OMAK — Artists and businessmen. Many of us think of them as polar opposites. But a new project that turned an unoccupied building in downtown Omak into an artist’s studio has generated excitement within the business community.
Last month, Riverside glass and metal artist Bruce Townsend-Cook took over an old, vacant bar, turning it into his workspace where people can watch him fashion small glass objects, look over his paintings, and admire his glass “icicles” hanging from the window that will become part of a chandelier.
By early next month, two more artists will take up residency in two other downtown Omak businesses. It’s part of a larger effort to bring more foot traffic into downtown Omak, and more exposure to local artists.
Initiated by the Methow Arts Alliance, ARTscapes is touted as “a creative response to economic hard times.”
Its goal is to transform empty storefronts into attractive spaces that draw more people to the area, along with potential buyers who may see new possibilities in the once-empty building.
And by offering the space free of charge, it also gives artists a place to work and a chance to show what they create without the cost of rent. ARTscape projects are also being planned in Twisp, but Omak is the program’s guinea pig.
“Downtown Omak has had a really hard time just getting businesses to keep their doors open on Saturdays and Sundays,” said Amanda Jackson, executive director of the Arts Alliance.
But business generates business, she said, adding, “When the artists commit to staying open on a Saturday, this encourages them all to stay open, and boost their sales.”
For Rich Watson, executive director of the North Central Washington Business Loan Fund, the project has the potential to help revitalize downtown Omak.
“As I understand it, there are three other business owners who are interested in doing something like this,” he said. “Some have existing businesses in them, but they really like the idea of having an artist in front to add a new dimension to their business. When you think about it, it’s really kind of fun if you can go downtown and see people creating things.”
The Business Loan Fund owns the building where Townsend-Cook set up shop. Watson said there are lots of good reasons for letting an artist use the space instead of having it sit vacant with a For Sale sign on it.
First, he said, more people will see the building, and one of them might just decide to buy it. It also helps potential buyers realize that a structure that last housed a bar and grill could become any number of other businesses. “Buildings tend to get stereotyped. We think, it’s the Main Street Bar & Grill. But when you go inside it and the artist is there, and the way it’s set up is different, it opens a new realm of possibilities.”
After setting up his studio and working there since mid-May, Townsend-Cook sees the potential for many businesses in this space.
“It would make a really beautiful gallery. Or a shoe store. I could see it as a retail space,” he said.
He said he already has a studio in his 107-year-old church in Riverside, so he didn’t really need it as a work space. “But I never like not going through a door that opens,” he said.
He said more than getting more exposure for his own art, he’s interested in how the project could promote a whole arts community in the Omak area.
“I’m here to promote art,” he said. “There are so many great artists in the valley. We need to get their work out.”
In the end, Watson said, artists may seem like creative types who have no close ties to the business community. But it doesn’t have to be that way. “In reality, art is business. If you’re out creating something and selling it, you are an entrepreneur. You’re a small business owner.”
He said he’d really like to sell the building as a result of hosting an artist there. “But these things don’t happen overnight,” he said. “In the meantime, the building’s being used, and at least it’s making a positive statement about downtown Omak.”