Powerhouse Arts Is Pioneering a Model for Saving Fabrication Studios

Manhattan Graphics Center and Alpha Workshops are joining Powerhouse Arts to create a one-stop fabrication factory.

A view of the Powerhouse Arts printshop. Photo: Nicholas Calcott.

Powerhouse Arts in the Gowanus neighborhood of Brooklyn is pioneering a collaborative model for ensuring the longevity of fee-for-service fabrication studios amid constraining factors from the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, real estate prices, and inflation.

The nonprofit owns a massive former power plant that, in recent years, underwent a complete renovation with new construction to create a purpose-built facility for activating fabrication studios and training to meet the needs of working artists. Some of the facility’s studios—a digital printshop, a traditional printshop, a ceramics workshop and a public art program—are managed by PHA itself. Workspace11 operates a metal fabrication studio on the ground floor.

PHA started back in 2015 and officially moved into the building in May 2023. It is one of the only facilities that is still zoned for industrial use in what is a very rapidly changing neighborhood in Brooklyn. But now, two of PHA’s last spaces have been activated by Manhattan Graphics Center (MGC), a membership-driven community printshop, and Alpha Workshops, which trains and employs people with HIV/AIDS or other disabilities in textile fabrication.

“The idea was to create a hive where artists from different mediums can interact and work together and cross-pollinate,” Karyn Williams, the vice president of programs at PHA, said in an interview. “And the idea is that we produce different types of work and creativity by having this cross collaboration and partnership with different mediums and different artists and different types of organizations.”

These new agreements between the three nonprofits will ensure that MGC and Alpha Workshops continue serving their missions after facing difficulties while creating a one-stop factory for any kind of artwork an artist may require. It also offers new opportunities for further collaboration between the nonprofits that could serve as a model for innovation in the nonprofit fabrication space.

“With the rising cost of rent, Alpha Workshops approached us. We had initially been interested and we had built out a textile shop but we weren’t able to sort of activate that and so the timing and the opportunity were perfect for us,” Williams said. “We have the space designed for textiles and the timing worked out really well.”

A large brick building with an industrial design is reflected in the calm water in front of it. The building features tall, arched windows and a rust-colored exterior. It is surrounded by a landscaped area with greenery and a sturdy waterfront retaining wall. The sky is clear with a few clouds, and the overall scene is tranquil and picturesque.

Powerhouse Arts is seen in Brooklyn. Courtesy of Powerhouse Arts.

Williams said that Alpha Workshops has already moved into its new space, a textile workshop, in April while MGC is expected to complete its move in June. The building is almost full now, but PHA hopes to activate one last workspace for small metals.

A Match Made in Heaven

Lisa Archigian, director of the MGC Community Print Studio, its new name, called it a “watershed moment” for her organization and said it was a “miracle” they had survived the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Where we are now in Midtown is the third studio the organization has occupied and so, Manhattan real estate being what it is, it can be expected that a time may arise where you need to prepare to switch gears,” Archigian said. “We’re lucky this opportunity came about. It’s incredible and it’s really invigorated people’s sentiment about where things can go.”

Edward Farrell, executive director of Alpha Workshops, said his organization had been in the same location since 1995 and at the beginning of 2024 began to feel a kind of “inflection point.”

“We’ve been sort of two parts of an organization, a school and a decorative art studio,” Farrell said. “I was thinking about how to simplify and make things more comprehensible to the outside world that engaged with us and shopped in our product lines.”

A spacious, well-organized workshop with various textile materials and equipment. Shelves are filled with supplies, and a central table is covered with fabric and tools. A man is working at the table, examining a piece of fabric. The workshop has industrial lighting and visible ductwork.

The Alpha Workshops’ textile program is pictured in the Powerhouse Arts building after moving in. Photo courtesy of PHA

He said he learned about PHA in July from one of Alpha Workshops’ board members.

“I thought, ‘Wow, they’re doing something that I’ve not really heard about,’” he said. “And I wondered if I could gain some insight from learning about how they were structured. So, I wrote to Powerhouse Arts.” He soon visited with some Alpha colleagues.

Both Alpha and PHA realized quickly that they had synergy and shared goals around education, fabrication possibilities and professional development for employees, he said.

Streamlining with Synergy

Farrell added that Alpha long thought of itself in the decorative arts but has seen a growing interest among its stakeholders in fine arts.

A group of people are collaboratively working on a screen printing project. They are using a large squeegee to spread ink over a screen with a bright orange background. The workspace is equipped with tools and materials necessary for screen printing. The scene captures the hands-on and cooperative nature of the activity, with several hands visible in the process of creating the print.

Workers are seen squeegeeing a screen at Powerhouse Arts. Photo: Nicholas Calcott.

“We’re primarily a decor company making wallpaper, textiles, and having for many years done many kinds of custom fabrications and sculptures, lighting, paintings, and anything anybody wants painted to make. At some point, we’ve done it,” Farrell said, explaining the nonprofit’s concurrent restructuring.

Ahead of the move, Alpha Workshops realized it wanted to reduce and streamline its offerings. Like many nonprofits, when it started out, it was approached by clients seeking things its staff members were capable of doing but not really offered on its menu. The nonprofit would accept the jobs to vie for viability and ended up with a vast portfolio.

“In the long run, focusing on a few things is a little more satisfying. It’s a little more normal way of doing business. So, we decided we would focus on a couple things,” Farrell said. “It was nonnegotiable that we would have the school as we’d established it for so many years. Our mission lives through the activities of the school and what it offers people.”

The second thing the organization intended to focus on is its wallpaper business because it’s something that it has become well known for and is created in-house by the team. And now, with PHA, the organization can increase its focus on fabricating textiles. But the nonprofit decided to give up its contracting of for-hire design jobs off-site like creating custom Venetian plaster jobs or painting walls.

A person wearing a striped shirt and jeans is focused on shaping a clay pot on a pottery wheel. The workspace appears clean and well-organized, with additional materials stacked nearby. The individual is deeply engaged in the ceramic creation process, demonstrating skill and concentration.

Biata Roytburd, director of ceramics at Powerhouse Arts. Photo: Nicholas Calcott.

A Prototype Model

Luther Davis is the director of the PHA in-house printshop. Now fully a part of the nonprofit, it once was a standalone shop called Axelle Editions long before the nonprofit came along. The previous owner of the company, Bertron Delacroix, died in a hang-gliding accident and his family gave the shop to Davis. But he had to vacate the building the shop was located in.

“We looked all over Brooklyn and couldn’t afford anything, or the spaces weren’t right, or the landlords didn’t want messy people in their space. There’re too many variables, even though we had a long track record, to make a smooth transition into us running the shop,” he said. “Powerhouse came in like an angel, wanting us to be a test case for how the collaborative shops could work.”

Axelle Editions did not remain a separate entity. It briefly changed names to the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Print Shop, or BRT Print Shop, before it was fully absorbed into PHA.

A man is seated at a loom, attentively working on creating textile pieces in a workshop. He is focused on weaving colorful fabric. The workshop features brick walls and large windows, providing a well-lit and open environment. In the background, there is a wooden spool rack with various threads. The atmosphere appears to be industrious and creative.

Richard Zimmer is pictured creating textile works in The Alpha Workshops studio. Photo courtesy of PHA

“What’s great about Alpha Workshops and Manhattan Graphics coming in as their distinct entities, they have a huge history already that they’re maintaining sort of a pedigree. For example, MGC is one of the oldest community print shops in New York,” he said. “What I love about them coming in is that, rather than create a new community print shop, we are assisting one that’s been around for a long time and so we’re not reinventing the wheel. We’re also not competing for members with them.”

Preparing The Space

Williams said one of the immediate benefits for the two groups moving in is that they now have brand new equipment and industrial ventilation that make it a safe environment.

“The updated studio has impeccable attention to environmental health and safety,” she Archigian said, adding that the new studio will be about 45 percent larger than where MGC is currently located in Midtown Manhattan. “We’ve operated with a DIY sensibility. Some of our equipment was made by our founders or longtime stalwart members. Now we can preserve what’s been working the best and improve where we want to improve.”

Much of the research and development that went into creating PHA included roundtables with artists and different arts organizations in Manhattan and Brooklyn that expressed what they felt like were the most pressing needs for artists. They needed hard fabrication in the city.

A person is working on a large printing press inside an industrial print shop. The workspace is spacious with high ceilings, large windows, and ample lighting. Various equipment, tools, and printed materials are visible around the area. The person appears focused, engaging with the print material on the press.

A worker is seen in the Powerhouse Arts printshop. Photo by Jenna Bascom

In discussing how his organization’s new studio space is set up, Farrell said there’s a closed room designed as a textile dying station and another room that he calls the “wet room” that has a big sink and washer dryer installed for handling textiles.

“We’re thrilled to have a textile center where we can produce and expand our textile line. In our previous space, we didn’t have a designated textile studio. And so, textile production was constantly being relocated to whatever studio was underutilized at the time,” said Emma Hollister-Colby, art director and designer at Alpha Workshops.

A License To Teach

One of the most unique things about the agreement rests with a state license held by Alpha Workshops that allows it to teach professional certification courses. Specifically, the studio is considered a private career school by the New York State Department of Education’s Bureau of Proprietary School Services.

While students at Alpha have long benefitted from their 13-week training program, the nonprofit could theoretically develop courses under its license in partnership with the other nonprofits—expanding the educational abilities throughout the facility. Williams already expressed PHA’s interest in expanding educational offerings.

“They have two different types of curricula: they have workforce development curriculum for folks with disabilities and they also have noncredit courses they offer to the public,” she said. “We hope to support them and continue their mission with their accredited courses. And that’s something that we’ve also been interested in doing. But also, we’d like to partner on offering some more general education classes in artmaking to the public.”

Williams noted that MGC, as a community printshop, also offers classes to its members and the public in printmaking. “You can take a class in ceramics, you can take a class in collage-making, and that it would all be within the same building,” she said.

A ceramics fabrication workspace featuring shelves filled with various ceramic pieces and materials. The room is organized with tools, equipment, and supplies neatly arranged. The space is well-lit with large windows and industrial lighting, and it has high ceilings with exposed ductwork and pipes. A sign on one of the shelves reads "DO NOT TOUCH."

View of Ceramics Fabrication Program at Powerhouse Arts. Photo: Jenna Bascom.

Farrell said his main goal since moving into PHA is to get his own educational programming back up and running as soon as possible because the curriculum and environment needs to be reapproved by the state.

“This idea of us writing a curriculum based on another Powerhouse studio is something we’re just talking about at this point. I think it makes great sense,” Farrell said. “It’s a way of bringing them into the studio and giving them a taste of what artistic activity feels like.”

Archigian added that MGC already plans to offer classes, including things like lithography, various intaglio processes, and Japanese woodblock.

Expanding Fabrication Capabilities

Charles W. Bryant, a teaching artisan with Alpha Workshops, has already been pitching in up in the ceramics studio at Powerhouse. In fact, currently all of his time has been dedicated to working in the ceramics studio because Alpha just moved in.

“I taught ceramics for 25 years before coming to Alpha,” Bryant said. He was working on glaze tests during the interview. “It’s kind of a return to my roots here, so the great thing about Alpha being at Powerhouse.”

An empty, spacious industrial room with concrete floors and walls, featuring large ventilation ducts and industrial lighting on the ceiling. Metal racks are stacked against the wall, indicating preparation for future use. The room has a utilitarian appearance, suitable for setting up a print studio or similar workspace.

The future home of Manhattan Graphics Center is pictured in the Powerhouse Arts building. Photo courtesy of PHA

When asked if he believed the model pioneered by PHA is sustainable and replicable elsewhere, Farrell responded by analogizing the art factory to an opera house.

“A traditional opera house has a set-painting studio, a wig-making studio, a costume shop, makeup artists, and they all work in the same place and all do completely different things,” he said. “In a way, we have a model that maybe is a little relative to that. If a commission comes in and requires ceramic cups and hand painted paper and some woven scarves, we have all the things in this shop.”

And the artist Kiki Smith said that MGC has been a “vital resource” for printmakers for close to 40 years and is “very happy to know that this treasured studio will partner with Powerhouse Arts, ensuring their community a home.”

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