If you were passing by the Gowanus Arts Building in the 1880s, you’d be peering into a soap factory. A lot has changed over the last 130 or so years at 295 Douglass Street; acquired in 1985 by Spoke the Hub Dance, the building has become an inviting space for countless artists to practice their craft. And while the building is showing its age, the energy of the leadership and work that takes place inside is full of vitality.
Elise Long, Artistic Director of Spoke the Hub Dance, and architect Severn Clay-Youman sat in two metal chairs nestled at the foot of the audience risers. An additional chair was pulled towards them to lay out the blueprints, although they ended up resting on Elise’s lap for most of the time. The discussion didn’t fit the typical image of an architectural meeting. Why? Because Elise and Severn spent the meeting looking each other in the eye, rather than just pouring over the technical details on paper.
The tenor of this meeting embodies the ways in which Spoke the Hub Dance approaches change and growth; with curiosity and vigor and with the goal of keeping the artistic community at the center of the conversation.
“Ah, the burning question,” Elise responds when asked about the meaning behind the company’s name. “No short answer I’m afraid. Think Da Vinci’s man in the circle, navel as the center of a universe, limbs reaching out. Gerunds, bridges, communication, inner to outer, outer to inner. Hub as a center of activity. Mandalas and bicycles. Gets you where you want to go.” Although this may sound a bit enigmatic, Elise’s tireless work ethic has allowed her to effectively weave these ideas into the goals of the company.
Elise describes the major goals of Spoke the Hub Dance as “having a space to knit artists’ practices together. On the most basic level, arts make people healthy and happy. They enrich the neighborhood and the artists. BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) is an incredible institution. But this space is where local Brooklyn artists can make new work.”
During the fall and winter months, it’s common to pass by dancers and actors, as well as kids, making their way up and down the stairs to their classes. In the summer, kids attend a variety of summer camp programs for dance, acting, improvisation, playwriting, and other performance techniques.
In addition to being Artistic Director of Spoke the Hub Dance, Elise is also the co-owner of the Gowanus Arts Building. The building serves as one of two Spoke the Hub venues. The Re:Creation Center is located at 748 Union Street near 6th Avenue. The Union Street brownstone became part of the company in 1995, and underwent a renovation in 2007.
Even though Spoke the Hub Dance has already been through one renovation, Elise is well aware that the nature and structure of the Gowanus Arts Building requires a very different process.
The three-floor building consists of a ground floor that includes studios for photographers and the fine arts. The Brooklyn Music Factory is on the second floor, featuring music classes and performances. The third floor has several studios that house dance, theatre, yoga, and other classes for both kids and adults.
In addition, studio artists are often in residence. “We are here so that artists can make new work,” says Elise. “We want to have adults making and performing their professional work. Our goal is to be about family. We want the children of the adult artists to be able to come and take classes as well. We need to think of the building as a ‘total space.’”
While the architectural meeting was flowing with ideas, Elise and Severn have a bold plan with very specific goals. A new theatre will be built on the ground level of the building that will feature a variety of performances, weddings, and other receptions. In addition, there will be a community arts gallery and a studio art teaching space. There will also be an expansion of practice rooms and a new performance space for Brooklyn Music Factory on the second floor. And the third floor will be divided up into two studios and a kitchen to provide more rehearsal and class options.
The company was awarded a funding grant of close to $200,000 to create two separate green roofs that total 6,000 square feet. Gwen Schantz of Brooklyn Grange designed the roof and secured the funding from the Department of Environmental Protection. Elise explains that there is more work to do. “We have to raise the funding for the structural reinforcement ourselves if we want to have people up there and some serious ‘farming,’ which is going to be many thousands of dollars of steel and engineering.” Her passion for this project runs deep. “This is so important in an urban environment,” says Elise. “Humans need this green. It will allow the building to open up another aperture for both learning and the community.”
Elise hopes to have the first section of the renovation complete by the end of 2015, which includes strengthening the structural support of the space, with all renovations complete by September 2016.
And then, there are the stairs.
If you’ve been to the Gowanus Arts Building, you’ll surely recall the staircase that leads to the second and third floors. It’s windy, a bit rickety, and uneven. A rebuilding of the stairs is one of the major projects for the renovation.
But there’s something important about those stairs. They recall a funky, art-infused, Brooklyn that many feel may be disappearing all too quickly.
When asked about his thoughts concerning the renovation, Brooklyn resident, actor, and educator Max Arnaud fondly speaks of his past work in the building. “It’s a safe and wonderful creative experience all about respect and kindness. And something about that space – it’s tile floor, it’s weird little statues and creaky ladder stairs – adds an extra dimension to this journey. It’s as if the kids are going deeper and deeper into some strange dream as they climb those old groaning stairs. It’s been a magical place for those young people over the years, that’s for sure.”
Architect Severn Clay-Youman views the renovations as a way to open the space up – both for the artists and the community. He remarks that the performance and other work currently happening is “closed off from the street. This is an opportunity to open the building up and share the work.” Severn speaks with the experience of an artist; his background is in choreography and lighting design.
Members and staff of Spoke the Hub are united around the renovations and certainly by Elise’s vision. Lori Jorgensen has been Space Rental Manager since 2010. When asked about her thoughts concerning the process, she explains that, “I am really looking forward to a street level performance space and art gallery that will be accessible for all. It will allow us to accommodate many more people in the community. Elise is wonderful to work with. She is a force of nature and has a wonderful, big vision for the arts in the community.”
What’s next? And how can you get involved?
In addition to the grants, Spoke the Hub has secured a loan, however they are still in the fundraising process. “For a $500,000 donation, we will surely name the new theatre space after you,” says Elise. Don’t worry, there are many levels of donation. For more information, visit the Gowanus Arts Development page.
During the renovations this summer, kids will still be darting in and out of the building for camp. The studios set-up this summer may be temporary, but the Gowanus Arts Building will remain as immersed in the community as ever.