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Thinking Inside the Block

The Arts Block helps spur downtown Greenfield's revitalization.

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Thursday, December 09, 2010
Photo Tom Sturm
Greenfield's Arts Block

Publicist Annie Thompson likens him to Cosimo di Medici, the legendary patriarch of the Florentine family revered for its arts patronage, an integral force in the creative and intellectual flowering of the Renaissance. The comparison is not far off the mark—international television executive Ed Wierzbowski, whose company Global American Television has revolutionized Russian media and set precedents in the modeling of cross-cultural creative content-sharing and re-purposing, is indeed focusing his traditionally macroscopic vision on a more local project lately.

The Colrain resident has not only stirred the interest of scores of the area's artists and musicians through his full-speed-ahead redevelopment of Greenfield's historic downtown into an arts Mecca, he's employed dozens of local carpenters, painters, plumbers, electricians, cooks, bartenders and audio/video professionals in the process. He's gutted and faithfully restored two sizable downtown buildings with a keen eye for historical detail, and designed the spaces within them around the needs of artists and musicians. To heat and cool his buildings, he drilled 1,500-foot deep geothermal wells—in the middle of downtown Greenfield.

The momentum of the transformation is palpable as I take the tour, a month or so before the project's estimated completion. Just in the two hours that Ed shows me around the buildings, he writes two checks and welcomes a representative from the Health Department to sign off on the Arts Block's main kitchen facilities.

Contractors Ben Licata and Craig Hall return from a mission to a building supply store with a sheet of drywall and a pre-hung door that they quickly muscle down to the building's basement, which is rapidly assuming its new identity as a 105-person capacity "rathskeller." A stage will be installed soon in the corner of this space, on the opposite wall from the bar and prep kitchen, which are just getting their own finishing touches, and the Industrial Age iron wheel assembly that controlled the building's original water-powered elevator, kept intact to add character. On one of the side walls (an original outer wall that's been stripped down to the brick) you can see "grafitti," estimated to be from 1896, that they've uncovered during the restoration.

"It's been tough, taking a 120-year-old building and bringing it up to code," Wierzbowski says. Still, he describes the process that enabled him to acquire and start restoring it, along with his nearly adjacent property, the Pushkin building, as "very organic."

Wierzbowski, who had been renting at The Pushkin for five years already, bought the Arts Block building (named with a wink to its original 1869 designation as the George Arms Block) with his Russian partner Pavel Korchagin. He'd been interested in purchasing the Pushkin building, where there was already a recording studio and which had hosted many music events, but the owners wouldn't lower the price. Eventually, upon realizing that he wouldn't have a studio in the new building, he decided to lay out the dough for The Puskin as well, and integrate it into his grand scheme of downtown arts-powered redevelopment.

*

The main Arts Block building, which formerly housed Clark's Sports, is a four-floor brick monstrosity whose multi-purpose mission is largely broken down by floors. The ground floor houses a 550-person-capacity music venue as well as a bar/restaurant/cafe and sizable art gallery with beautifully restored wooden floors and huge, double-paned picture windows. The windows look out onto the street and don't fog up, thanks to being gas-filled. Wierzbowski credits Licata for touches like these, as well as the idea for (and much of the hands-on work to complete) the recycling of some of the building's century-old but partially termite-eaten floor joists (which had to be replaced) into the main kitchen's bar and customer tables on the floor. Licata's Northfield-based BC Building LLC has already put in its share of elbow grease in Greenfield, having recently built the new Magpie Woodfired Pizza and renovated the Greenfield Grille, all within blocks of the Arts Block.

"A mutual artist friend, Kerry Kazokas, had an auction of all of her stuff [at The Pushkin]," says Wierzbowski. "And then, traditionally, we have our after-hours party, and that's when I met Ben, and we were trying to make some music happen, and he just got it done. I was impressed with him, and I got his number, and I found out he was a carpenter, and then I called him and said, 'Come on over, let's talk about working.'"

In the main kitchen, executive chef Sarah Klein is busy turning out the Arts Block's first publicly available meal (they've hosted some catered events but are just getting their license to serve food to the world at large). Klein will be in charge of four kitchens spread between the two buildings, offering various levels of fare from tapas-style appetizers available at the main music venue to fancier entrees served in The Pushkin's fireplace- and chandelier-adorned upper room. The latter retains a vaulted wooden ceiling of remarkable craftsmanship, as well as a "family" of free-standing wood sculptures that Wierzbowski carved himself.

"One of the things that we're really excited about is that the Farmers' Market is right outside the front door, on Saturdays," Klein explains. "So we're looking forward to going out there and then coming back in and creating a 'Farmers' Market Special' every Saturday."

The second floor of the building is reserved primarily for Wierzbowski's Internet-based media endeavor, a startup company that will function as a 21st-century record label and distributor of music and art from the region. It's already attracted a healthy roster of local talents, including painter Aldo G. Pizzi, actor Jody Scalise and musicians including Leah Randazzo, Geoff Vidal, Cold Duck Complex, Alecia Chakour and others. Ed envisions a future for the business that involves the recording and distribution of live performances at the buildings, starting small with local artists, then gradually building to encompass booking and recording bigger national artists. One part of the distribution plan involves something he's likely familiar with from his television experience: syndication.

"We've made a deal with The River (93.9 FM) to have a 9 o'clock Arts and Music Factory Hour every Saturday night that'll also be repeated on Wednesday night," he says. "That'll be the 'best of the week.'" River DJ Monte Belmonte will host, and they hope to find a national advertiser to sponsor the show and eventually syndicate it, perhaps in the vein of an audio-only Austin City Limits.

The remaining second floor space will be rented as offices to the Greenfield Community College Art Department, which will also dominate the third floor. That floor consists of a wide-open studio space where art students will be able to "work big" on large-scale paintings and sculptures, their work areas separated by rolling tri-walled dividers designed by Wierzbowski's brother Steve's Chicago-based design firm Wierzbowski-Mekus Tanager. The top floor, which boasts extraordinary views of the city and the hills beyond, will be principally a huge, open gallery that occasionally plays host to yoga classes and/or clinics taught by visiting musicians.

"I'm a media guy, and I'm into the creative economy," Ed says. "Part of the whole design here is, besides having performance and recording and galleries to show art, I wanted to have an education partner, and when GCC became interested, it became a natural stepping-off point.

"Bob Pura [President of GCC] came here four years ago for a fundraiser for the Hope and Olive," Wierzbowski continues as we walk across the street to The Pushkin. "The place was packed—people just everywhere, and he got it right away. He saw all these people, he saw the art on the walls, he heard the music, and he said—it was the first time that I had met him—and he came up to me and he said, 'Why Mass MoCA? It's the same exit, right here, we have all the space, we can do the same thing here, and this town has the infrastructure of restaurants and hotels that they don't have out there. And you don't have to drive that extra 45 minutes.'"

*

The Pushkin building represents the passion Wierzbowski has for restoration, and serves as the technical hub of the Arts Block's mission. Formerly the Franklin Savings Bank, the building is now abuzz with constructive activity: artisans flit about the vast main chamber, some laying tile with the aid of laser guides that span 60 feet of floor, some examining wax castings used to replicate unsalvageable sections of the room's classic chamfered ceiling, some far up by the skylight installing plaster pieces made from those castings or touching up paint from the basket of a cherry-picker 50 feet up. To maximize the efficiency of the geothermal wells, Ed explains, radiant floor heating will be installed.

The basement of The Pushkin will house another, more intimate performance space, with another small bar and kitchen, and its upper floors will remain a recording studio (recently housing the renowned Bank Row Studios, run by engineer/producer Justin Pizzoferrato), though it will be reborn through technical redesign and intentional sonic enhancements.

"In the new studio [the nerve center of which we're standing in], it's just a control room—double-walled, high-tech, state-of-the-art," Wierzbowski explains. "It's all done right. That control room will be tied into all the other rooms in the building, and the concept that happened in the process of working with Justin was, we started to understand that, oh, yeah, the piano sounds best down in the main, big room—you've got to take advantage of the acoustic properties of that main big room, or the domed wooden room, which is great for drummers and singers.

"In the old days, we just pulled wire, pulled snakes to all of the different rooms... so someone would sing over there, while someone else is doing the piano downstairs and someone else is on the drums in another room. What we ended up doing was formalizing that whole idea, so that the entire building would be wired with two-way audio/video, and the engineer sits in the control room and sees everybody in the other rooms."

Wierzbowski also plans to baby his performers; a basement "green room" is quickly taking shape that will have two bathrooms (one with a shower), and a common area that will also be used to display video screens. Both the buildings played host to video art recently during Greenfield's Bricks and Mortar Film/Video Art Festival, so this isn't virgin territory. He's also got two extra buildings on his 130 acres in Colrain, only six miles from downtown. Traveling troubadours can hang their hats there for a night if they've come to perform and/or record at the studio.

According to a July article in the Greenfield Recorder by Richie Davis, the two buildings together cost $5 million to buy and refurbish. During my tour, Ed noted that the price tag for just replacing 72 windows (basically, all of them) in the Arts Block building was around $88,000. Add to that the cost of two liquor licenses whose acquisitions were partly bits of luck in their own right, one from the former Jig's Tavern and the other from the recently bankrupt Cafe Koko, and you're starting to really run up a bill. To offset the expense while the work's been going on, The Arts Block has been putting on shows in the finished main performance space, and has been renting out the same space for events and catering them. The project has also made use of state and federal tax credits to help incentivize its continued momentum.

Wierzbowski takes it all in stride. He describes himself as someone who people talk about as being "crazy," but he's fried bigger fish than this one. He's worked in Russia for 28 years, connected the first Western advertisers (Pepsi, Sony and Visa) with Soviet-era Russian TV, done cultural exchange shows with Phil Donahue featuring live communication between studio audiences in Russia and the U.S., recorded classical musicians and produced broadcast concerts with pianist Van Cliburn, the New York Philharmonic and Soviet State Orchestra. He did investigative journalism that involved tracking down the original KGB agent who worked with Julius Rosenberg, and helped discover how exaggerated the charges against Rosenberg and his wife were, charges that led to their executions for conspiring to commit espionage during the height of the McCarthy Era.

Ed's primary business of late has been with Global American Television, which buys episode scripts of Law and Order: Criminal Intent and Special Victims Unit from NBC/Universal, which he then oversees the remaking of, in Russian, by a Russian production company, with Russian actors (much like the trend in the last decade or two of the U.S. remaking British, Australian and New Zealander shows). The Russian versions, now in their fourth seasons, are a big success, and have helped him bring a tangible taste of that success back home to the Valley. The details of his grand plan seem at times complicated, with new obstacles popping up daily in his path, but the man has amalgamated the funding—and the minds and bodies—to make it all seem simple.

"You'll wander around 18,000 square feet," he says with a smile, "filled with art, music and food." In a town like Greenfield that's still riding the line between "up-and-coming" and "aching for redevelopment," such a proposition has found traction in all the right places.

Check out the Arts Block, Pushkin and Arts and Music Factory websites at http://theartsblockcafe.com, http://thepushkin.com and www.artsandmusicfactory.com.

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Art is the only hope for Greenfield

Posted by notagreenfieldresident on 12.11.10 at 2:49
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