Collaborative, Welcoming and Playful—New Artistic Community Center, Artbox, Opens Downtown

Written by Kingsli Kraft | February 27, 2020

Close your eyes and imagine this: You’ve just arrived in Downtown Alpena. It’s a crisp day in March. You’ve parked your car and you’re crossing Chisholm Street walking up Second Avenue, heading towards Olivet Book and Gift. As you stroll down the sidewalk, you stumble upon a cute little shop with a screen door. You can hear music filtering out of the shop and into the street. You look up and see a sign on the building that reads “Artbox.” Peering into the windows you see a bright and welcoming space full of people, but you can’t quite tell what they’re doing from where you stand on the sidewalk. You decide to go in, and see what this space is all about. Once inside you see a few people seated around on laptops, another person working diligently over a canvas with some paints, while a couple of people in the corner enjoy a simple snack of PB&J sandwiches while they go through photos on a camera. Artwork in all forms and mediums is displayed throughout the space, sculptures, digital artwork, and you can see a kitchen in the back. At the counter someone is passing a customer a cup of coffee while someone else is renting a set of watercolor paints to use for the day. A flyer on the wall announces a poetry reading next week and another lists the dates of collaborative art events called “Artjam.”

Photo of Artbox—the newest addition to Downtown Alpena.

What is this place? 

This is Artbox, a community arts center for all—both those who consider themselves creatives and those who may not. This is the vision that co-owners Tabitha Camp and Molly Stricker have for the space that was once home to As You Wish Gourmet Eatery at 104 N. Second Avenue.

It will be the newest addition to Downtown Alpena, with a soft opening this Saturday, February 29th from 4:00pm-8:00pm for the Alpena Downtown Development Authority’s “Leap Year Local” event and their own Leap Day Party. They will then be open regular hours listed below beginning in March.

  • Monday-Wednesday- closed         
  • Thursday – 4:00pm – 10:00pm
  • Friday- 4:00pm – Midnight
  • Saturday- 4:00pm – Midnight
  • Sunday- 2:00pm – 6:00pm

Artbox will offer three main categories of service: collective supplies, collaborative space, and community support. In addition to these services, Artbox will also feature a simple and minimalist cafe called Lunchbox. Lunchbox will start with a small menu of items like fancy PB&J, other sandwiches, coffee and a few other refreshments. The goal isn’t to be a restaurant, but to offer people who may be cozied up working on a big project the option of something to eat and sustain themselves with, without having to pack up and go somewhere else and interrupt their work. In the future they hope to partner with local chefs and bakers to bring as much local food downtown as possible. 

On the homepage of their website, their mission statement reads, “Artbox is an artistic community center located in downtown alpena. We are dedicated to providing artists with vital resources as well as appreciators with involvement in the artistic process at all stages.The space is yours, what will you do with it?”

Collective Supplies

The first half of collective supplies at Artbox will come in the form of an arts supply store. They will be selling as many different supplies as they possibly can—everything from beginner materials to advanced and more expensive materials. They hope to cover as many art forms as they can, and will be looking to adapt as they learn what items people want and need. Ideally, there will be tools and materials for makers and creators of all types: bakers, painters, illustrators, writers, photographers, sculptors. “Any art supplies that people are looking for, they can let us know and we’ll try to order it or have it in stock,” explained Tabitha.

The other half of collective supplies is equipment and materials that will be available for rent. Things like a professional set of watercolor paints, or acrylic paints, or an entire camera set with a tripod and lenses will be available for rent. The goal of this is to make artistic exploration more accessible. Cost can definitely be a barrier when someone wants to explore a new artistic medium or even get started on an artistic path. They will be slowly building out their inventory of materials and equipment to rent focusing on things like easels, lens sets for cameras, backdrops, tripods, paint sets, cameras and other tools and instruments. “We want to have the equipment and materials on hand for people to borrow for an afternoon to explore an artistic medium that they may have always wanted to try, but couldn’t afford to purchase an entire set of paints or a camera or something right away, ” said Molly.

Collaborative Space

They want to create that space where people can come and work during their open hours and read or work on their laptops or work on their artwork and be in space and fellowship with other creatives. Artbox will be a place for artists to find others to collaborate with, bounce ideas off one another and receive constructive feedback and support on projects from fellow creatives that may have a different perspective. Both Molly and Tabitha pursued arts degrees in college and took inspiration for Artbox’s space from the arts and theatre buildings and programs on their campuses. Molly explained further, “The thing that Tab and I miss the most about college is having an art building where you can go and mess around and play around and pick up things you’ve never tried before and try something new. We miss the camaraderie of “oh what are you working on? What if you tried this?”

During non-open hours, they would like to rent the space to anyone who might need or want it to teach art classes, host events or club and group meetings, or use the commercial kitchen to bake or cook meals. 

Community Support

This part of Artbox will constantly be in developing and growing as the business grows and they are able to identify the needs and interests of the community. They are hoping to host a variety of events: open mic nights, poetry readings, potlucks, film screenings, and other creative events where people can create and get messy together. Molly and Tabitha shared a little sneak peek of the ideas they have for events with me, and I think I’ll leave those for them to share as a fun little surprise. Their main focus is to offer events that add to what is already happening in the arts scene downtown. “We don’t want to compete with anyone or shift business away from anyone. We want to add events and services that supplement and elevate the things that our community is already doing,” Tabitha noted. 

“We want to offer some alternatives to the bar scene. We want to offer a fun, safe and relaxed space open in the evenings where people of all ages can still connect with and meet others who share their interests. Especially for people who may not be able or interested in going out to a bar or having to go somewhere where you have to spend money. We want people to feel comfortable coming here to hang out, to work without feeling like they have to spend money on something in order to be here,” Molly added.

The last part of community support is connecting artists to each other. In their numerous meetings with local creatives and artists, Molly and Tabitha discovered that there was a need and a craving for connection.They learned that many artists have difficulties finding other artists to collaborate with, to receive honest and educated feedback on their work from, or to learn a new skill or technique from.

The Origins of an Idea

Molly has lived in Alpena since she was twelve years old, moving here from a diverse and artistically charged area. When she first came to Alpena she experienced a bit of culture shock and struggled to find people who were similar to her and interested in the things she was interested in. Like so many of us, when she left Alpena for college, she had no intention of coming back here. Then the opportunity to be Managing Director at Thunder Bay Theatre opened up. She was convinced to apply for the job and eventually was selected for it. After two years of directing shows and working in an administrative role, Molly left TBT to try to go into the Peace Corps. Ultimately that path did not work out, and she stayed in Alpena. 

It was at Thunder Bay Theatre that Molly and Tabitha met. Tabitha came to work at TBT as the stage manager in the Fall of 2018. Before that, she was working a job in St. Louis and was recruited to come to TBT for a little while. Originally, Tabitha only planned to be in Alpena for about two months to help round out the 2018 season but at the end of the fall season, she was asked to come back as production manager for a year long contract in 2019. 

For both Molly and Tabitha, working with students at Thunder Bay Theatre through Masquers Club, now known as the AHS Theatre Troupe, had been the highlight of their experience working at the theatre, and the idea for Artbox was inspired by their own experiences in this community and the experiences of the students they had the opportunity to work with during productions. They want to create a space where students can come between college classes or after school or other extracurriculars that is safe and comfortable, where they aren’t required to be quiet or buy something to sit at a table for two hours during a break in classes.

The idea began when their time working at Thunder Bay Theatre came to a close and they began to ask themselves, “What do we want to do with our time we have left here? How can we make this time here useful and helpful for ourselves while maintaining boundaries that allow us to support our mental health and occupational health and creative work?” 

They first began talking about it with the question of “okay, well what would it take for both of us to stay here for five years? What do we want and need in this community? What are our priorities?”

The two main needs became clear: 

  1. A space where they could make things and a space for adults to play and explore
  2. Connections to other artists and people who make things

They had started to brainstorm how they could make that happen when the space that had been home to As You Wish opened up. Then it all started to fall into place. 

What Might the Future Hold?

I’ve had the privilege of getting to know Molly and Tabitha through my own involvement at Thunder Bay Theatre and in that time I have learned that they don’t dream small. They throw all of their creative energy and their artistic hearts and souls into dreaming up wonderful and positive things they can add to this community and the world as a whole. After chatting with them about Artbox for almost two hours, it was easy to see that this project was no different. 

They both have big dreams for the space and are already thinking about how they can maximize their positive impact on Alpena and other underserved communities in Michigan. 

In the future, they would like to completely transform the space upstairs as well, adding space for performance art and rehearsal, a convertible photography studio, a darkroom, a recording booth for podcasts and musicians, and many other resources, materials and equipments to support artists of all ages and forms in the pursuit of their crafts. 

The Most Important Things You Should Know About Artbox…

“Even if you don’t think you’re an artist, you probably are a little bit. If you think you’re not good enough to be here… you are good enough to be here, like if you’re someone who draws in the margins of their notes with a pencil and you think it’s unremarkable you can still come and be recognized as an artist here and we want to display those margin doodles as artwork too.” Tabitha shared without a moment of hesitation. 

“I think the challenging thing for adults is relearning how to play,” Molly added, “In the many conversations we’ve had since the conception of this idea is this need for a place for adults to go to have some unstructured “play time.” In my dreams, I can picture people of all ages just being in here, working on their computers, drawing, painting, reading, hanging out, collaborating together. I want the community to know that this is a place where they can come to work on things and messy things are okay and noisy things are okay and you can just exist here and be comfortable.”

Artbox will have their soft opening tomorrow, Saturday, February 29th, 2020 from 4:00pm to 8:00pm for their Leap Day Party where you can come and leave your mark on their community mural and try some treats from The Sugar & Spice Shop. If you want to support their mission and vision, learn more about them and/or stay updated on the latest Artbox developments, you can follow them on Facebook, Instagram or check out their website

Kingsli Kraft wrote this article for Blog Downtown Alpena. Kingsli is an Alpena native and a graduate of the University of Michigan. She now works at the Alpena Downtown Development Authority as the Marketing and Outreach Coordinator. She volunteers on Thunder Bay Theatre’s Board of Directors and is a dedicated advocate for the arts and environment. She enjoys reading, writing, yoga, hiking, caring for all of her plants and all things coffeee. You can follow her on Instagram here.

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