Seattle’s art scene shouldered some big blows this year.

A collapsed sewer line closed Museum of Museums ahead of the rainy season. MadArt announced it would wrap things up next summer. After 40 years, Linda Hodges shut down her gallery in Pioneer Square, while James Harris moved his to Dallas. XO Seattle blew up after at least two women accused curator Austin Bellamy Hicks of sexual assault. 

As a result, local artists are having to compete for less gallery space, fewer spots on gallery rosters, and diminished opportunities to display their work and make a decent living. 

A new space that opened up last week, with another on the way sometime next Spring, won’t solve that problem, but certainly won’t hurt. 

In Belltown, Base Camp Studios founder Nick Ferderer turned the vacant Bergman Luggage building on Third Avenue and Stewart Street into a first-floor gallery, with the plan to build studios upstairs. A few blocks away on First Avenue, the shared art studio and gallery Common Area Maintenance is preparing a second location with a classroom, performance space, and an indie bookstore.

The Ghosts of Belltown

Ferderer toured eight buildings to expand Base Camp Studios before settling on the vacant Bergman Luggage building. A real estate deal to replace the building with apartments had fallen through over the summer, and it was up for grabs. Like the first Base Camp Studios building, the old Bergman building was vacant.

The floors were piled with trash, discarded wood, and furniture. Pigeons had moved in at some point, but none were alive when Federer found them. 

Despite a rough appearance, no other building had the same raw potential. Floor-to-ceiling windows of a former retail space–or potential for windows, they’d all been blown out–were a natural fit for a gallery. Upstairs, where Ferderer plans to construct the studios, had exposed brick walls and chipped plaster with a natural patina. 

“It just screams creativity and almost like you walked into a time capsule,” he said. “In a sense you have, it was vacant for a while.”

Ghosts of Belltown exhibit at Base Camp Studios on Third Avenue. Aaron Asis

Situated on the cusp of Belltown, Pike Place Market, and the downtown retail corridor, Ferderer believed his second space could help fill the gap MadArt will leave behind next summer. After moving in, he posted a sign outside: Vacant Too Long, Creative Community Space Coming Soon. 

The process took months, and the help of his construction worker father, who would come for the weekend from Ferderer’s hometown of Vancouver, Washington. Federer lugged objects down the stairs about 50 times a day and saw his daily step count rise from 10,000 to 21,000.

Artists rearranged those abandoned raw materials—the trash, but no pigeons—into structural pieces for Base Camp Studios’ new exhibition, Ghosts of Belltown, which opened on December 7.

Ghosts of Belltown exhibit at Base Camp Studios on Third Avenue. Jayson Kochan

Piles of wood, metal fixtures, a trash bag mountain, and a bunch of toilets became canvases for artist Brady Black. He spray painted five forced perspective anamorphic murals, or distorted, or stretched images that look normal from the right angle. One enormous display dominates the space, Ferderer said.

Amanda Manitach has done the same with poetry, with certain words and phrases visible from specific angles, while Yale Wolf’s Pac-Man-inspired neon work illuminates the space like the Vegas Strip. It's a lighthearted feel for a show that’s about vacant spaces and what we do with them. Given how expensive Seattle has become, seeing so much unused space frustrates Ferderer.

Ghosts of Belltown exhibit at Base Camp Studios on Third Avenue. BRADY BLACK

“I don’t have a white picket fence, but if you let a yard just go, for three years of development cycle, what’s it going to look like?” he asked. “What’s it going to take to bring it back to a usable kind of existence? Why not let an artist come in there and act as a caretaker if we’re just waiting?”

Immersive installations like Ghosts of Belltown are the sort of work Ferderer wants to promote. He imagines six- to eight-week shows like this, with 30 artists working in low-rent studios upstairs. None are ready yet, but Ferderer said 18 artists have committed. He’s planning to lease them for between $2.50 and $3 per square foot. 

“That’s very intentional,” he said. “It’s important to have affordable studio space for creatives to create.”

Viewing the Ghosts of Belltown installation is free, but a suggested donation of $15 is encouraged. All funds go toward the artists who created the installation. 

Ghosts of Belltown exhibit at Base Camp Studios on Third Avenue. Jayson Kochan

CAM is expanding

Common Area Maintenance is a lot of things: A nonprofit, a shared studio, a wood shop, a gallery, a print shop, and a space for impromptu karaoke parties. Timothy Firth founded the nonprofit CAM to combat the skyrocketing rents and building sales dooming DIY spaces across the city.

“I was looking for a way for artists to have more financial and structural control over their environments,” he said. “That has been a bit of an experiment over the last eight years, in how we survive as an independent community and fund ourselves.”

CAM has grown to support local publishers and the city’s literary scene in the past eight years. When one space could not contain CAM’s aspirations, Firth looked for another. He “speed dated” buildings for years before 2601 First Avenue, once a fine art framing shop, came on the market.

Firth said CAM wanted to further support arts education, so a dedicated new classroom made sense; after working with independent publishers for five years, they had the idea to open an independent publishers bookstore. At a new performance and gallery space with rigged lighting, CAM will stage its first play with Seattle playwright Amontaine Aurore.

Firth hoped for a January opening but realized February or March were more realistic considering the work, and back and forths with the city’s department of construction, ahead of them. When finished, Firth said the next step is figuring out how to make these affordable spaces sustainable in the long term.

“When it becomes economically viable to house an office, or a bar, or a restaurant–arts can be pushed out really rapidly,” he said. “I can think of like five or six different spaces downtown that are really struggling to survive … I think ownership is a part of that conversation; I think that working together as a broader community to find spaces that have had a long-term viability of 10-plus years.”