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Open Lot is open to different artists' experiences

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 1, 2009 - Alternative arts spaces are often on the peripheries of a city, in neighborhoods that are variously described as "transitional" or "edgy" or "on the rebound." Artists, after all, are nothing if not civic canaries in an urban coal mine: if they can survive in a certain area, others feel they can, too.

But Open Lot's not attempting to turn around a neighborhood. It's just doing what it's doing, in an area, Lafayette Square, that's seen three decades of progressive growth and continued prosperity. There's no need for full-scale recovery in the Square, just interesting new things to add to the already-appealing fabric.

Located just north of the Square One Brewery, separated from that restaurant-and-pub by a very literal "open lot," the Open Lot space is home to five artists, currently. For some, that's a literal home, like Sauce Magazine editor April Seager, who lives in a second-floor loft space. For others, it's a 'round-the-clock studio space, which allows for a lab-like setting of collaboration and conversation.

Jordan Hicks, is one-fifth of that collective, but the one with the deepest institutional memory of the group. Because he's the longest-tenured, he gets to answer the historical questions, "probably because I've been around since Open Lot was conceived, in late 2006, and founded in 2007."

Joining him in the endeavor are Seager, BJ Vogt, Brandon Anschultz and the newest member, Kyra Termini. All are visual artists of various sorts, save for the writer Seager.

Hicks echoes the feelings of the all by saying that, "In its current iteration, I think that Open Lot functions very well as a studio. I know that when I have a question about building things, BJ and Brandon always have good answers. I just finished a project with a large amount of writing, and I was able to have April copy edit for me, which made a huge difference. And I know that Brandon and BJ share insights as artists."

He adds that the space serves a cost savings magnet for artists, as well as a creative one.

"For sure," he says. "The idea works out well because of both spatial and economic efficiency. Instead of renting studio spaces, a venue, and apartments in separate buildings, we can keep it all under one roof and one rent. Of course, this requires a certain amount of flexibility - the large shared studio space is cleared out for concerts; and sometimes gallery shows and public events bleed into our residential spaces, our bedrooms and kitchen. That is what is exciting about it for me, this constant play between what is public and what is private. We're always crossing, erasing, and redrawing that line."

Obviously, that's not a line that everyone wants to ride. As all of us who've watched even an hour of reality-show programming know, people don't always get on so well when living (and working) under one roof. But when the mildest disagreements have popped up, Vogt says "with the people we specifically have here, we've been able to work it out."

By all accounts, positive interactions are the rule.

"For the most part, we run into each other every day," adds Vogt. "We're able to share tools. Or if someone needs to load a truck, everyone chips in and is happy to help out."

That said, people also move on. With just shy of a dozen people involved in the studio/gallery/residential space since Open Lot's birth, Hicks says, there's always the chance - in fact the likelihood - that new people will soon be involved.

"The other two co-founders, Aaron Jacobson and Jonathan Lisenby, have since moved to other cities for work or graduate school," Hicks says. "People in the studios come and go - they might stay for awhile, and then find a new space that meets their needs, of their work may change and require a different type of space or environment - which is great. I have had the chance to meet and share ideas with a number of people."

Even taking a quick tour of the space, it's easy to see what draws people in. After passing through an industrial opening, visitors enter a space that serves as a sort of creative "great room," with high ceilings; perfect space for the towering, wooden works of Vogt.

Anschultz has taken over studio space in the back, which was once three, separate, smaller rooms. Off to the side is an entry to a cute patio. Upstairs in the second portion of the building is Seager's loft-like apartment, a real gem for those who love open floor plans. The building that faces South 18th Street, meanwhile, has three floors of studio space, including Vogt's basement lair, as well as a particularly popular space for communing: the shared kitchen.

When the group opens Open Lot for public events, it's usually a situation in which Hicks has been contacted by a musician or group. He kicks out word to the membership and they coordinate date books. And if all is cleared, low-key shows are put on, with (relatively) minimal amplification and an approach of booking a little bit of everything. To date, they've hosted Danish lute players and experimental acts accompanying silent films. As a venue, they're more interested in the unusual and artistically sympathetic, rather than in bringing in a crowd.

That loose, non-commercialized approach is well summed-up by Seager's statement that "we're not a 501c3, there's no pressure to be defined, or to fulfill a mission statement."

Hicks believes that the approach is particularly useful to St. Louis.

"St. Louis is full of affordable former industrial spaces that, with a little work, could be perfect for this kind for arrangement," Hicks suggests. "I would love to see more of them."

Thomas Crone is a freelance writer.