in the district for unique programming and fresh ideas.

So, in many ways, the partnership between PPLD and these DIY organizations draws on the work that everyone involved has already been doing, but it provides a new opportunity to work toward those goals together.

That's huge, because DIY artists all over the world tend to face a lack of support from their cities, from the "higher arts," and have to struggle for local recognition. The inherent nature of DIY often goes against the grain; it's counterculture.

As Perdoni puts it, DIY operates under a "different code," that can seem at odds with the "real world of laws" represented by mainstream, publicly funded entities such as the library district. "But," she says "it turns out that, hey, plot twist, we all believe in the same things and we're all actually working for the same stuff. And if we band together and bring that to our communities together, everyone benefits from that."

Spears and Bryan Ostrow, co-founder of the Flux Capacitor, agree that by entering into an unconventional partnership, they legitimize each other. The library gains credibility via the underground arts scene, and that scene gets a chance to emerge from the underground, to work in a sustainable way.

"I think we're both learning from each other," says Ostrow, "and making something really different and cool. I think both aspects of it are going to come together."

The most obvious question, and the one that will change the most in coming months, is "how?"

While the answer remains a little shapeless, PPLD and participating organizations suffer no lack of vision. "There's rooms for studio spaces," Spears says, "room for art display ... there's room for smaller breakout meeting rooms. Really it's open to just about anything. It's kind of a blank slate." And everyone has an idea of what they'd like to see fill it.

Ostrow says that the Flux team might like to put panels on the walls in the main performance space so people can display art, or create live art during performances. They also may recreate a record store, a feature of the Flux's old venue. Perdoni notes the possibility of a café, such as Her Story Café, formerly a part of Library 21c, and Hammond suggests that there could still be regular library programming like lectures and meetings.

The other organizations that have held, or will hold, events in KCH, have their own ideas too, though what matters most seems to be the possibility of utilizing rent-free space downtown.

Han Sayles and Peyton Kay Davis (disclosure: Davis contributes to the Indy's Queer & There column) of Peach Press, in addition to holding printmaking workshops, hope they will be able to snag some studio space. Sayles says that when Perdoni approached her about a possible partnership, she said, in essence, "you can choose your own adventure with this venue."

Sayles, who was the manager of Mountain Fold Books when the small-press bookstore closed last year, considered leaving the Springs, like many others her age, including Davis. "But it's things like this that make me want to stick around," she says, "because I feel like there's so much room for growth."

That growth relates not just to the DIY community in general, but also to Peach Press, which only began its work in earnest in January, primarily printing out of an attic. The idea of having a studio space in a central location holds understandable appeal.

"For me," Davis says, "printing has always been this community effort. ... I really do think that everyone's work benefits from being around each other."

They envision a glass-walled room so people can watch the printmaking process; a place to keep their larger machines and acquire new ones; and an opportunity to host classes and workshops. Though they will not receive compensation to get the public involved in printmaking, such concerns remain secondary to what truly matters. "Everyone who is currently organizing and doing stuff there is volunteering, 100 percent of our time," Sayles says. "It's a great exchange that the library is loaning us insurance, a rent-free space, really nice facilities, and we are donating our time and energy because we want to see these things happen."

click to enlarge Peach Press wants to get people printing. - COURTESY PEACH PRESS
  • Courtesy Peach Press
  • Peach Press wants to get people printing.

Sayles also speaks for Bread! COS, a "meal to micro-grant program for artists" locally run by her and Mia Alvarado, which will soon host its first event at KCH. The concept, inspired by a group in Kansas City: 30 to 40 people each pay $10 for a meal of soup and bread, and listen to a few local artists pitch their ideas and projects. Then, diners cast their votes, and the winning artist receives all proceeds. Bread! COS has yet to host its first KCH event, but has plans to do so soon.

Another participating organization, the Non Book Club Book Club, has small needs at the moment, but big ideas for the future. Run by UCCS visual arts graduates Jasmine Dillavou and JD Sell, NBCBC began earlier this year as a monthly meeting to discuss all things artistic. They keep meetings informal and intimate, with five to 14 people per month, discussing their projects, current events, or just points of interest in the realm of the arts. Attendees include everyone from visual artists to writers and chefs.

Before their most recent meeting in KCH, they would host get-togethers in Sell's small studio. Now, they have so much space at their disposal that they don't quite know what to do with it.

NBCBC's goals include organizing artist talks and presentations and public discussion events that dismantle what they call the "hierarchies" in the arts in general, and in our own art community — putting the artist on the same level as their audience in an intimate and informal setting.

Above all, they want to keep things casual. "It shouldn't feel over-facilitated and over-controlled," Dillavou says. Sell adds that the space simply exists, and that each organization will fill it with its own energy, "activating a space that hasn't been activated in a very long time," he says. "There's so much potential, so much good that could happen."

Whether that "good" comes about in the form of garage rock concerts, such as the one Flux will host on July 15, art classes like Peach Press' recent zine workshop, lectures and meetings, or simply a place for DIY artists to house their work, everyone agrees that opening KCH up to community programming will ultimately elevate the local underground art scene, and provide a service to people who may not have access to unique forms of art.

"One thing I hope this building can do," Spears says, "is actually allow people to get exposed to art that they wouldn't otherwise get exposed to. We plan on doing death metal concerts followed by a string quartet. ... It's a place where people can explore any type of art that they want. Really, here, all art is equal."


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