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Free Art Tomorrow

Group hopes to revive the historic Tennessee Brewery downtown.



When you step into the old Tennessee Brewery on Tennessee Street downtown, you can't help but feel a bit inebriated. Only these days, it's not the beer that's intoxicating but the empty, grand old building's architectural drama.

Look up and you see the wrought-iron railings of the open, winding staircases that frame each floor. The windows were strategically placed so that natural light floods in, throwing ornate shadows from the decorative latticework of the railings. It was once the site of a bustling beer industry, and hundreds of feet traversed that very floor each day. The worn concrete, scattered with flakes of rust, seems to welcome new feet after years of abandonment.

The 113-year-old Tennessee Brewery, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980, has seen good times and bad. In 1900, the brewery was owned by John Schorr and was said to be the largest in the South, pumping out up to 250,000 barrels of Goldcrest beer a day. In 1999, it was at the center of an environmental court case that could have resulted in its demolition had current owner Kevin Norman not stepped in. He purchased the crumbling landmark after the previous owners refused to make necessary repairs to prevent its destruction. Norman funded the process of getting the building back up to code requirements.

Now, the old building sits vacant, looming over the Mississippi River like a giant ghost, but Norman and a local group of artists appropriately called ArtBrew have banded together with a plan for the brewery. They want to turn it into an affordable living/work space for artists, complete with performance and exhibition space, "arts-friendly" commercial and retail space, and arts education and outreach programs for the community.

"Artists are really priced out of the downtown market, and that's a shame. We're hoping to remedy that situation," says ArtBrew member Michael Eck. "The price of rent will probably be comparable to getting a studio loft in Midtown. There are a couple of artists' cooperatives in Midtown in such raw spaces, and they're just making do with what they have. This would put a solid roof over their heads and offer them a permanent home to begin to develop and grow."

ArtBrew has commissioned the Minneapolis-based Artspace Projects, Inc. to take a look at the building and determine the idea's feasibility. Artspace is a nonprofit organization with a successful track record for helping groups like ArtBrew obtain funding for these kinds of historic renovations. They function essentially as a real-estate developer, pulling funding from historic tax credits, affordable-housing tax credits, charitable foundations, and corporate donations as well as traditional bank financing.

After the funding has been pulled together, Artspace either co-owns the building with a local partner like ArtBrew or steps down entirely, depending on what the artist collective has in mind. Artspace often retains a general-manager status for several years to ensure the project is fulfilling its mission as an artist community.

Since most of the rooms of the brewery are large and built in such a way that it would be difficult to divide them into apartments, ArtBrew has selected the Float Factory, an old warehouse located at the corner of Virginia Street and South Main, to be the main live/work space for the artist collective. The brewery would actually only house four to six apartment spaces reserved for international and out-of-state artists to serve as their artist-in-residence home. A couple of those spaces may also be reserved for accomplished local artists who would be hand-picked to stay in the brewery for six months to a year.

The remainder of the brewery's rooms would be converted into a number of arts-related spaces: a dance studio, a cinema, various studio spaces, gallery and exhibition space, nonprofit and for-profit commercial and retail office space, a media cooperative, a publishing cooperative, an iron-forging shop, arts classrooms and workshop space, and possibly even a microbrewery to revive the building's heritage.

When Artspace visits, they'll be performing a marketing survey to determine if there is a real need for such a space for artists in the downtown area. If they decide there is and determine the Tennessee Brewery and Float Factory are practical spaces for such projects, they'll try to obtain the funds. The average Artspace project takes about three years from the research phase to completion of construction.

"There's so much inspiration with the river flowing by and the great buildings downtown," says Eck. "All these people are moving downtown for the excitement of living downtown, but it's not very exciting here if there aren't creative people living and creating."

An open-to-the-public community meeting with Artspace representatives will be held inside the Tennessee Brewery (477 Tennessee St.) at 7 p.m. on Thursday, April 24th.

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