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Harris Building rebrands as arts and entertainment hub

‘Kind of the athletic club for the philanthropist, musician or artist.’

January 29, 2016
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Harris Building
The Harris Building currently houses an art gallery, artists’ residency spaces, classrooms, a ballroom and catering kitchen. Photo by John Nowak

The Harris Building has embarked on its long-term vision to become a hub for musicians and artists.

In its grand vision, the building will become a membership-driven organization where artists, philanthropists and the community can come to work and connect with each other, and also enjoy performances, gallery openings and other events.

John Nowak, music and events coordinator for The Harris Building, 111 S. Division Ave., said the hope is to eventually offer at least two types of memberships: one for artists and another for community members.

Membership holders would be able to utilize the building — perhaps on a 24/7 basis — and enjoy perks such as the first option to purchase event tickets — “kind of the athletic club for the philanthropist, musician or artist,” Nowak said.

In fact, he said the building’s owner, Robert Dykstra, is the former owner of the Michigan Athletic Club, and the idea for the membership model comes from the athletic club model.

Nowak said eventually the hope is the building will be active at all times, with workshops and classes occurring during the daytime, and evening events taking place throughout the week and weekend.

“A big part of our market that we want to reach are baby boomers or empty-nesters — people who don’t necessarily have places in the city to go to during the day because a lot of the city is nightlife,” Nowak said.

He said the plan is to begin offering daytime opportunities such as yoga, painting, jewelry, cooking and poetry classes, as well as other offerings, and continue to adapt based on what the community wants.

In January, the building began offering a series of yoga classes, two of which include live music. Samantha Radecki is the instructor.

Nowak said there will likely be smaller events on weeknights with lower ticket prices, many of which will be hosted by The Harris Building. He also anticipates hosting events in partnership with businesses, organizations and community members.

The building kicked off its first weekly music series, Jazz at the Harris, a couple of weeks ago. The jazz concert series features house band The Robin Connell Trio with a different musical guest each week.

On the weekends, Nowak said he expects larger events to occur in the building’s events spaces.

He said there might be nights when multiple events are going on at the same time, or nights when one event is being held throughout the whole building.

“The great thing about the building is there are so many spaces, so you can rent it out for whatever event you are going for,” Nowak said.

As the building progresses toward its long-term vision, it will likely add staff, including a full-time curator, marketing director and other operational support.

Currently, The Harris Building houses an art gallery on the main floor; an artists’ residency space in the basement with an accompanying events space and a series of classrooms; a ballroom, mezzanine, catering kitchen and gallery spaces on the second floor; and gallery and events spaces on the third floor.

Chris Bota, the building’s music and events coordinator, said the basement level space will likely be devoted to local artists.

“Cynthia Hagedorn is a local artist and she has a studio down there,” he said. “She is going to be hosting a local artist residency where she brings in young up-and-coming artists to help them get off the ground. She’ll host a gallery for them during the month, and they will have their art down there.”

He said the main floor gallery could include work by artists from anywhere.

The artwork on display in the main floor gallery currently is part of a Detroit artists’ exhibit by Creative Opportunity Detroit, as well as some pieces from the building’s participation in ArtPrize last year. Melannie Chard is curating the show and represents the Detroit artists in the building.

Bota said the building also plans to partner with businesses. In addition to serving as a meeting and events space, it is currently working on creating a program for corporate wellness classes.

“A lot of corporations are having events for their employees,” he said. “Those rooms will be used as classrooms as well as studios.”

Bota said he sees a need in Grand Rapids for a space like The Harris Building.

“We’ve been talking to a lot of people in the art community, especially the younger people, and there are a lot of people trying to bring all these different art scenes in the city together,” he said. “We talk to musicians who believe the same thing, that there is not a centralized space for bringing people together.”

Bota said he wants to see the Grand Rapids art scene and local artists gain more national recognition.

“ArtPrize has helped us get that recognition,” he said. “I think bringing these people together and talking about big-level plans of how to get Grand Rapids artists and musicians to that next level — where there is actually national recognition — definitely needs a space.”

To achieve its long-term vision, Bota and Nowak said the building will need the community to embrace it.

“Obviously, this is a vision, and it’s only going to happen with community support,” he said.

He said the building is currently looking for sponsors.

At the end of the day, Bota and Nowak said the goal is to give the historic building, which in the past has been home to a brewery, furniture store and the Knights of Pythias, its next life.

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