Trendsetters 2018: Danya Landis

Art and innovation don’t always go hand in hand.

Stereotypes of the studio shut-in and the starving artist, for instance, don’t usually evoke the cutting edge, and few would describe the latest smartphone in terms of artistry, no matter how graceful its curved edges. Yet, if the two are circles of a Venn diagram, Danya Landis stands squarely in their overlap.

The Machina Arts co-founder pushes the boundary of art. Not so much in the sense of the avant-garde or the edgy, but rather the transformative — the innovative. She doesn’t set out to conjure emotion or appreciation so much as to craft experiences, harmonies of place, performance and community, each a world unto itself. For the hour or two or more that guests spend at a Machina event, they’re hers, freed from the confines of reality to wander the one she and her team create.

“It’s a different world when you walk in,” Landis, 28, says. “We always specifically want to do an entranceway, because we feel like that entranceway lets you leave everything behind and come into something new.”

Machina was born out of a love of art shared by Landis and co-founder, Rebecca Hamilton, and realized over dinner in 2013, not long after Landis moved to the region.

“She kind of has this experience of — and I do as well — having artists come together and make these art experiences that kind of bring all different mediums together,” Landis says of Hamilton.

But the women lamented that such experiences here were lacking, despite a wealth of artistic talent in the region.

“So,” she says, “we decided to do it ourselves because that’s what you have to do around here.”

The two set to work planning an event — an experience — and within a few hours they had a name, a logo and a plan. A few months later, Machina Arts held its inaugural event at the Mole Hill Theater in Alstead.

“We had 150 people come out to the middle of nowhere,” says Landis. “It was just this beyond-amazing experience of community building and artists coming together and musicians playing. And, it was really, really exciting.”

Since then, Machina has grown. From an “underground” host to its refinement in the Hannah Grimes Center for Entrepreneurship’s Startup Lab and incubator programs, Machina has added to its repertoire. First, it began offering its event design services to area businesses. Then, it moved into interior design. And running as common veins through its offerings are arts administration and facilitation.

Machina relies heavily on the local arts scene for everything it does, from performers and installations at its hosted events to the visual artists whose work rotates through The Hive — the Hannah Grimes co-working space that was also the company’s first foray into interior design — to the bands that play at its monthly Live at the Hive. So naturally, Landis wishes there was more art in the region, on top of the thriving scene that’s already here.

“We want to see more arts happen here; that’s what it comes down to,” says Landis. “The spaces are limited for artists in the Keene downtown area.”

In her view, the strength of the arts scene directly correlates to the strength of Machina — but more than that, to the strength of the community.

“Think of one city you can go to that doesn’t have a thriving arts scene,” she says. “That’s really difficult to find. (An art scene) really is the soul of a city.”

And Landis wants to feed that soul.

Landis’ long-term goal for Machina is to have an art space of its own, complete with a gallery, educational space, bar, restaurant and music venue. And, she points out, it would need one more element: high ceilings — to incorporate the circus, an oft-overlooked form of performance art, she says.

Landis is a stilt walker. She was just 12 when she took up the craft. She has even walked a few fashion show runways on stilts.

She notes that Machina’s partnership with Hannah Grimes for The Hive has provided valuable experience, affording her the opportunity to host events — such as the weekly Five at the Hive cocktail hour and monthly Live at the Hive music event — and source and install artwork from area artists.

And though she says the hope is to be in such an art space in two years, Landis knows that, no matter how important it becomes, Machina will always be just one piece of the local arts ecosystem.

To that end, she is a tireless advocate for the arts. She wants a more prominent place for it in the community — whether that be public sculptures and installations, more venues or more galleries. She is a member of the Arts Alive! board of directors and has been involved in recent efforts to draw up a downtown revitalization plan for Keene.

Her pitch is simple yet powerful, reaching beyond pathos and issuing an appeal on hard economic terms: “Artists, musicians and performers are all small businesses — for-profit small businesses,” she points out. “And they bring lots of good things to our economy, including paying taxes, bringing tourism, bringing life and culture to our community, and building community itself — they’re a great thing.”

Landis knows that argument to be true firsthand — as an artist, as a facilitator for artists, as the co-owner of a small business. She wants the arts community to succeed because that will help her community succeed.

But her role in strengthening the community is not limited to the arts sphere. This past year, she was chosen by Gov. Chris Sununu to serve on the Millennial Advisory Council, alongside the region’s other representative, City Councilor George Hansel, who describes Landis as “a sparkplug and a change-maker.”

Machina Arts has come far since its christening at the Mole Hill Theater, and Landis has too. It took a leap of faith to leave a stable job she enjoyed at W.S. Badger Co. last January — faith in herself, in her team, in Machina’s mission, in the community — and that brought its own set of fears.

Being an entrepreneur, Landis says, is “not like a normal job; you have to do everything, and it shows what your weaknesses are. It’s scary.”

The Hannah Grimes Center, which houses the company’s office, has been invaluable in keeping that fear at bay.

“It’s good to have a community and feel like you have someone right down the hall who knows exactly what you’re going through,” she says, “because being an entrepreneur alone is horrifying.”

But beyond that, she has a strong support network within Machina itself. Even though she’s its lone employee, she’s certainly not alone. In addition to her and Hamilton, three others hold an ownership stake in Machina: Landis’ husband, Walker, who as a carpenter by trade is enlisted to bring many of Machina’s visions to reality; Hamilton’s husband, Chris, who does videography for the company as well as managing its website; and Landis’ father, Thomas Pugliese. It’s a tight circle — “a family affair,” she says.

“I think part of owning a business is being courageous. With that, it also comes with a lot of risk, and with that, it’s never a safe bet. But you keep moving,” she says. “… If you keep going, even if you feel like maybe you shouldn’t, then at some point it sticks. At some point, it works.”

Five years after Machina was born, Landis is also still going — and it works. T