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In Need of Space 

The performing arts community mourns the loss of Ortspace studios

On a hot morning last week, a few workers were packing up what was left of Ortspace, the giant studio that O-T-O Dance has operated in a downtown warehouse for the last nine years.

One guy was up on a ladder poking around the ceiling. A woman was hauling out a potted tree in a stroller, and somebody else was dragging out a desk. Karen Falkenstrom, co-director of the Japanese drumming group Odaiko Sonora, was surveying the dusty operations in a face mask. But she had not been idle.

"The dance floor is already in my garage," she said. "I have three tons of lumber in my garage."

As for the Marley, the flexible dance floor that sits atop the wood and provides cushioning for dancers' feet, "We rolled it up and took it to ArtFare," Falkenstrom said.

O-T-O, asked by its landlord to leave, has signed a contract to rent space by the hour at ArtFare, a relatively new art space on Sixth Avenue across the street from the Ronstadt Transit Center. (The studio art refugees from the Muse, now being demolished, ironically are also housed at ArtFare.)

"The space at ArtFare will suffice for the time being," O-T-O artistic director Annie Bunker wrote in an e-mail from Hawaii, where she's teaching the company's annual summer aerial-dance workshop. "We will still have room for trapezes and the aerial silks, but the space is not conducive to having performances like the Ortspace was." She added that O-T-O will stage a full season of concerts and classes as usual, starting this fall.

After midwifing countless Tucson dance productions, the spacious O-T-O studios will now be converted to retail storage. Ortspace is just one 10,000 square-foot section of the 70,000 square foot Tucson Warehouse and Transfer Building, owned by Mark Berman and his mother. Berman said he needs the space once occupied by O-T-O to accommodate his growing business, Benjamin Plumbing and Supply.

"We're taking over the studio for Jacuzzi tub storage," he says. "And what they were using for parking will become our yard."

The plumbing company's showroom, filled with tubs, toilets and sinks, is just north of the former dance studio. The warehouse--really 11 smaller adjoining buildings--fills a whole city block, from Sixth Street on the north to Seventh Street on the south, and Seventh Avenue on the west to Ferro Avenue on the east. But most of it is occupied, primarily by arts-related businesses, and the Ortspace "is the only one that makes sense" for his business expansion, Berman said. "It connects to my space."

Berman and the dance troupe enjoyed a relatively cordial relationship for nine years.

"He gave us a very fair rental rate for the amount of space we had," Bunker wrote. Chuck Koesters, the company's managing director, composer and Bunker's husband, wrote, "His primary commitment is to Benjamin Supply, not to us. I cannot fault him for that. In the end, I am appreciative of everything Mark has done."

But the relationship soured over an apparent misunderstanding over when exactly Berman wanted the troupe to vacate. The O-T-Oers thought they could have the space until the end of the calendar year. Berman said he told them they could have it until the end of June, the end of the dance season.

O-T-O surrendered the smaller north studio in January, "but we thought we had the understanding that we had at least until the end of 2006" to remain in the larger south studio, Bunker wrote.

Berman contended that he made himself abundantly clear, letting the troupe know that he wanted the rest of the space by the end of June. "I told them I'd need it," he said. "There were no miscommunications."

The misunderstanding became manifest two months ago when Berman's electrician went in to assess the renovation work that would begin in July. Bunker and Koesters had to complete their annual June dance workshop, then pack like crazy to get to Hawaii in time for their next commitment, leaving others to finish up. Those subletting the space scrambled to find new rehearsal space.

Berman also contended that the space was left trashed, and that live wires were left dangling dangerously out of walls. He had to hire an electrician to seal them up, he said. Falkenstrom responded that she and others removed only what O-T-O has added to the space, including light fixtures and mirrors.

"Nothing was taken out that hadn't been put in by Annie and Chuck," she said. When the dance company first rented the space nine years ago, it was in a deplorable condition, full of debris that had to be carted out in loads. "They put in thousands of dollars in improvements."

As of late last week, Berman had padlocked the space. Falkenstrom said that numerous subtenants had keys, so it's impossible to assess just who did what to the place before the padlocks were installed.

Whatever the particulars of the dispute, for many in the arts community the loss of Ortspace illustrates the problems artists have finding, and paying for, the space they need to incubate their work. O-T-O (formerly known as Orts) rehearsed in the studios, and so did seven other groups, including dance troupes FUNHOUSE movement theater and Capoeira Malandragem, and drumming group Odaiko.

Ortspace also provided a low-cost, edgy performance venue. By Bunker's tally, O-T-O staged 70 concerts and other events during its nine-year tenure, and other groups renting it out presented 60-plus "performances/readings/concerts."

All the arts groups that used the studios "started desperately looking for space," Falkenstrom said. The soundproof studio was ideal for Odaiko Sonora, whose large and noisy drums tend to make neighbors cranky. And choreographers don't have an easy time finding the big, open studios they need to let their ideas--and their dancers--roam free.

Bunker worries that Tucson is following a typical gentrification pattern that prices artists out of the central city. "It is really uncertain what is in store for Tucson artists who are being pushed out of downtown by the oncoming development," she wrote.

Back in the '90s, she said, Sarah Clements, executive director of the now-defunct Tucson Arts District Partnership, and Dian Magie, former executive director of the Tucson Pima Arts Council, "made great strides at reinforcing the importance of artists and community development." Both women stepped down in the early 2000s, and "where (the city) is headed now does not look promising to art."

Choreographer Thom Lewis has frequently rehearsed his FUNHOUSE dancers at the Ortspace. He said that he has gone to city meetings about downtown development and explained "the need for dance rehearsal space. ... It was a strange process--people seemed to think that drama and music folks needed rehearsal space, but dance almost didn't exist."

On the other hand, Tig Collins, who runs ArtFare, says she's optimistic about the blossoming of arts spaces downtown. Her building, for one, is renting out rehearsal room to nearly all the groups displaced by the loss of Ortspace, "and we honor their contracts," she said. "If they were paying $7 an hour, we charge them $7 an hour."

And Berman said he supports the arts, right in his own building. Davis Dominguez Gallery occupies a large renovated space at the north end of his business on Sixth Street, and he's about to rent out the showplace corner at Sixth Street and Seventh Avenue to Philabaum Glass, now at St. Philip's Plaza, run by nationally known glass artist Tom Philabaum and his wife, Dabney.

"Mark is probably the best supporter of the arts in town," said Candice Davis, co-owner of Davis Dominguez. "I vouch for him 100 percent."

Davis Dominguez has just signed another five-year lease with Berman, but O-T-O has learned the hard way that no arts space is forever. In more than 20 years, the troupe has moved into at least a half-dozen spaces, invested their own sweat equity, and then been forced to leave. Their pilgrimage has taken them from the Moving Center on Congress Street in 1985, to the old Zenith Center on Seventh Street near Fourth Avenue, to the Historic YWCA, to a storefront on North Stone Avenue, back to the YWCA, and then finally to Ortspace. They even worked for a bit on the International Arts Center, in the old YMCA in the West University Neighborhood, before it evolved into Muse; they were then planning to move in there.

But Berman, Bunker wrote, "wanted us to stay and asked what it would take for us to do so." The troupe made a deal with the plumbing dealer, and to a great extent renovated their new warehouse space themselves.

To Falkenstrom, the O-T-O story is a lesson learned. She wrote to mayor and council about the plight of the displaced artists, and received very little response.

"Tucson is staking its reputation as a city of the arts," she said, "but artists are getting pushed out of downtown. You'd think the city would have come up with a plan by now."

So she's taken matters into her own hands and formed a limited liability company, Rhythm Industry. She's actively looking to buy a building suitable for Odaiko Sonora.

"I've put together a group of investors," she said, and she's searching on the periphery of downtown, particularly in South Tucson. Some artists have already decamped there, she said, including the Flam Chen fire performers, triggering a new rallying cry: "Go South."

Lewis admires what Odaiko Sonora is doing. "With the city providing no leadership, direction or movement, people like Karen and Rome (Hamner, co-director of the drumming group) are becoming extremely important in the arts community picture."

In Hawaii, Bunker is still sadly pondering the whole episode.

"It's really very disappointing that Tucson, the movement community and the more adventurous performance-going community has lost an important space, and there is nothing to replace it. We had a wonderful model that was working, and here we are back reinventing the wheel again."

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More by Margaret Regan

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