Arts + Literature Laboratory plans a big move
The non-profit gallery and performance space would more than quadruple in size at a new city-owned location.
Arts + Literature Laboratory is planning to leave its original space at 2021 Winnebago Street this December, and re-open in February 2020 in a new, 9,910-square-foot location at the corner of East Main Street and South Livingston Street. The City of Madison owns the space, which is located in the same building as a parking garage near The Sylvee and the Starting Block tech building, and has proposed awarding ALL a $500,000 grant to help turn it into a three-story facility with significantly expanded gallery space, classrooms, performance space, and artist studios. Currently the new space is something of a blank slate—it doesn't even have flooring yet—and gives ALL a chance to build from scratch to suit its needs, in more than quadruple the space of its current location, a small retrofitted industrial building with an occupancy limit of 49. (Full disclosure: Tone Madison has collaborated with ALL on several events over the years, and I have performed there myself on a couple of occasions.)
The Wisconsin State Journal broke the news of ALL’s planned move over the weekend. There's been a for-lease sign up in the window at ALL's current location for about a month, and ALL's application for the space has been public record for much longer, as it's a response to a request for proposals the city issued in 2017 as it began seeking a tenant for the space. But ALL founder Jolynne Roorda and others involved with the space stayed tight-lipped about their plans until their negotiations with the city entered this final stage.
If various city government bodies, and ultimately the Common Council, approve the deal at a series of meetings over the next week, the grant would represent one of the largest one-time investments the City of Madison has made in the arts in recent years. The city currently provides a major chunk of annual funding to the Overture Center for the Arts—boosting the subsidy to $2 million in its 2019 budget—and funds other initiatives with much smaller amounts of money, including grants for art installations and the annual Make Music Madison event.
"The city makes a gift of almost $2 million a year to the Overture Center, and that is critical to the downtown and to the economy there. It's a major arts pillar for the city," says Karin Wolf, the city's Arts Administrator, who wasn't directly involved in choosing ALL to use the space but had advocated awarding it to an arts organization. "[The grant to ALL] is a one-time investment. It's a quarter of that, and it has the potential to help really stabilize at least the visual arts scene on the near-east side."
Wolf says that the city had also considered letting ALL purchase the space in the parking-garage building, and both Wolf and Roorda believe it's important for more arts organizations to actually own their venues. But because the space is so bare-bones right now, the city and ALL sought out an arrangement that provides money to help with construction.
"From my perspective, the near east side...has gone through a number of changes in the last decade that have made it pretty expensive to live and to rent space in the area," Wolf says. "I think it's important that as much as possible, artists and arts organizations try to own space so that they don't get gentrified out of neighborhoods. But I also think it's important that cities recognize when development is threatening pillar organizations that keep a healthy ecology in a community."
ALL's initial lease at the space would be for 20 years, giving a young but vital arts organization a long-term presence in a central, rapidly gentrifying area defined by high-end housing, the tech sector, and a new concert venue operated by a subsidiary of the world's largest concert promoter. Arts + Literature Laboratory's programming would be a cultural counterbalance, taking a more community-driven approach and relying more on small donations and grants than it does on major corporate or philanthropic funders. Since opening in 2015, the venue has focused on adventurous gallery shows, experimental and jazz music, low-budget film screenings through the Mills Folly Microcinema series and the outdoor video-art series Off The Wall, literary readings, and a variety of art and literary workshops for both kids and adults.
Arts organizations and independent venues often struggle to survive in Madison, but ALL has quickly built itself up into a robust presence that connects disparate elements of the ever-scattered creative community in town. It has branched out into hosting a neighborhood jazz festival, a "CSArt" program that allows patrons to buy a series of works from a group of local artists, and even its own juried art prize for MFA students.
Roorda is working with local architecture firm Strang to design a new three-story home for ALL at Main and Livingston, and is working on raising the remaining funds for the build-out. At the moment there are just some draft floor plans and no architectural renderings, but the idea is basically to have a high-ceilinged first floor with gallery and performance space and a small office; a mezzanine level overlooking the first floor with some open space that can be used for meetings and writing; and a third story with classroom space for youth programming and four or five art studios. Right now, the new building is a bit sterile, so ALL will have to put a welcoming stamp on it, but on the plus side it's a massive space with tons of windows and natural light.
Aside from a bit of storage space, the current ALL consists entirely of two gallery rooms, one of which doubles as a performance space, and both of which are used for workshops and educational programming. With dedicated space just for the educational component, ALL might be able to as much as double some of its class sizes, and instructors will be able to focus on the coursework without worrying about putting away tables and supplies to make way for a show or reception.
"Right now the education programs happen within our gallery spaces, and that puts certain limitations on what the education program has been able to do, and the class sizes, and what kinds of materials and mediums they could work with, because at the same time that we are asking our students to be creatively free to experiment, we're also saying, 'You have to be careful about the artwork that's around you,'" Roorda says.
The art studios, which Roorda hopes to make "permanently affordable" for artists and perhaps eventually provide for free as part of a residency program, are an attempt to address both a lack of studio space in Madison and the need for a higher quality of studio space. The current plan is to deliberately have fewer studios and make them bigger, rather than packing in as many studio units as possible. "We want working artists downtown, where they're visible, where people can see what they're doing, and the importance of their role in the community," Roorda says. "I think a lot of times people think about the starving-artist mentality, that artists should make do with whatever old industrial space is left over...what we want to do is say, 'No, our local musicians and artists and writers deserve a professional-level space, and deserve to have something high-quality, to help them take their works to the next level.'"
Roorda also thinks that the more central location and its easy access on foot, bike, and bus (and easy parking, obviously) will bring more people to ALL, and will enable it to have more extensive gallery hours for its arts shows. "We see people using the space all day long once we have the capacity to do so," she says.