Great Barrington — With the majority of holiday markets not opening as a result of COVID-19, many artists who typically sell their locally made wares are forced to reimagine how their busiest season will look this year.
For a group of artists from the Berkshires, that creativity came together and launched as “WORKSHOP” on Nov. 1 as an artist-run retail co-op at 25 Railroad St. The co-op is being viewed as a creative response to an uncertain future for self-employed artists, said co-organizer Jamie Goldenberg of Hart Textiles.
“Artists need to adapt as retail shops are closing and holiday markets are canceled,” said Goldenberg. “We’re approaching this difficult time as an opportunity to innovate, collaborate and inspire each other.”
In addition to Goldenberg, WORKSHOP is organized by local artists Molly and Aurel de St André, who own and operate Petit Pilou, MOHO designs and Berkshire Four Poster; and ceramics artist Ben Krupka.
The organizers are no strangers to the community and the local art and design scene. Molly and Aurel are part of the team that created the Great Barrington Arts Market, which has blossomed into an outdoor artist market and created a customer base for local artists for more than eight years. Krupka is a professor at Bard College at Simon’s Rock where he has taught ceramics, sculpture and 3D design since 2005.
Shoppers will be able to purchase from and interact directly with the artists as they collaborate in new ways and experiment with their own work, live and in-person.
“We’re all working artists, so there will be workstations set up there for us to work while we’re there … sewing machines and looms for us to create, because none of us can really miss a day of making anything,” said Goldenberg.
Besides the managing members, WORKSHOP will feature papercut artist Maude White, painter Sarah Martinez of Snoogs and Wilde, and woodworkers Kris and Josh Kanter of Housatonic’s JK Custom Furniture. The space the artists will set up shop is the space formerly housed by clothing and furniture store Gatsby’s.
Health and safety protocols will be strictly observed at WORKSHOP, said Krupka. “The large space allows for a unique, socially distanced marketplace experience,” he said. “We will prioritize the safety of artists and shoppers by wearing masks, sanitizing surfaces, limiting occupancy and offering curbside pickup of online sales.”
Should the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 climb, the shop can adjust to provide curbside pick-up.
Goldenberg, who teaches textile classes in her studio and co-founded MUSE Housatonic, had been looking at the prospect of creating her own retail space, but as an individual owner of a business, she found that she couldn’t financially swing it on her own.
“I couldn’t float any of the retail spaces in town on my own while continuing to make work and still support my family, and I think that’s the case with a lot of self-employed artists around here. The rents are still really high, so I was looking for people to join me in this,” she said.
Great Barrington town manager Mark Pruhenski said concern of high rent was an issue prior to the pandemic and continues to climb. That matter, however, isn’t one the town has much control over. Instead, the town tackles housing needs through affordable housing rather than inserting itself into the real estate market, he said.
More recently, Pruhenski hosted a “Virtual Coffee with the Town Manager” session via Zoom and, noting some of the empty storefronts in the downtown — including the former Baba Louie’s location, the Chef’s Shop and Jane Iredale — suggested encouraging landlords to open their doors and let people host pop-ups in those locations, giving them an opportunity to test retail.
“… if you let people sell their goods, give them an opportunity to test the opportunity in retail, maybe you’ll have a future tenant,’ I told them,” said Pruhenski of the meeting. Many that attended the meeting weren’t keen on the idea, however.
Together, Goldenberg said that she, the de St Andrés and Krupka fell in love with the former Gatsby’s space. Thanks to the willingness of the building owner to work with the managing members and make it possible and affordable, WORKSHOP will have a home through Wednesday, Dec. 30, said Goldenberg.
Phylis Fink, the former owner of Gatsby’s and who still owns the building, has a real love for the community and the arts, she added.
“I am so happy that WORKSHOP has chosen the Gatsby’s space at 25 Railroad St. as a holiday shopping destination,” said Fink in a statement. “Our success came from the local communities. It is so important to keep these businesses alive by shopping locally.”
As an observation, Goldenberg said that the businesses that are surviving are the ones that have learned how to adapt during the pandemic.
“We wanted to be able to sell our work during the busiest season. We were really trying to find creative ways to handle sales and still be able to allow people to purchase things locally,” she said.
Early on in the pandemic, the de St Andrés realized that if they used their organic cotton, they could create very soft masks and decided to go into production. At that time, there were no mask mandates in place. They began just by making masks for health care workers, but saw that a mask mandate was on the horizon, said Molly.
“… Our masks have carried our business through this time; they were literally paying our mortgage for the majority of the spring and summer,” she said. “We were one of the first companies to make organic cotton masks and that brought in sales through our website from all over the country.”
Since March, the couple has sold more than 7,000 handmade masks.
As for the co-op, Molly said the majority of the products that local artists produce could not be sold in the wholesale/retail environment because of necessary retail markup. As a result, artists end up making less money than the storeowners.
“By creating an artist collective, we are able to keep our prices accessible and also support ourselves — all in a beautiful retail environment,” she said.
Select works may also be viewed and purchased online at workshopgb.com, where open hours and an artist schedule will also be posted.