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Photo: John Whipple

In Between Days
One year after being chased from its original location, Miss Mary’s Art Space continues to nourish openness and experimentalism— and to search for a place to call home
By David Brickman

It’s a Thursday evening in mid-September, and a group of 20-somethings have gathered in a first-floor apartment at the outer fringe of Albany’s Center Square neighborhood to put together 250 copies of an arts magazine that will be distributed for free. The three men and three women who have chosen this activity after their day’s work are the board of directors of Miss Mary’s Art Space (aka the Space Without a Space); the magazine—photocopied, oversized and with a compilation CD inside—is Screed.

There is the buzz of conversation, the rattle of sewing machines, the squish of linoleum-block ink and the occasional interruptions of a 7-year-old girl and a big ginger cat needing attention, as the six collate, stamp, bind and hand-number the copies. Switching roles as they go, they all take frequent breaks to sample the homemade vegetarian food that Leah Walsh, the only member of the group currently between jobs, has prepared. The smell of fresh olive oil and oregano hangs in the air, as do the sounds of the first Screed CD, featuring cuts from Boneoil, Michael Eck, Lincoln Money Shot and lots in between.

Matt Laque (known as Matto), of Kitty Little, hears his band come on and shouts, “This is yours truly—crank it up!,” and the Screed production meeting is in full swing. In a few days, the 14-page Screed #3 will hit the streets, and the folks behind it will be back at the task of trying to nail down a permanent home for the most grass rootsy nonprofit art collective the Capital Region has ever known.

Back in the spring of 1999, legislative employee Laura Koennecke had a few creative thoughts on her mind. Among them was the fact that Koennecke wanted to learn photographic developing, while her friend Kate Ng, a photographer willing to teach her, needed a darkroom. They began to talk about making a space where people could get together and share creative ideas and abilities, maybe offer some classes, put up some shows. As Koennecke and Ng talked through the summer, other like-minded people entered the conversation: Tine Winther and her husband, Dave Walsh, a musician with a strong grasp of the folk scene; Karin Maag-Tanchak, a poet who wanted to offer knitting classes; and Koennecke’s sister Sheryl, a writer and Web designer.

They discussed renting a building, but were concerned about the costs and responsibilities if they retained private ownership of the project. They also felt that it would be best to create something that could live on after their own involvement. So, in September 1999, with free legal help from the Albany/Schenectady League of Arts, these six people became the board of directors of a new nonprofit corporation they dubbed Miss Mary’s Art Space (after an elderly neighbor with a unique sense of style).

The first event sponsored by Miss Mary’s was a poetry reading by David Barratier held at Steamer No. 10 in April 2001. That fall, the group found a storefront at 5 New Scotland Ave. and began the real experiment: providing a space where it would be OK to do everything anybody could think of to do there.

“We’re really open and we like that,” says Laura Koennecke. “It’s fun to be able to say ‘we’re not going to judge you—go out there and do what you want to do.’ “

This dedication to openness is at the heart of the Miss Mary’s idea, and comes up again and again in conversations with members and participants. Matt Toomey, who joined the Miss Mary’s board of directors last summer, is a musician and full-time stateworker who caught on to the energy at 5 New Scotland.

“I came in at a time when things were going really good [at Miss Mary’s],” Toomey says. “Music was taking off, and visual artists were coming in because they saw there were these blank walls.”

Among the musicians who got involved were Matto and Tom Burre, who performs solo as well as with Boneoil and Ghost Names. “Miss Mary’s was the place to play,” says Burre, “because you can do whatever there—they’re very open, they say, ‘Here’s the space, you can do what you want.’ ”

Matto agrees. When he first heard about Miss Mary’s, he immediately became involved. “I just liked the vibe and started going to the meetings, and I started doing shows there all the time,” he says. Matto also began booking some of the acts, taking up where Dave Walsh had left off.

Photo: John Whipple

“The first hardcore act, Warpipe, played in the spring of 2002,” Walsh says. “Then all the kid bands stepped up.” Walsh (who is Leah Walsh’s father) is the elder statesman of the group, and a chief proponent of its philosophy. “I liked to refer to Miss Mary’s as a not-for-profit arts organization aiding and abetting artists of every flavor,” he wrote in the first issue of Screed.

“Extensive resumes and auditions were never required of those wishing to utilize our facility to perform or present their work,” Walsh continues. “As a result of this policy we were able to present what I came to believe was some of the finest and most vibrant artists in the area.”

But this diversity doesn’t come without cost, and the members of the collective were constantly seeking ways to raise money without compromising their vision.

“No one is making a cent off this—in fact, we’re spending money on it,” Matto says. “Not only do we need help to keep the diversity of programming going, we need money to support the space.”

According to Koennecke, they’ve considered applying for grants, but always decided not to, asking themselves, “Do we want someone controlling what we’re doing? Do we want to be beholden to anyone?”

Instead, they used their creativity and diversity as sources of funding. “Knitting classes were a mainstay for a while,” says Walsh. One time, he says, “we raised 7 or 800 bucks with a ‘cheap art’ show,” where all the pieces cost $10 or less.

Matto also understood the need to support the space. “I really wanted to see it happen—I didn’t want it to fail, because it seems like a lot of things get started but they don’t last in Albany,” he says. “So I began doing benefit shows—we started raising some money, and it looked like things were going pretty good—then, bam, the city came and screwed that up.”

What the city did was issue a cease and desist order, in October 2002, that closed the space at 5 New Scotland after someone complained, possibly about noise or crowds of young people on the street out front. “To this day we don’t have a clear answer as to why we were shut down,” Matto says. “They probably thought we would go away—but they better be ready, ‘cause we’re coming back.”

In fact, the people who brought us “the little venue that could” (Walsh again) are now hot on the trail of a new venue. In the meantime, the dream is alive in the pages of Screed—and at Mean Time, a current two-month residency in the Chapel + Cultural Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute that comprises a gallery exhibition and three nights of music, poetry and other performances.

At the first two Mean Time events, on Aug. 27 and Sept. 22, the two performance spaces at the chapel were going full tilt; the first evening also served as the opening for the all-media show by local artists; and both nights featured nice food spreads free of charge (though donations were gladly taken, discreetly, at the door).

Like Screed, where poetry and other writing, graphic arts from spray paint to photography and the full range of local music are published all in one package, an evening at Mean Time is an eclectic and free-form experience. You can catch a comedian followed by a harpist in the sanctuary or a short story writer followed by a metal band in the lounge.

At Mean Time 1, the food was served outside, where additional performers also entertained. For Mean Time 2, the buffet tables were brought inside, and the musical acts were swapped as well, placing the noisier groups in the more intimate (and acoustically softer) lounge while the
amplification-challenged spoken-word and folk performers enjoyed the livelier acoustics of the sanctuary.

Either way, it worked. Fans and performers alike were able to float comfortably from space to space, enjoying the art and quiet conversation in the hallway gallery between. With such a variety of forms of expression under one roof, in a setting that’s different from a bar or nightclub, the Miss Mary’s organizers have created a unique opportunity that does seem to justify their efforts—and, besides, who doesn’t enjoy a self-serve buffet?

Photo: John Whipple

In terms of quality and style, it’s all over the place—which is exactly how the Miss Marians want it to be. Though it can be a satisfying experience to buy a ticket to a show you know you’ll like by a band you’ve heard, or to go to a big museum featuring internationally renowned art, there’s plenty to be said for the chance to check out a whole range of odd stuff in one place and see whether you’re pleasantly surprised. Even if you aren’t crazy about any of the individual offerings, the contrasts alone provide enough stimulation for a night’s brain food, or ear candy, or whatever it is that turns you on.

Though Mean Time is not quite the same as Miss Mary’s was (or will be), it captures the flavor. As Matto says, “We’ve had punk, folk, jazz, experimental electronic music, avant-garde art troupes and traveling sideshows—I mean we had some crazy stuff.” However, not all in one night. Mean Time boils it down, like getting a month at Miss Mary’s into three hours at the C+CC. There’s one more night scheduled, from 7 to 10 PM on Oct. 27, and then it’s back to homelessness for the crew and the artists.

Of course, being without its own performance space for the past year has cost Miss Mary’s some momentum. “We had a lot of people ask to book shows—we were starting to draw from out of town a little bit—but then we had to stop booking people,” Koennecke says. “Since then we’ve gotten some inquiries, but we generally say, ‘We’re looking for a space, and we’ll get back to you when we find one.’ ”

But, she adds, any lost momentum has been offset by the energy they’ve put into Screed and the Mean Time project. Besides, she says, the temporary lack of a home has never blunted the collective’s optimism: “We’ve always assumed that we would find a space eventually.”

If they do find a space, expect the scene to be as freewheeling as it was at 5 New Scotland and in Troy, with an open policy that encourages, well, everything.

“It’s a very thought-out decision to do it
. . . openly,” says Koennecke. “Just because people don’t necessarily recognize something, it doesn’t mean it isn’t interesting, or worthy of attention.”

And if they don’t find a space right away, don’t expect them to give up easily.

“My whole goal [in joining the board] was just to have a physical location again,” says Toomey. “[There were] oversights that we’re not going to commit now. . . . We’re ready to go now. We know about making friends with the people with whom we’re sharing our city.”

Matto shares this positivity. “You make the best of where you are,” he says. “There’s a lot that’s going on in Albany that people could appreciate if they’d just open their eyes.”

“It’s about giving people a nudge, saying, ‘Here’s your opportunity,’ ” Koennecke says.

Clearly, the artists, writers and performers have gotten the message. Time will tell whether the powers that be come to feel the same way.

There will be a general information meeting for Miss Mary’s Art Space at 6 PM today (Thursday, Oct. 9) at the main branch of the Albany Public Library. The next Mean Time event will take place Oct. 27 at 7 PM at RPI’s Chapel + Cultural Center. For more information or to make a donation toward the effort to acquire a new venue, write to missmarysartspace@thein or visit http://missmarysart

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