Heading south into the center of Raleigh along the city's artery of urban sprawl, Capital Boulevard, there's a strange string of industrial relics to the passenger side just north of downtown.
First there's the rising spire of a concrete factory, followed soon by an acre assemblage of sanitation trucks, sitting like warhorses in waiting. And in the distance, at the crest of an artificial hill of pavement and concrete, there's a row of strange, still warehouses that suggest permanent vacancy. Welcome to what may become Raleigh's next great arts outpost.
"We're starting to carve out a little spot there," says Chris Hutcherson-Riddle, sitting roughly half a mile away at a coffee shop in the middle of the city's glitzy commercial strip, the once-forsaken stretch of blocks now known as Glenwood South. "We're looking forward to making it a destination spot. There will be a definite reason to go."
Hutcherson-Riddle is the co-founder of Moving Island, a three-level, multiuse arts space that opens this weekend in the foam-green warehouse at 804 N. West St. A labyrinthine mix of tiny alcoves, a fake mezzanine and enormous open spaces, Moving Island—named to signify its status as a nexus for those creating new work—is a dreamer's playhouse stuffed with spaces that suggest trying everything.
Next door, the big white warehouse called The Ruby Red has already been successful as a de facto artist colony for nearly a year. From band practices and artist workshops to late-night revelries, The Ruby Red has become a downtown creative oasis at one end of West Street. Moving Island wants to be the harbor that builds on its older neighbor's lessons.
Hutcherson-Riddle and his collaborator, the software engineer Adam Crane, found the spot while looking for a new place to live—preferably, a home big enough for Hutcherson-Riddle's four bands to practice and for Crane's lighting design start-up to craft and test its new ideas. Hutcherson-Riddle had seen the strange space while two of his bands, Old Bricks and Motor Skills, practiced at The Ruby Red; he peered through the window on a lark and noticed its nice, surprisingly clean hardwood floors. Perhaps they'd found a living space—and a whole lot more.
"Very quickly, by talking to people, it evolved into something a lot cooler than we'd originally planned," says Crane.
"Initially, it was a scramble to see if we could break it up and have the space be used by people that we know so that it was communal," Hutcherson-Riddle continues. "In that scramble, before we even signed anything, the ideas started coming at us from the community. That's when we started thinking about doing something a little bigger."
Exactly what that something is—or what a little bigger means, even—still seems a bit nebulous. Indeed, Hutcherson-Riddle, Crane and a crew of volunteers have been demolishing and building in the space for only about two months, ripping out walk-in coolers and dismantling freight elevators while hanging drywall and painting cinderblock. So far, only the top floor is even close to functional.
Moving Island will serve as an occasional venue for special events by area bands and for out-of-town artists whose audience might be so specialized that an appearance in a rock club doesn't make sense. This weekend, the top floor will host a two-day benefit concert for the space itself with 16 local bands. Essential to its pending nonprofit application, however, is its capacity as an educational facility. Area experts will teach casual classes in specialized art and music techniques, like circuit-bending, sampling and black-and-white photography. Plans also call for classes on life skills for the downtown set, like urban horticulture, budgeting and cooking. Some classes start in March.
They hope to raise money through $30 memberships that earn people discounts on classes and concerts; if its nonprofit status clears, Moving Island will also focus its fundraising on grants. Several of the most popular local bands have already promised benefit shows for the space. When money and time finally permit, Hutcherson-Riddle and Crane plan to remodel the lower floors and open them to area artists. Essentially, they're looking to meet need as it arises.
"We're open to hearing from the community—'What would be your dream class that doesn't exist right now, or is this something that you're experienced with and want to teach at some time?'" says board member Maria Albani. "It's about providing a home to outlets that don't have a full community right now. It should be a place for people to bring new ideas and see them to fruition."
It should come as no surprise that, within the span of a year, these two spaces have opened as neighbors. According to Dan Douglas, the former director of Raleigh's Urban Design Center, any city claiming creativity requires spaces where artists can work and collaborate on the cheap.
"The way I always tried to talk about it with the folks at the city was that these spaces are what I call part of a creative infrastructure," says Douglas, now an employee of the international design firm KlingStubbins. "Just like factories need water, sewer and roads to be successful, the creative community needs these cheap, flexible spaces to be able to do different events and to allow different artists to set up. The city should consider trying to help artists do that."
When Raleigh, largely unlike Durham, bulldozed the bulk of its industrial spaces for downtown parking and, eventually, to build expensive mixed-use office and residential space, it ensured that artists wouldn't be using what once would have been perfect. In fact, under Douglas' direction in 2007, the Urban Design Center presented the city with a proposal for an "Unconventional Center," which would have used the 48,000-square foot Sir Walter Chevrolet Building on South McDowell Street as a haven for not only some of the city's arts institutions, like Artsplosure and Raleigh Ensemble Players, but also for its independent artists. "Commercial space downtown is too expensive," the proposal noted. "Artist-focused housing is a need."
But that building—designed by noted Raleigh architect William Henley Deitrick in 1949 and described as "modern to its fullest extent" in a submission to the National Register of Historic Spaces five decades later—was demolished several years ago. A 5,500-capacity amphitheater now sits in its stead, directly across the street from Raleigh's actual convention center. Douglas says this and similar ideas, like the black box theater he proposed for the unused space beneath a municipal parking deck, found surprising traction within city management. Eventually, though, the funds simply didn't exist to outfit another space that wasn't designed to make money.
"It's a tough time to try and find funding for some of this stuff," says Douglas, who even toyed with the idea of finding private-sector contributions to match the city's commitment to the space. "The question for the city is, 'Are you willing to knock down the rent a little bit, or at least incentivize such a space?' So far, to my knowledge, they haven't."
But Matt Roberts has. The owner of the building that has become Moving Island, Roberts says he's losing at least $500 each month by renting the space to a couple of artists. Roberts earned his master's in landscape design at N.C. State in the mid-'90s, and he now runs his own landscaping business. He'd originally used the building to train German shepherds, but after a series of serendipitous encounters, he just couldn't use it anymore. He wanted to give the space the chance to be productive for the community at large. When he talks about the decision, he effuses satisfaction.
"I felt like this was an opportunity for a lot more people than myself, and there was no need to be selfish here," he says. "My vision for the space was exactly that."