Everyone knew that ConWorks' lease on life--and more specifically, the lease on that building--was provisional, tied to landlord Paul Allen's whims to renovate (read: gentrify) the neighborhood with new mixed-use buildings. The lease was extended again and again, and the longer we were treated to the excellent programming of Executive Director Matthew Richter's curators, the more ConWorks established itself as a real presence in not just visual art, but theater, film, and music as well. A few months ago, the final word was handed down: The building was to be destroyed in the fall. There were floating rumors about ConWorks relocating, disbanding, being cast adrift into the black hole of nonprofit arts organizations with nowhere to go. What would happen next?
As it happens, on June 8, Richter signed a lease on more than three-quarters of the Ducky's Office Furniture building on Boren between Mercer and Republican--a long, low building with 30,000 available square feet, a considerable increase over the Terry Avenue building's 22,000. The Stranger was fortunate enough to wrangle a first look at the new space, with Richter as our cheerful tour guide.
Walking through the new ConWorks is an Alice-in-Wonderland-like experience, with one space unrolling after another, and then another (a rabbit hole should be so lucky). The warehouse is dramatic and airy and has three enormous bays that will be converted into theaters, a cinema, and an L-shaped art gallery with moveable walls. As expected, there's a lot of warehouse charm: old wooden sliding doors, windows running along the tops of the walls, and big loading-dock openings. The building will be wired for webcasting, with a new media hub containing all the necessary controls. There are plans for a cafe and bar, rehearsal rooms, project rooms, and a shop for building theater sets. Richter maps out the shop with his arms and then pauses. "Jesus, that's mammoth," he says. "That's going to be the biggest shop on the West Coast." He shakes his head in disbelief.
There is still some thinking to be done about the conceptual organization of this enormous building. It may be built on the old model, with a central hub that leads to the venues for each discipline, but one of the architects on ConWorks' board has suggested using a narrow room that runs along the building's east side as the lobby, creating a kind of spine that branches off into the different rooms. "It would mean changing the translation of how we think about the organization," Richter says. "Both models imply a strong central organizational core." I tell him I'm excessively devoted to "the egg" in the current ConWorks--a round central space built of curved wood ribs--and he says, "Yeah, a lot of people are." A smaller space near the Mercer side of the building might very well be dedicated to a microcinema and a tiny theater, the programming for which would be done by other arts groups, in essence a small-scale offshoot of what ConWorks itself does.
Part of the space will be devoted to offices for ConWorks and five other arts organizations (UMO Ensemble, Allied Arts, One World Theater, Fuse Foundation, and House of Dames), which will make up what is currently being called Nonprofit Works. The administrative space has the air of an early-'60s insurance office, with wood paneling, amber glass inserts, and glass bricks set into concrete. It makes for an interesting stop along the evolutionary continuum of arts spaces: Now that lofts are being snatched up by wealthy folks with bohemian aspirations, artists and arts nonprofit organizations are looking elsewhere, such as office buildings (Fuzzy Engine) and former auto showrooms (Vital 5 Productions). And when the hip quotient of these spaces causes rents to skyrocket? What then?
ConWorks doesn't have to worry, for a while at least: it has a five-year lease on the new space, with an option to renew for another five years, at a price well below market rate (although Richter, ever the gentlemanly businessman, declines to get specific). It will cost about $350,000 to renovate--which seems surprisingly low. "We do things on the cheap," Richter says happily. This building is also owned by Paul Allen, and ConWorks negotiated its lease with City Investors, the real-estate development arm of Vulcan Northwest. I ask Richter what this deal means to the future of arts nonprofit organizations, if they might end up depending on the largesse of rich landowners, and he says that very probably they will. "In the era from about the '40s to the '90s," he says, "municipalities and public agencies stepped into the Medici role, and now that their support is limited, the private sector is stepping back in."
The capital campaign to raise the renovation money begins very soon, and includes naming rights to the gallery, the theaters, the cinema, as well as such smaller items as stair treads, light-switch plates, and seats (The Stranger has already sponsored a urinal in what will be a unisex bathroom). But the unraised money doesn't appear to be dampening any of Richter's enthusiasm. As we walk down Boren past the low, squat building with an enormous fin rising out of the roof, he stops and looks back at the gray edifice. "I think we'll paint it black," he says thoughtfully, and then walks on.