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Reno’s artistic heart beats in a creative, upbeat neighborhood.
Photo: Charlie Johnston
From her office on the ground floor of Riverside Artist Lofts in the old Riverside Hotel in downtown Reno, Jill Berryman, executive director of Sierra Arts, recounts a real-life drama that has played everywhere from SoHo to San Francisco. “Artists rent cheap places like warehouse buildings and take the blighted place in town because [it’s what] they can afford,” she says.
Over time, their creative influence draws attention to the area and folks with money to spend check it out. The drama’s last act is always the same. “As soon as it becomes a cool part of town, the owners of those buildings figure they can get much more rent, so out go the artists,” Berryman says.
To some, the preceding tale is one of urban renewal and progress. But to others who believe the artists who help sow the seeds of an area’s economic recovery deserve to share in the harvest, it’s a tragedy. So in 1999, when the vacant Riverside and Mapes hotels were slated for demolition, Berryman and her Sierra Arts colleagues seized an opportunity to rewrite the final scene. Partnering with ArtSpace Projects, Inc., a Minnesota-based nonprofit real estate developer that renovates historic buildings into live-work spaces for artists, Sierra Arts and ArtSpace bought the Riverside from the City of Reno Redevelopment Agency.
The now 81-year-old Riverside building proved structurally sound by modern standards, allowing all of its concrete floors and interior columns to be kept intact (meanwhile, the floor of the legendary Sky Room in the Mapes Hotel sagged perilously into the rooms below, contributing to its demolition in 2001). The Riverside’s interior was completely gutted and refitted with new plumbing, electrical, and HVAC systems. The old kitchenettes gave way to one-, two-, and three-bedroom apartments ranging in size from 780 to 1,600 square feet, with 10-foot-high ceilings and exposed heating and cooling ducts.
If those “lifestyle lofts” that keep popping up all over the downtowns of America come to mind, think again. These are bare-bones living quarters, built for people who make no more than 60 percent median income and think it’s a luxury to have a coin-operated laundry room just down the hall. Most importantly, they maintain a dedication to their artistic talents. Riverside Artist Lofts tenants, Berryman says, come from “all five disciplines of the arts: visual, music, dance, theater, and literary.”
In total, Riverside Artist Lofts has 35 residential units that occupy five of the building’s six floors. Sharing the ground floor with Sierra Arts are Parasols Boutique, Dreamer’s Coffeehouse & Deli (which also exhibits local artists’ work), and Wild River Grille. The latter two open directly onto the Riverwalk, Reno’s public plaza along the Truckee River. This puts Riverside Artist Lofts right in the heart of Reno’s downtown renaissance, where the prices of the newly built luxury condominiums nearby can exceed $800,000.
Low-income artists and white-collar professionals are sharing in the downtown core’s reawakening. “How often does that happen?” Berryman says with a laugh, clearly satisfied with the age-old drama’s new happy ending. Nevada Magazine spoke with some of the tenants who have lived in Riverside Artist Lofts since it opened in 2000 and asked them what residing here has meant for their professional artistic development.
Loft living gives Craig Smyres room to indulge his versatility. When he says he has a ceramics studio, a wax studio, a digital studio, a painting and drawing studio, and a bronze studio, he’s referring to different areas of his 1,000-square-foot live-work space. Works in progress occupy each one. He could call his desk a writing studio while he’s at it, since he’s also a novelist and short-story writer.
At the time of our interview, his bronze studio featured a casting of a woman perched atop a globe, lovingly cradling a car as if it were a newborn baby. She’s a central piece in Autolust, Smyres’ multimedia installation about human values and behavior in the face of global warming. Some sculptures from Autolust were part of a February-March group show held in UNLV’s Marjorie Barrick Museum of Natural History.
Because he lives in Riverside Artist Lofts, Smyres says, “a lot more people are familiar with my work than would be otherwise.” He plans to keep living here “until they throw me out or I’m carried out.”
Of living downtown, Mary Bennett says, “it’s like you’re in a Sesame Street episode: ‘Who are the people in your neighborhood?’ I love it. It’s made me be more a part of a community than I’ve ever felt.”
From the calm of her living room sofa, she becomes animated when describing the people she meets each day—a muralist painting a downtown storefront, a plein air painter setting up his easel on a bridge, or an actor rehearsing lines by the river. “It’s just buzzin’, you know. It’s so exciting.”
A big part of the buzz is Brüka Theatre, a live-performance playhouse where Bennett is an artistic partner, manager, producer, director, and actor. Brüka specializes in “fun physical theater that is absolutely ludicrous,” Bennett says. With show titles like “The Buttcracker” and “Reefer Madness: The Musical,” well, you get the idea. “Signature Brüka,” Bennett calls it. In November 2007, Brüka kicked off its 15th-anniversary season with “Buttcracker II: The Other Cheek.” Sorry you missed it? You can still catch this season’s remaining fare at bruka.org.
Bart McCoy’s award-winning airbrush work spices up motorcycles all over Reno, but he hopes to one day be lauded for his oil painting, too. He specializes in contemporary classical realism, depicting modern subject matter with a Dutch-Flemish technique that harkens back to Rembrandt.
Other artists have taken notice of McCoy’s work. He has participated in many group shows, including one in the Nevada Museum of Art. “That was really good for me,” he says with understated satisfaction. “I got a lot of exposure from that.” Truckee River Gallery, one of downtown Reno’s newest exhibit spaces, will feature McCoy’s work in October, along with fellow Reno painter Paul Mellender.
McCoy and his wife, Sara, a sculptor, have seen Reno change for the better during their years in Riverside Artist Lofts. “When we moved in,” Bart says, “downtown was kind of a dump. There were bums everywhere. The past five years it’s changed quite a bit and really feels like home.”
|At left is a 360-degree view of an exhibit of Tim Guthrie’s work at Sierra Arts Gallery in 2003. Titled “Unorthodoxy,” the show contained more than 650 pieces of artwork and covered all of the available walls of the gallery. Provided by Tim Guthrie|
17 S. Virginia St., Ste. 120, Reno
Gallery hours: Mon.- Fri.,
8:30 a.m.-5 p.m.
Pre-arranged tours of Riverside Artist Lofts available to groups.
Dreamer’s Coffeehouse & Deli
Wild River Grille
99 N. Virginia St., Reno