From the outside, 1626 H Street is just another nondescript warehouse along a stretch of warehouses that sit across from the railroad tracks in downtown Fresno.
If it wasn’t for the signage or the decorative lion’s head knocker posted on the industrial gray door, you wouldn’t know this was a hot spot for young, urban art seekers. The Arthouse studio and collective is a foundation space where young artists can show their work for a low, flat rate and no commission on sales.
“It was for the artists, by the artist,” Arthouse co-founder Christopher Geigle said as he stood in the middle of the 6,500-square-foot warehouse.
He uses the past tense.
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Right now, the warehouse is cluttered with four years’ worth of art materials. Odd scraps of wood and partially painted panels are stacked along the brick walls. Everything must be cleared out by mid-January, when the Arthouse will shut down, a casualty of the increased scrutiny that has come in the wake of Oakland’s Ghost Ship warehouse fire on Dec. 2 that killed 36 people.
Arthouse has created a GoFundMe campaign to help offset any costs associated with closing the studio.
The fire garnered massive news coverage and sparked national debate about the safety of warehouse art spaces. It also left many artists and organizers feeling threatened by the fallout. That feeling ramped up following a post on the anonymous online message board 4chan, which urged users to report art spaces to authorities and included a list of possible targets (many with addresses and photos taken from social media). Some claim that post directly led to the closure of art spaces in Baltimore, Denver, Nashville and Richmond.
While it doesn’t appear that the Arthouse was targeted in the post, the Fresno Fire Department was prompted to inspect the building following a call about possible code violations. It was one of five calls the department has received since the Oakland fire, a number that Fresno Fire Marshal Ted Semonious calls “more than normal.”
“Public awareness of these kinds of issues has been brought to light,” he said.
That has not gone unnoticed by those working in warehouses in downtown Fresno, and Arthouse’s closure hasn’t helped.
The Facebook group for members of Fresno Ideaworks was inundated with questions following news of the artist studio’s imminent closure. Some worried that the nonprofit maker space also would be targeted for inspection, says Scott Kramer, one of Ideawork’s founding board members.
He was able to reassure the membership that the space was operating within compliance and that it had passed inspections in the past.
“We’re using the space for what it was built for,” Kramer said.
This wasn’t the first time the Arthouse has been inspected. As per its inspection schedule, the Fresno Fire Department had visited the studios several times over the last four years, says Arthouse co-founder Adam Mena.
Each time, the collective was given a list of items that needed to be upgraded or fixed. He estimates that the group has spent $40,000 on various upgrades, including the addition of track lighting and work on the building’s electrical system.
When we get a complaint about a business, we’re obligated to go check them out.
Fresno Fire Marshal Ted Semonious
The upgrades needed after this latest round of inspections were simply more than the collective – and ultimately the building’s owner – were willing or able to manage, Mena says.
Of course, local artists were dealing with code and compliance issues long before the Ghost Ship fire brought them to public attention.
Earlier in 2016, artist cooperative Gallery 25 was forced from its location on Van Ness Avenue after its space was reclassified by the fire inspector. The change meant building improvements and substantially higher rent, which the gallery could not afford.
It moved briefly into a smaller space inside Chris Sorensen Studio and Galleries, then in August moved to the M Street Arts Complex at 1419 M St. in downtown Fresno.
This is the fifth location for the gallery since it was founded in 1974.
“It kind of goes with the territory of being an artist,” said Leslie Batty, a local mixed-media painter who is familiar with artist collectives. Artists, especially those working in urban areas, live with the knowledge they could be upended at any moment and not just by city inspectors.
Plenty of art spaces have been swallowed up as new investors come into urban areas – typically, once those areas have become established by artists. Batty has seen this first-hand in San Francisco, where a gallery handling her work was forced to shut down.
“Gentrification, I think it’s called.”
Being forced to pick up and move can be a strain on the artists. But it also can push them to work in new ways, Batty says, that can produce exciting and innovative work.
Batty is familiar with the Arthouse and is a fan of their work. She is confident the collective will find a way to keep creating and growing their art.
“They’ve really developed a community around their approach to art,” she said.
To that end, Geigle and Mena are excited about the future of the Arthouse collective and say they have no plans to quit curating shows or hosting events. Already they have been tasked with curating artwork for this year’s Grizzly Fest.
“We just won’t have a physical space right now,” Geigle said.