Survival of the Space
Three lessons from DIY and grassroots arts spaces on how they survived for more than 5 years
Written By Elise Granata
Illustration by Alex Krokus
You’re cruising down the street in your hometown with your dog in a bandana. The bandana is red, you’re both wearing sunglasses. And you. Are getting. Real nostalgic. It’s not you, it’s the hometown fumes. (Truly, the proximity of the sourdough bakery, essential oils factory and Aerosol Store were a weird development choice.)
You sigh, as you gesture out the window: “That’s where the ‘ol all-ages venue used to be. Man, did we get up to some formative, life-changing camaraderie there.” And again: “There was that infoshop I went to all the time, met four lifelong BFFs, and radicalized the crap out of my soft soft tween brain.”
These are the places that matter to us. We seek them out like post-pretzel seltzer when we’re interested in joining something bigger than ourselves. Finding people like us. Getting sweaty together or staying quiet side-by-side. When you connected to subculture growing up, where did you go? Parties? House shows? Zine libraries? Think about your first time there.
Were you able to go back the next week? How about the next month? If you wanted to, could you go back today?
The overwhelming chunk in my own pie chart says “no.” This has become part of the narrative in DIY arts: your lifespan probably won’t be long enough that anyone can return to it physically in five years. You’ll live on in “I remember when’s,” powerful stories and a zine or ten, but the impact is different from sustaining that physical space. Not less powerful. Different. It’s funny how this is the expectation for the grassroots arts scene, when we look to museums, performing arts, and libraries as decades-spanning institutions.
The average lifespan of a DIY space does not match up. Early arbiters of closure include unhappy neighbors, dips in funding, rising rent, cops. Outliving this trend involves finale-style fundraising shows, or just closing for Wednesdays when you have no more volunteers to staff the co-working space. Or, like Trunk Space in Phoenix, AZ, you spend 11 years “always living somewhat hand-to-mouth.”
“We have a little reserve, but could shut down in two months if show turn-out was low, or if something big broke,” said Stephanie Carrico, co-owner of Trunk Space. “Up to this point we have always been lucky. When we have used up the reserve a big show has come along and saved us.”
But The DAAC are among the dozens who keep surviving. Who boast “over a decade of programming” and get to have 10-year-old birthday parties. It might seem small, but when the lifespan of organizations around you is in the 2-3 year mark, it is impactful. Here are a few ways long-lived arts orgs have navigated stability:
Diversify where your cash comes from. So you rely on $5 donations through the door, but what happens when there’s a dip in attendance? Or when you have a no-one-turned-away-for-lack-of-funds (NOTAFLOF) policy? When there’s not enough at The Fábrica (9 years old), a community textile & salvage workshop in Santa Cruz, CA, occasionally a kind DIY samaritan will write them a check for $100. And they have two fundraisers a year in town, doing anything from raffling off fabric hippos to street-mending and sales of beautiful handmade stuff. Silent Barn (11 years old), a space that was also suddenly shut down in 2011, transitioned to reopening with help from a $40,000 Kickstarter and individual donations. When The DAAC closed in 2013, they became fiscally sponsored (aka: gain non-profit-like abilities via a larger, official non-profit organization) through Fractured Atlas. This enabled them to accept donations and do fundraisers, which aids in their transition to future programming and space. They continue to table at all sorts of Grand Rapids community events to do this, like LampLight, SASS Fest, Grand Rapids Zine Fest, Grand Rapids Feminist Film Festival, and Avenue for the Arts.
Say “yup” to growth sometimes. There is a tension around creating something small, independent, and meaningful– and growing. Occasionally, growth can enable your survival rather than poison your ethic. The Mr. Roboto Project (16 years old) in Pittsburgh, PA has grown their board in the last year from 5 to 10 people. “It’s caused some tension, but the space is working more efficiently,” said secretary Richard Magnelli. They also transitioned to a new space in the Bloomfield neighborhood of Pittsburgh, which Richard mentioned looks and feels cleaner. “A lot of the hardcore and punk audience seems to feel alienated or disinterested, which is a shame,” said Richard. “I don’t know if Roboto has really sold out, but the audience has changed for sure.” When the Independent Publishing Resource Center (IPRC) (18 years old) moved to their new, huger Portland, OR location, they were able to accommodate massive new space for their expansive zine library, weekly classes, and offices.
Carve out many, many ways for people to participate. You’re not in this for profit. You built this with other people who were just as passionate about that as you are. You need many more people like you to continue surviving. Make it easy for them to find you and get involved. Trunk Space, like many spaces, rely entirely on volunteers to run events. And they have a lot. This means that not only are you getting a lot done without being paid, but it relieves work from the owners or other organizers who might get burnt out. 924 Gilman (29 years old) hosts membership meetings twice a month– an opportunity for membership and public to communicate, debate agenda items, and vote. Flywheel Arts Collective (16 years old) created an ‘Easy Assimilation Guide’ to make it delightfully obvious for new folks to dig their hands in. At The Fábrica, the intimacy of their 10-person textiles working space creates challenges, but also hyper-bonding moments that lead to intense participation. “It’s not like shows. At shows, you don’t have to talk to everyone there and answer questions about your life and why you don’t have children yet,” said co-founder Elaina Ramer.
These lessons were sourced from a few e-mail interviews, and stories heard over time. By no means are they a road map. By no means is it even a good thing to stick around for this long. But what happens when we expand our expectations for how long a grassroots arts space can thrive for? There’s growth. There’s possible closure and reopening. There’s many, many more people to impact.
Most of all, your relationship to community will thrive. “As one of Grand Rapids longest-standing arts collectives, I believe that we have an important responsibility as well as an opportunity to continue to challenge the non-profit/arts institutional norms that people qualify as ‘selling out,’” said Mike Wolf. “We’re committed to staying true to our mission/10 points, and welcome the challenges we face to secure a new space and restructure so the community has this important space for years to come.”