How downtown Farmington's creative community is coming back stronger than ever

It’s an oft-told tale, one where artists set up shop in a community, help make it special, and then get forced out as everyone else learns how special that community is, too, and development takes its course – along with the rising rents that make it all the more difficult for artists to justify staying put. It happens here, there, and everywhere and yet, remarkably, it didn’t happen in downtown Farmington. In fact, it seems as though the downtown arts community is only getting stronger.

By the end of October 2022, Farmington had not one but two nonprofit arts organizations headquartered downtown: the well-established KickstART Farmington, founded in 2012 with its gallery and gift shop having opened in 2019, and Skep Space, the upstart artist incubator that celebrated its grand opening earlier that month. Come the new year, however, and KickstART was closed and in search of a new home. Skep Space would face a similar fate just several months later, having left their original location at the end of October 2023.

In both cases, the arts organizations had to leave because of otherwise exciting news happening in the city. At the former home of KickstART, the building was sold and purchased, making way for the opening of the much-buzzed about patisserie Cannelle by Matt Knio. And at the former home of Skep Space, the city-owned building’s demolition will make way for a public space that connects downtown to the townhome development planned at the old Maxfield Training Center site.

The remarkable part of the story is that both nonprofit organizations were able to find new locations in a downtown that continues to see more and more of its storefronts welcome new tenants. And not only that, but both organizations seem even happier with their new locations than the ones they left behind, as revered as they were. Skep Space celebrated their grand opening in December 2023 and KickstART Farmington celebrated their own this past February.

It’s a nonprofit arts organization success story. And in the world of downtown development, how often can you say that?

Art in a beautiful space

On Saturday, Feb. 10, GLP Financial Group played host to a sold-out gala that served as a fundraiser for downtown’s next installation of public art. Guests crowded inside GLP’s headquarters, the newly renovated Farmington State Savings Bank building, to help raise funds for a sculpture expected to land at Masonic Plaza, the public space being developed by the Farmington Downtown Development Authority in front of historic Farmington Masonic Hall.

The fundraiser was held for a new work of public art to be installed at a planned public space in front of the historic Farmington Masonic Lodge.

Plans for the soon-to-be-improved public space were previewed at the gala, and will again be available for a sneak peek at the Toast to Farmington event this Friday, March 8. The event features the release of a custom-brewed Farmhouse Ale and Farmhouse Cider from the Farmington Brewing Company in honor of the city’s bicentennial.

This swinging bench sculpture from the Nordin Brothers was a big hit, and perhaps a hint of what's to come.

Mary Lou Stropoli, co-founder and president of Skep Space and a member of Farmington’s Public Art Committee, was tasked with transforming the GLP offices into an art gallery. She and a colleague nearly emptied the Skep Space exhibition space, Honeycomb Gallery, and carefully transported the artwork, nearly all of which was created by Michigan artists, to GLP HQ. Skep Space donated a portion of the proceeds back into the fundraiser.

“We had $4,500 in sales that night, which was amazing. I couldn't believe it,” Stropoli says. “Now we can donate $1,125 to the public art committee, which is really exciting. We created a makeshift gallery in that beautiful GLP space.”

Stropoli launched Skep Space with co-founder Lisa Alberts in October 2022, taking advantage of a pilot program from the Farmington DDA that temporarily leased them a city-owned vacant storefront at a discount, serving as an incubator for their new nonprofit. The pop-up program came with an end date, however, and Skep Space was set to leave their location when a neighboring business invited them to check out their own historic home-turned-storefront just two doors down.

Skep Space is located at 33018 Grand River Ave.A lease was signed and Skep Space not only survived the relocation but flourished. A bigger space meant that the nonprofit could keep offering workshops and affordable studio space to local artists. But it also meant that they could launch Honeycomb Gallery, an artist-run gallery that currently has 45 participating artists. And on each Friday, from noon to 4 p.m., the gallery has begun hosting the students of Visions Unlimited as they work at Honeycomb and learn valuable life skills.

“Visions Unlimited is a school that's part of Farmington Public Schools. It's a transitional program for adults with special needs aged 18 to 26,” Stropoli says. “It’s what they call authentic learning. So they're making products, and then they're learning how to market the products and maintain the space to sell it. So they're really excited about the partnership. And so am I, because my son attends Visions. It's gonna be great.”

New perspectives

Though days away from their own grand opening celebration – which took place on Friday, Feb. 23, with an exhibition from Flint’s Pauly M. Everett – KickstART Farmington offered a sneak peek at the new location of their gallery and gift shop during the night of the fundraiser. It was a busy night downtown, with Heights Brewing celebrating its own grand opening right across the street. While Grand River Avenue has long been the primary corridor for bars, restaurants, and other attractions downtown, ongoing work to transform Farmington Road into a destination in its own right is beginning to bear fruit.

Heights Brewing is located at 23621 Farmington Rd.

From streetscape renovations to the newly built Dinan Park, and exciting new businesses like Heights Brewing, it’s among the many reasons Dwayne Hayes is happy with KickstART’s new location on Farmington Road.

The artist Erik Nordin, second from right, speaks with guests.

“You have the new pocket park across the street, and we get to look out our window at that beautiful new sculpture there. Heights Brewing is open now, so they’ll have a nice view of our own beautiful art while their customers drink and dine,” says Hayes, executive director of KickstART Farmington. “We’re excited to be along this stretch and see how it keeps developing. We’re looking forward to seeing who else will be our new neighbors.”
KickstART Farmington is located at 23616 Farmington Rd.
Hayes credits the DDA and its director Kate Knight with helping KickstART find a new home, with Knight taking him on a tour of available storefronts downtown early in the relocation process. While closing down for a little more than a year is less than ideal, it seems as though things have worked out for the nonprofit – and maybe for the best. The new space is bigger and allows for KickstART to offer more opportunities for enjoying all things creative in downtown Farmington.

“It’s a situation where you get pushed out of your comfort zone, but being pushed out of that comfort zone has enabled us to really take a big leap forward as an organization,” says Hayes. “As a nonprofit, our ultimate goal is to build a space that has the ability to incorporate a high quality, top-notch gallery and gift shop, perhaps a 100 seat-performance space where we can show films and have musical events and theater, and classrooms for workshops and classes. This is a step in that progression to get there.

"We were probably forced to move up the timeline a little bit earlier than we thought, but that has been a great challenge for us. It’s so exciting to see how the organization and our board has stepped up.”

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Read more articles by MJ Galbraith.

MJ Galbraith is a writer and musician living in Detroit. Follow him on Twitter @mikegalbraith.