Creating an arts hub with the help of their friends

When Kalamazoo's DIT concert supporters and the DIY crafters get together the result is a plan for the Kalamazoo Collective Arts Center. 
Inside the Vine Neighborhood Association in Kalamazoo is a local arts gallery and white christmas lights. Though the Vine supports its artists, this is a tight space shared by members in the community who garden together, meet at Octoberfest, and send their children to local schools. What the building lacks is an artist’s arsenal of supplies, a stage for a performer, and the space for an audience.

Because of these tight quarters, some artists in the Vine neighborhood have retreated into their houses where they host rock shows in their basements and Do-It-Yourself (“DIY”) craft workshops in their living rooms. Artists now meeting with the Vine Neighborhood Association aim to bridge the gap between an older arts community and a younger, more Bohemian one. Together they're meeting to create an all ages arts venue called the Kalamazoo Collective Arts Center (KCAC).

Longtime photographer and local arts advocate Kasey Chaos sports black framed glasses, jeans, and a plain black shirt. “It’s a weird niche we’re trying to fill,” she says one evening at Fourth Coast Cafe. Kalamazoo is known for Bells Brewery and other bars, but she says the city lacks a place where anyone of any age can simply show up for music and art.

Chaos can often be seen in the neighborhood with a camera or knitting needles and yarn.

She leads crafting workshops with the portmanteau “Crafternoons” in sessions like screen printing or sewing at the Vine Neighborhood Association for the KCAC.

Apart from the Association, she is also an Arts Council Member, books nationally touring bands to play in her basement, and organizes the annual DIY festival called HullabaZOO--a festival celebrating handmade crafts, community art workshops, and independently released music. 

She and the other KCAC board members set the hard deadline of The New Year to sign a lease and to obtain nonprofit status. After crowdfunding last spring, they reached their goal of $5,000 last May with the $305 to spare. About $1,000 of that will go toward obtaining their nonprofit status, which will allow them to receive tax-exempt donations, apply for grants, and protect directors and members from being liable for debt.  As a nonprofit they also can create a formal structure for the organization.

The rest of the money from the fundraiser will go toward the lease, and any leftover will help maintain the building. They are looking at nearly any space in the city that is zoned commercially, with a keen eye on the Vine neighborhood. Though they have been considering the comparably cheaper rent in the Northside, locating there raises the issue of gentrification, which Chaos says they want to avoid. One member Chafe Hensley says at one of their meetings, “We’re moving forward, and now we need to build.”

The KCAC will be a drug and alcohol free haven for artists of any age. It will host art shows and installations, small scale theater productions, Chaos’s craft workshops, and musicians of any genre.

The KCAC may be deliberating slowly since fundraising last spring, but they are no longer at a crawl. “We’re not in infancy, we’re in our toddler stage,” says Hensley. He wore a gray newsboy hat, blue jeans, and a white plaid shirt. “Music should be inclusive, and it hasn’t been because of alcohol,” Hensley continued. “It’s ridiculous.”

Hensley also plays in the local rock outfit Minutes and he’s been in the Vine neighborhood since the age of 9. As he leaned back in his chair in the Vine Neighborhood Association, he stared at the ceiling and reminisced. As a high school student, he spent his time by learning at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts and the Kalamazoo Public Library. “I didn’t want to get high. I wanted to learn.”

Ideally, the space will be split between a venue and a craft or artist workshop. Some music artists find it difficult to perform in Kalamazoo, like hip hop or rap groups, because of a false stigma of violence, Hensley says.

“We’re drawing from a larger bowl,” Chaos says. As a photographer, crafter, and musician she knows there is a vibrant local arts scene. “If you want to find it, it’s here,” she says.

She's also found hosting and promoting punk bands in her basement can be exhausting, so she’s identified help in the community. “If you put on shows by yourself you burn yourself out,” says Chaos. She has been a part of a community of local music artists who host concerts in their houses called Do-It-Together (“DIT”) Kalamazoo for six years.

“The fine arts scene is awesome, but it’s not so good for people who can’t afford classes or don’t want to go to class for art,” Chaos says. “Or for people who want to dabble and want to branch out to the community who can’t afford it.”

Instead, KCAC board members envision the space based on other DIY spaces in the country from both far and near. The Grand Rapids art gallery and music venue The DAAC, or The Division Avenue Arts Collective, harbored artists for nearly 10 years until kicked out of their space last fall. In addition to this regional example, Chaos says KCAC board members want to model the organization after Bridgetown DIY in La Puente, Calif. Bridgetown requires a tiny $2 annual membership to use its supplies and space.

The push for The KCAC may be new, but the idea is not. Russell Wagner and a few other Western Michigan University students came up with the idea in 2008. The other founding members left Kalamazoo after graduating that year, but Wagner stayed and plays in a nationally touring band called The Reptilian. Finding a building and signing a lease has taken a long time, because, as he says, “We’re taking it slow, leaving no stone unturned.”

Wagner wears grey, thin-framed glasses and sports a bushy black mustache. He frequents local shows and is a founding member of Do-It-Together Kalamazoo. All board members are active in the local arts and music community, and he says the KCAC “has always been my dream.”

But what brought this group of artists together has been exactly what slowed them down. As Chaos says, “It’s tough because everyone is busy with other things, but they are also passionate about the end goal.”

With the demand and support the KCAC received, not only through their online fundraiser but also in their KCAC benefit concerts last summer, Wagner says, “We need to create a hub. If we throw it out there, all will follow.”

They plan to reach their goal of signing their lease before the New Year. Afterward, they hope to build momentum. “I hope the community sees it as anything they want to do with it,” says Chaos. After all, she says, “In Kalamazoo, an artist is a stone’s throw away.”

Colin S. Smith is a Kalamazoo based writer with experience in a wide variety of publications.