Amid stalled plans for an expansive arts corridor in downtown Keene, local arts leaders are developing plans to establish a new creative hub they say could anchor an arts revitalization in the area.
Georgia Cassimatis, who founded the nonprofit Friends of Public Art and also runs the 17ROX artist studios in Keene, will lead the new arts center and presented her vision during a tour of the 17–19 Federal St. site Monday. The space, next to St. James Episcopal Church, is known as the Jonathan Daniels Building.
Cassimatis’ plan includes making the 10,000-square-foot building a centerpiece of a new arts district, after plans for the downtown arts corridor were recently put on hold. The Monadnock Economic Development Corp. has suspended plans for the corridor, which it initially proposed nearly two years ago, as it develops a new strategic plan amid a financial crunch, City Manager Elizabeth Dragon said Monday.
Cassimatis, a Gilsum resident, is working with the Keene nonprofit Arts Alive to advance a similar, arts-focused concept.
“I think it’s up to us to step forward and take initiative if that project is to proceed,” she said.
She said she wants to turn several small rooms on the Jonathan Daniels Building’s second floor into individual studios, create a community room for arts classes, and develop a residential area and workspaces on the third floor to host resident artists. She would also establish a retail store and art gallery on the building’s first floor, which housed the St. James Thrift Shop before it closed in June and is now serving as a resource center for the Hundred Nights homeless shelter. (That organization hopes to relocate to a new site this year.)
Renovations on the building — which Cassimatis said will include repainting the interior, adding multiple bathrooms, and installing new flooring and handicap accessibility — will not begin until it is purchased from St. James church.
Robert Patton-Spruill, a Winchester resident who is acquiring the property, said Monday that the church has agreed to sell it and that the deal will be finalized by June. He and his wife, Patti Moreno, both filmmakers, own several other buildings in Keene with ties to the local arts scene, including 17ROX’s location on Roxbury Street as well as Machina Kitchen & ArtBar, in addition to New England Sweetwater Farm and Distillery in Winchester.
Calling the new arts center “a great shot in the arm for our community,” Patton-Spruill said he tapped Cassimatis to lead the project because of her work at 17ROX.
“Our intentions were to get [the building] … and hand it over to someone with a track record,” he said.
Cassimatis said the new center may operate similarly to 17ROX, a for-profit business that opened in late 2018 and offers more than a dozen studios for artists to rent at low costs. She pointed to the recent relocation of Wicked Glass Art, a recycled-glass venture owned by Swanzey resident Judy Bosies, from 17ROX to a larger location nearby as evidence of the incubator’s success.
Although Cassimatis has not yet finalized plans for the Federal Street arts center, explaining that the project is still in its “infancy phase,” she said her experience at 17ROX will help inform the revitalization effort.
“I know a little bit more than I did last time,” she said.
Cassimatis said Monday that she has already spoken with multiple local artists who are interested in moving their work to the building. In addition to people in the visual arts, that group may include musicians and jewelers, she said.
The first-floor gallery would be a great opportunity for local artists to show their work to the community, according to The New Leaf Gallery director Taryn Fisher.
Fisher, who closed her former Central Square outfit, the Keene Fine Craft Gallery, last April and opened The New Leaf in a much smaller space downtown, said she hopes to display her artists’ wares at the new center and would even consider relocating the whole gallery.
“If we could afford a space down there … that would be right in the community,” she said. “It’s up in the air, but it’s all really exciting.”
Cassimatis is also working with Arts Alive, a Keene nonprofit that supports the arts in the region, on plans for the arts-focused redevelopment downtown.
That effort would resemble the arts corridor that the Monadnock Economic Development Corp. had proposed, according to Arts Alive Executive Director Jessica Gelter. In a conversation with Gelter last month, Dragon, the city manager, said she suggested that the organization focus on a more manageable design than the sprawling 11-acre corridor.
The project may include bringing galleries and workshops to Lamson Street and Gilbo Avenue, near the revitalized Jonathan Daniels Building, according to Gelter. She said the area would attract consumers and foster collaboration, not competition, among the artists — adding that the MEDC project drew interest from dozens of practitioners.
“We don’t want to lose that momentum,” she said. “… It’s going to be a great place to go for the arts.”
Cassimatis said she is searching for people to sponsor the Jonathan Daniels Building rehabilitation effort, as well as artists who want to use studios at the new center. She encouraged anyone interested in the project to contact her at email@example.com.
One of her objectives, Cassimatis said, is to reverse the association between arts and elite culture. Instead, she wants the new center to be a place where all community members can explore their creative passions and learn about themselves in the process.
“It means that there’s creation happening,” she said of the center’s importance. “That can lead to very important things for each individual.”
This article has been updated to correct Taryn Fisher's role at The New Leaf Gallery.