City Arts Feature: A Ridiculously Ambitious Art Space Rises in Tacoma

As featured in City Arts

Monday, August 28, 2017 | by AMANDA MANITACH


On a sunny day in late August, a once-derelict building in Tacoma is swarming with workers in hard hats. The Carpenters Building—a 23,000 square foot complex built in 1954 to house multiple unions—is perched on a high point on Fawcett Avenue. From the rooftop, the view takes in a sweeping panorama of downtown. Nested amid an ever-expanding urban sprawl, the shimmering white of the Tacoma Dome is visible.

The Carpenters Building is home to the soon-to-launch Alma Mater, a monster-sized, multi-use venue that opens to the public early next year. The enterprise is ambitious enough to be laughable and visionary to the point of delusion. But while many a utopian daydream of sustainable, artist-driven space flounders in the imagination, this one is happening, and with an inspired urgency.

“At its heart, it’s an incubator,” says Jason Heminger, a resident of Tacoma for the past 14 years and one of the artists spearheading the project. “We’re designing this place to orchestrate connections, offer up resources, generate mentoring opportunities.”

Heminger is sitting on a couch in a spacious-yet-cozy, light-infused recording studio, flanked by Alma Mater co-directors Aaron Spiro and Rachel Ervin. The low-key setting serves as HQ for now, as the rest of the building is carved up in various stages of construction. Unlike most boxy, soundproof recording studios, this one feels more like a giant living room peppered with analog synths, drum kits, vintage organs and dashes of smile-inducing kitsch. An oversized statue of a gilt cat, fitted with matching vintage gold shades, is perched on a plinth like a funky totem. Despite the duress of construction all around, the studio is functional; Motopony has been recording an album here.

“This project has pretty much taken over our lives,” says Ervin, laughing. Formerly a writer and makeup artist, she was most recently plucked from her job in the advancement department at UW Tacoma—where she also earned her undergraduate degree—so when the three principals were brainstorming a name, the tenor of “Alma Mater” fit.

“It’s like everybody’s a part of the collegiate spirit,” she says. “This is a new kind of school.”

Heminger’s background is in experimental education; he developed agricultural projects for a Montessori school in Colorado. Late in his creative life he began collaborating with Spiro, a seasoned musician and producer. Working with Spiro, he learned the building blocks of writing music and making albums.

“The developmental path of typical artists can be ambiguous, confusing,” Heminger says. “A lot of the motivation for this comes from looking at alternative education models, talking with some investors who were also excited about figuring out more expedited ways for artists to get resources, to get connected. To finds ways of navigating all the confusing art world stuff.”

Investors responded. (Heminger calls it lucky; his charisma suggests otherwise.) A few regional angel investors swept in to purchase the Carpenters Building, otherwise on a track to be razed and replaced by condos, and set the redesign in motion.

The first floor is a labyrinth of interconnected public spaces that will include a cafe, restaurant—they’ve brought on an as-yet unrevealed chef to design the menu—cocktail lounge and art gallery. The beating heart and centerpiece of the space is “a huge-ass music venue,” per Heminger, with a 500-person capacity. Upstairs, the second floor will be additional recording studios, rentable private work studios for artists and a communal space outfitted with kitchen, lounge and other perks for working artists. Seattle-based design firm Lead Pencil Studio, helmed by artists Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo, have overseen the rebuild, retaining elements of the mid-century, industrial vibe and enhancing the deco-cum-brutalist bones of the space, like the curved concrete facade framing the main entrance and foyer.

When finished, the disparate elements of the complex will be intertwined, connected by halls and common spaces that flow into one another. The main stage will be wired to the recording studio, as will be the green rooms, back stage and work lounges.

“There will be some spaces designed for privacy,” says Heminger, “but overall the idea is to create a fluid space that inspires collaboration, where, say, recording artists will be working around people who are making video, graphic design, illustration.”

On the way out, Spiro stands on the rooftop, accessible via the street behind it, as the building is built into a hill. He reminisces about one of the early events they threw on this very roof: a paella-themed dinner party.

“There were around 400 people up here, surrounded by the light of the city as a backdrop,” he says. It was one of the most magical Tacoma moments I’ve been to. It’s not like we’ve built it and it’s gonna happen. We’ve already seen this beauty happening. We’re just going to continue that.”

view the article here:

Spring (or the time of year when we get to work with rainbows and ponies)

Last month we held an info session for those curious about working with us when we are officially open. To be sure, our project takes a while to explain. It has a lot of moving parts. We are (or will be, when we open) a restaurant and a bar, a music venue and an apprenticeship program. We are messy space and beautiful space and a space to be entertained and a space to work. And it’s easy to lose focus in the planning of those details that our whole purpose for existence—the force behind our drive—is to carve out a permanent space for artists in our city.                                                      

We know, and you know, that this is a critical time to dig our heels in and stake our claim for the creative working class. Things are changing quickly, and our cityscape is shifting. And while we don’t have all of the answers, we do (and will) have space, time, and support to offer.

Part of that support comes in the form of sponsorship and collaboration. This summer, Alma Mater will be working with The Rainbow Center as a producing partner of the Tacoma Pride Festival, where we’ve teamed up with Groundswell Arts Collective to produce a three-part event celebrating the Northwest’s burgeoning ball and vogue scene and culminating in Tacoma’s first-ever all-style vogue competition called Ball Out! It will be radical, gender fluid, and fabulous. We’ve chosen to partner with Groundswell because of the important work they’re doing in their community: centering the needs and identities of the oppressed and bringing together artists, entrepreneurs, and leaders by creating radical spaces and events to gather and connect. You can read more about their mission here.



We also have collaborations on the horizon with our friends over at Feast Arts Center. We’re big fans of the talented Todd Jannausch and Chandler Woodfin, and think that the work they’re doing is filling a great need in Tacoma’s art scene, so we’re excited to reveal more as we finalize those details.
We’ve been up to some other things, too—like testing our future menumonthly with new and old friends, crashing through giant sections of our building, and recording the latest Motopony album in our studio (they’re also gearing up for several shows soon, including at next week’s Upstream Music Fest, so be sure and check them out—they’ll probably play you something new).

Photo courtesy of Motopony

Even though we’re under construction, our work outside of the building just doesn’t seem to be slowing down. And we’re looking for more: more partnerships and collaborations, more ways to support the work of artists in our city. If you have an idea or project that you’re looking to pull off, or are interested in our space to work in or hold your show/project/experience in when we’re open later this fall, shoot us an email.

Until then, we’ll be over here at the Carpenters Building, chipping away.


Alma Mater is Tearing Down Walls

In case you haven't heard

our building is getting a major update.


We've had a bit of radio silence these past several weeks as we prepped the Carpenters Building for demolition - which has begun! So far, half of the walls on the second floor have been torn down to reveal a large and light-filled space that will open as shared studio, office, and lounge space this fall. Check out our live construction feed (if you're as excited about this as we are). 

Want to work in the Carpenters Building?

There are several ways you can work with Alma Mater when we open:

  • To learn more about our artist development program or how to work out of our artist studios, coworking space, and recording studios, visit our webpage, hit the 'contact' button, and fill out our form. We'll take it from there!
  • For employment, internship, and volunteer opportunities, hit the "work with us button" here.
  • To find out about renting one of our spaces for your future event, email us at

Keep an eye out for news of our next events around town, and remember to add Alma Mater to your contacts list so we don't end up as spam.

Working with Alma Mater

First off, thanks for your patience. A month ago we sent a request out into the world asking for your letters of interest in working with us. The response we've received has blown us away, and the amount of talent that has poured in from all over has us excited to start growing our team. We will begin our interview process in June and July for most positions, with the exception of our food and beverage programs, which will begin in August. Between now and June, we will be holding a few sessions to provide you with all the info you may need before this summer (things like who we are, what we will look like upon opening, and each of the positions we'll be hiring for). We will be sending out those dates and times before the end of this month, so keep an eye out. See you soon!

Some Re-Introductions Are In Order

It’s been a while since we’ve talked about ourselves in a big-picture sort of way, and as more and more people take interest in our project that have not yet met us or experienced an Alma Mater event before, we thought it would be a good time for some re-introductions.

Who we are
Alma Mater at the Carpenters Building is an artist-driven work, performance, and gathering space opening in Tacoma later this fall. The idea for a building that encompassed an incubator for artists, areas to perform and display their work, and an economical engine to support them, was activated by Jason Heminger’s own creative journey after a three-year stint in Colorado working in education. In the summer of 2015, Jason brought on long time friends and like-minded thinkers Aaron Spiro and Rachel Ervin to help develop his vision into a concrete plan. Since then, the Alma Mater team has received generous investment, support, and excitement for what’s to come.

Where we’re going
Because we wanted to create a lasting, sustainable model that doesn’t rely on non-profit funding cycles and the whims of a fickle creative market, we decided to build something that doesn’t look like the typical arts organization. Instead, we opted for a for-profit (or slim-profit, as it may be) approach to providing opportunities for artists. The structure that emerged was an ecosystem of artists, programming, hospitality, and the community.
Our first floor will house all of our public spaces and programming: a venue that will hold up to 500 people, an all-day café with an adventurous chef at the helm (no, we can’t tell you who yet, but soon!), a cocktail lounge, day time co-working (and evening community programming), and an outdoor green space. Our recording studios, shared artist work space, and individual studio rentals will live on the second floor, and a newly constructed nine-unit micro hotel will make up the third.

Who we’re watching
Last week, we sent out a call for interest in working with us. As you can see, we have a lot of work (and jobs to fill) ahead. We will need front and back of house professionals for our café, bar, and venue bar, audio/visual tech(s) for our events and performances, a social media master, event coordinator, talent booker….the list goes on. We will be starting the interview process this coming summer, so we hope you’re ready and excited to join us on our adventure. Send us your interest, your resume, your questions, or whatever else you want us to know about to us here. We’ll keep you in the loop!

Field Orchestras

Soon after we formed Alma Mater in 2015, we held a small series of events for artists and musicians called Speak/Listen. Our conversation topics ranged from space needs to collaboration to what talent buyers are looking for when booking a venue. Little did we know that one of the most well-attended of the series--the one about collaboration--would serve us in such unexpected ways in the future. That future, of course, is now, and that collaboration is the 20,000 sq ft + project known as the Carpenters Building. This is our biggest collaboration yet, involving dozens (scores?) of people and areas of expertise, hundreds (thousands?) of hours, and piles of licensing and permits. It’s a lot like an orchestra that is rehearsing together for the first time: many different players and instruments reading off of the same sheet music, with ample opportunity for blunders along the way. And as anyone that has played in an orchestra knows, timing is important. Newbs that we were, our tempo was pretty fast out the gate, with an ambitious timeline and budget to match. But as we started adding more players, the time signatures got a bit more advanced -- maybe even jazzy. And what can we say about jazz? It’s unpredictable. What was originally assumed to be a short and snappy movement from building purchase to renovation to opening has now revealed itself as the butterfly-ish math-rock that it really is. That is to say, with so many people involved, with real lives and real problems, things happen, and schedules fall behind. We are doing everything in our power to keep our original opening date of Summer 2017, but right now it is looking a bit later than that (but not too much later, fingers crossed). Stay tuned, we’ll keep you updated.

Protect the Sacred by Asia Tail; curator and featured artist at Protect the Sacred: Native Artists for Standing Rock.

Protect the Sacred by Asia Tail; curator and featured artist at Protect the Sacred: Native Artists for Standing Rock.

Where we're going

With its last Tacoma happening in May of 2015, Smart People was a monthly dance party that Tacoma went a little crazy for. It was a lot of fun, and lucky for us it will be back for one night only on Saturday the 14th at the New Frontier Lounge. The party will be hosted by Neon Dion, with DJ guests Del and Najomonique of Tacoma’s Mirrorgloss, Dreafauxreal out of San Francisco, and an unannounced special guest out of LA. Doors open at 9pm and tickets are five bucks.

The opening reception for Protect the Sacred: Native Artists for Standing Rockwill be held during third Thursday art walk (Thursday, Jan 19th--if  you don’t have a calendar handy) at 1120 Creative House. Curated by Asia Tail, the event will host dozens of Native artists, with a performance by Christine Babic at 7:15, and artist Nahaan FastsFromEnglish will be tattooing by appointment. Proceeds go to resist the DAPL at Standing Rock. Also on Third Thursday, check out the opening reception of Anne de Marcken’s Invisible Ink at Feast. On Friday the 20th,I'llfightyou is playing a Tacoma show at Jazzbones. Doors open at 9pm, and tickets are 10 bucks in advance or 15 at the door. Lastly, the Cloves just released a new 7" titled "Red Rose." You can listen and purchase it here.


What we're reading
As we move through the next phase of our project through demolition and construction, we are considering the ways in which we can shift identities: from space-specific to mobile arts brigade. We're taking notes from this article onArtsy covering a few artists that have used alter-egos in their practices over the years.


Who we're watching

Anne de Marcken is an Interdisciplinary artist working with text and moving images, among other multimedia, and has created a site-specific installation for Feast Arts Center titled "Invisible Ink." An "interrogation of whiteness," this interactive exhibit pairs de Marcken with conceptual artist Natasha Marin (see her reparations website) and writer Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, who created the score for the installation. "Writing in lemon juice—homemade invisible ink—on butcher paper, de Marcken transcribes a digital backlog of requests for help, offers of support, and assaultive troll attacks received by Marin during her six-month "Reparations" project. The result is a 1000-foot-long enunciation of the ways whiteness protects those affiliated with its power from awareness of and accountability for the costs and benefits of that artificial construction." You can see and participate in the exhibit Thursday the 19th at 6pm at Feast.


Onward and Upward

Oh, 2016, you really were something. We had a lot of fun, learned more than we thought could possibly be crammed into a single year, and gave the Carpenters Building a couple of last good runs before renovation. We ended the year with (in our opinion) the best party and art opening our town has seen in a while, and gave us some energy and inspiration to keep pushing into 2017. Between permit submittals, meetings, and planning, we’ve been working with our architects on the look and feel of our future space, and we can’t wait to show it to you.  2017 is going to be one for the books. 

Blake Carter's work, 38,971 Pedestrians, as seen through the Woolworth windows.

Blake Carter's work, 38,971 Pedestrians, as seen through the Woolworth windows.

Where we’re going
Metro Parks begins a “Relaxing into Wholeness” yoga series at the W.W. Seymour Botanical Conservatory (aka the warm and beautiful Wright Park glass house full of plants) on January 4th.  It sounds like a soothing time and a great way to recover from the New Year’s Eve weekend. Chandler Woodfin of Feast Arts Center will teach a beginning drawing workshop on January 8th and 9th. Visit the 30 Americans exhibit at the Tacoma Art Museum on January 8th before it leaves, when they will hold their free community festival. Dance, spoken word, and a collaborative mural will be happening. On January 11th, The Grand Cinema will be showing off their fancy new video game party rentals with a video game open house. Seriously. You can play video games in an actual movie theater.

What we’re reading

Blu the Baqi set the room on fire with her spoken word at the Colored event on December 29th. Her collection of poems, How to Write a Fire, "effortlessly glides between the solemn and the sensual; the political and the provocative; the traditional and the taboo; resulting in a relevant, poignant and intimate collection that is ultimately an ode to self-discovery, black culture, and personal truth." You can find your copy here and follow Blu on Instagram here



Who we're watching

Blake Carter is an artist based in Tacoma. Much of his work shows the influence of living and traveling in East Asia for more than a decade. Blake often focuses on subject matter that is commonly seen but overlooked, such as pedestrians, scooters at Taipei intersections, or people doing yard work. You can see Blake's public installation in the Woolworth Windows right now in downtown Tacoma.

Holidays, Ambition, and Sporty Lee in Lights

We're on the cusp of a new year, and for many, 2017 can't come fast enough. For us, if we're honest, rounding the corner of 2016 has us feeling a mixture of elation and trepidation; we're coming into the year that will test our theories and plans and hopes and anxieties. Our ambitious project* (hereinafter known as AP) will come to life in ways we're expecting, and almost certainly in ways we're not. And we'll need you, Tacoma, to help keep us on track. Thanks for trusting us this last year and showing up when we asked you to. Thanks for your excitement in our big ol' AP, and thanks for letting us know about the things you might not be so excited about, too. We'll take it and run. See you next year.

*Ambitious Project is the official term people have used when learning about our plans at the Carpenters Building. And we agree, this thing is a lot of work.


Where we’re going

Tonight at Jazzbones is An Evening of Prince and Talking Heads. And by evening they mean dance party with tribute band Life During Wartime. Doors open at 7pm, with an early show that begins at 8. Sunday, beginning at 7pm at the Mule Tavern, is Bric-a-Brac Bingo. It's free to play, and prizes are bric-a-brac and thrift store finds (sounds like a good way to snag a pink elephant gift). Gritty City Sirens will be celebrating their six year anniversary with caroling and a five-stop pub crawl with proceeds benefiting Standing Rock. At the Carpenters Building on Thursday, the 29th, the opening of the Coloredexhibit, presented by Breaker Gallery, will host 20 featured artists, two dance performances, three DJs, two poets, and headliner Joyce Lee. We've been privy to the transformation in our venue space and you will be sad if you miss this. Finally, plan out your New Year's eve in advance with First Night's schedule of events.


Chris Jordan working on a mural. See his work and others' at the Colored opening event on December 29th.

Chris Jordan working on a mural. See his work and others' at the Colored opening event on December 29th.

Who we're watching

Our very own Sporty Lee is featured on Private Press' Christmas Compilation, and next month his previously released album, Allotropes, will be their January record of the month. Both are beautiful (visually and sonically), and deserve to be heard in their most natural, vinyl state. Oh, and there's also a video. Enjoy.

Pro tip: wait until 1:25.

Music compliments of Sporty Lee via Golden Kitty Studios
Video work by Mountain House Productions

What we’re reading

This afternoon I sat in the eighth-floor SantaLand office and was told, “Congratulations, Mr. Sedaris. You are an elf.” In order to become an elf I filled out ten pages’ worth of forms, took a multiple choice personality test, underwent two interviews, and submitted urine for a drug test. The first interview was general, designed to eliminate the obvious sociopaths. During the second interview we were asked why we wanted to be elves. This is always a problem question...When it was my turn I explained that I wanted to be an elf because it was one of the most frightening career opportunities I had ever come across.  The interviewer raised her face from my application and said, “And . . . ?”

-excerpted from "The Santaland Diaries" inHolidays on Ice, by David Sedaris, 2008, published by Little, Brown and Company.