Business incubators around the country provide a space for startups to get mentorship and firm up their business plans before a formal launch. Why couldn't that model be used for artists as well?
That's the idea behind the Ypsilanti Art Incubator, a project started by a small group of Ypsi-based artists in 2012. The incubator went dormant for several years, but Ypsi resident Alexa Dietz is looking to relaunch it in 2020, starting with a kickoff party at Ziggy's, 206 W. Michigan Ave. in Ypsi, on April 3.
Dietz's goals for the incubator are "networking, getting the word out, and awareness of what Ypsilanti is capable of."
"A lot of people have potential and a passion, but they don't realize they are capable of sharing it with other people and turning it into a career," she says. "We all have to pay rent, but I want people to understand they can do what they're passionate about and still pay the bills and have that happen in Ypsilanti."
From the Ballroom Collective to a vision for an incubator
Dietz was an art student at Eastern Michigan University (EMU) who once managed the university's student-run Intermedia Gallery.
"The year before I graduated, the idea grew for some kind of line between EMU and the people that wanted to stay in Ypsi, either because they grew up there or wanted to stay because they loved the town so much," Dietz says. "We needed some kind of bridge, some kind of motivation to practice (our art)."
After graduation, she stayed in touch with those friends and the idea for that "bridge" grew into a grassroots arts group called the Ballroom Collective, named after the ballroom space in an old frat house the group rented in Ypsi in 2012.
"This beautiful building with great history was sitting empty, so we approached the person who owned it and offered to restore it," Dietz says.
The house had a large ballroom in the back that had once been a dance studio. The friends' agreement with their landlord allowed them to throw an event in the ballroom once a month, often with a local band providing music. Elize Jekabson, now co-owner of Ypsi Alloy Studios, remembers the Ballroom Collective years fondly.
"That was a really cool place," Jekabson says. "I was paying $60 a month to have my own personal space where I could work and bounce ideas off people. A lot of good ideas came out of the Ballroom Collective."
A core group of Ballroom Collective members began throwing around ideas for a critique group, and from those brainstorming sessions came the first seeds of the Ypsilanti Art Incubator. The idea was to provide a space for artists to work and consult with others, building their skills and helping to market and cross-promote themselves.
The group had connections with Riverside Arts Center staff who offered the arts collective a space in their auxiliary building, now known as the Riverside Off Center. Dietz says she and her collaborators didn't initially jump at the idea, but a month later, the residence that housed the Ballroom Collective was sold to a new developer who wanted to radically remodel the space. So the fledgling Ypsilanti Art Incubator moved into the Off Center for a time.
Dietz says membership dues were enough to cover rent for a while, but it was a struggle, and the arts incubator went dormant in 2014.
"The second-to-last show we had in that space was a benefit show I organized, a silent art auction," she says. "I really super tried. But we all realized we wanted to do something else and decided to let it go."
At that time, many of the original Ballroom Collective members moved out of town or went on to establish their own businesses. But Dietz couldn't let the idea of the incubator go.
"I have pretty much been feeling like I'm going to die unless I make artwork again," she says. "A lot of people in Ypsi have talent, and I have always found myself in a position where I try to help people reach their potential and give them the support I wish I had. I haven't been making anything in six years, and I needed something to put all that energy into. Reviving the Ypsi Art Incubator might be just that."
Narooz Soliman and his wife Juliet Hinley were involved in the original art incubator, though Soliman says he only came to a few of the meetings and wasn't part of the core group. But he says relaunching the incubator could be a way to help artists take charge of their own space, once the incubator finds one to call home.
"People who own spaces are the only ones in charge of what happens there," Soliman says. "And artists are good at making something out of nothing."
Soliman says he plans to help paint, do plumbing and lighting work, or do whatever else is needed to get an incubator space up and running.
Chris Sandon, a local artist and one of the founding members of Ypsi's Shadow Art Fair, says he enjoys the fact that Ypsi has long had a "thriving underground art community," and that collaboration is commonplace.
"It gets boring to work by yourself all the time," he says. "I went from being a solo painter to people putting on shows with each other. We kind of roped in half a dozen artists to do some happenings around Ypsilanti. We would dress like a bear in costumes and walk into random places, just kind of to promote that creative spirit."
Sandon says he moved to Chicago for a few years and then moved back to Ypsi, where he noticed that "there were these really open-minded people who really embraced local artists and promoted them." He hopes the relaunched incubator will embrace that same spirit.
"That's the great thing with young people when they get together and collaborate like that," he says. "There's lots of energy in that, people cross-promoting to get people to come out to shows. As you get older, it's easy to become more solitary, with busy lives and families."
Restarting the incubator wasn't part of Dietz's original plan. She just wanted a venue to show her work. Dietz says a sculpture called "99 solutions" began years ago in her head as part of "a healing process." But that initial seed grew into plans for the upcoming kickoff party at Ziggy's.
"I am going to create 99 smaller versions of my cement house titled 'Monopoly.' They will belong to 99 different people throughout my life that have impacted my growth and healing process," Dietz says.
She will pile all 99 smaller sculptures together and hopes those recipients will show up to the April 3 event to collect a house and bring it home with them. The launch party will include a dance party with DJs Aaron Batzdorfer (DJ batz), Daniel Perin (dannyboy), and Silas Green with special guest Black Alfalfa.
Dietz plans to document the process of each piece of sculpture being taken away from the pile.
"The process of the collecting will seem like a deconstruction of this foundation, but, in reality, it is broadening the foundation and network as people take their piece home — a network and new start for the Ypsilanti Art Incubator and myself," she says in an email interview. "I'm just getting started. I'm not sure what to expect past this. But I hope that by helping myself via the Ypsilanti Art Incubator, I can help promote/guide/build other artists/businesses up and get to work."
More information about the launch party is available on its Facebook event page. More information about the art incubator is available via Instagram or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at email@example.com.
All photos by Doug Coombe.