Floating on AIR 

Two years in, commerce and art still mix downtown

Artists Marcus Pierce and Cody Rutty in their AIR space on First Thursday.

photo by Laurie Pearman

Artists Marcus Pierce and Cody Rutty in their AIR space on First Thursday.

Artist Lisa Bufano whirled around with handcrafted appendages in a window of the Alaska Building while people strolled down Main Street one First Thursday evening. Screenwriter Elizabeth Rodgers asked visitors to bring embarrassing junior high journals for an evening of sharing the hilarity, horror and highlights within at Cole/Marr Coffeehouse

For a little more than two years, 34 artists have been painting, performing and pontificating in several downtown commercial buildings as part of Boise's Artist in Residence program, in which local artists are given studio space with the requirement that they then open their temporary studios to the public on First Thursdays during their residency.

The brainchild of 8th Street Marketplace owner Ephraim Greenwall, his then-marketing director Courtney Robinson Feider of Adrian +Sabine, and City of Boise Public Art Manager Karen Bubb, AIR has progressed beyond the threesome's initial goals to integrate arts and business in the city center.

"We didn't start the AIR program specifically for commercial reasons but had some vacancies in the Mercantile Building office spaces and thought incorporating artists into the space would add a little life into our building, as well as helping a community [of artists] who desperately needed workspace," Greenwall said.

From the program's initiation in January 2009, Bubb's role has been to get the call out to artists interested in obtaining a three-month working studio space, free of charge, as well as to facilitate a panel of local professionals to choose from among the applicants. But Bubb's role, as well as the larger role of the Boise City Department of Arts and History, is also to promote local business.

"We've dedicated a considerable amount of time to making the downtown core more visible through the AIR program, engaging empty space during an economic downturn, which benefits everyone," said Bubb.

Taking Greenwall's lead, other building owners have opened up spaces to artists, including in the basement of the Renewal Consignment Homewares, the Alaska Building and, recently, Bricolage in the Idaho Building.

"It is an excellent program if a building owner wants to show some expression and have a direct relationship with [the] community. Having artists on board really differentiates your office space for your business tenants," Greenwall explained.

In fact, new tenants in Greenwall's building have come to expect quirky happenings each month and artists traversing the halls. Red Sky Public Relations, which recently moved into the Mercantile Building, was drawn to the area because of AIR and the artistic culture.

"Our team told us they wanted to be in the heart of the city, where there was activity and energy and entertainment nearby," said Jessica Flynn, founder and CEO of Red Sky. "A place that was inspiring, had history and 'felt right' for a creative company like ours."

Though it seems likely that the more businesses that move into the AIR space, the less room there will be for artists, Greenwall says there's no reason to think that.

"The artists and creative community which reside at 8th Street Marketplace have become part of the texture of the project," Greenwall said. "Many of our new businesses come to 8th Street partially because of AIR. Additionally, artists have become actual tenants of our buildings. My guess is ... AIR will be here for a long time in one form or another."

Having those dedicated spaces in which to make and show work has been invaluable to many of the AIR program artists.

"Having a studio outside of my home made me really focus on the body of work I was creating. It helped me see myself as a serious artist," said Amber Daley, whose current project, "histori{c}ity," consists of large-scale digital paintings of local historic landmarks. Daley spent between 10 and 20 hours a week working in the Mercantile during her residency and felt the prestige of being chosen as an AIR artist helped her market herself and her work.

"I noticed that people in the community and potential clients' impression of me and the caliber of my work increased when they heard I had a space in BODO through this program," she said.

Performance artist, photographer and sculptor Brooke Burton utilized her AIR space in two unique ways.

"[My] space was huge, so I was able to create some 8-feet-tall pieces that I'd never been able to make in my home studio," Burton said. She also invited Boise sound artist Ted Apel to share the work space with her.

"It was nice to have another artist in the space, as it provided someone to bounce ideas off of, and that energy really led to creativity for me," she said.

In 2010, AIR extended the three-month stints to six months because of feedback from the artists who felt that more time would help. Additionally, two smaller offices in the Mercantile Building have been dedicated specifically to offering workspace to writers in residence, utilizing the Cole/Marr Coffee House as their First Thursday venue. Alan Heathcock, an English professor at Boise State, spent his time at the Marketplace Building completing final edits on his recently book, Volt, and doing promotional planning and media.

"The studio not only gave me a creative space to focus on writing but also a professional space to hold meetings in. Working with Cole/Marr turned into such a good opportunity to get people out in the public to talk about and promote writing," said Heathcock, who only expected around 30 people at his first event and was surprised when nearly 90 came.

In addition to having a studio and hosting First Thursday events, each AIR artist also donates a piece of artwork at the end of his or her residency, which is then displayed on the building's walls.

"It's a point of pride for employees to work in a space that values artistic endeavors and provides a platform to showcase those efforts to the public," Flynn said. "Creativity breeds creativity. We only see positives to being in such a dynamic space where various knowledge workers and creative class companies reside. Inspiration comes in all forms."

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