NICOLE S. COLSON
Georgia Cassimatis saw the city of Keene as a blank canvas, the creatives who work here as artistic media, and her organization as the connecting bridge to everyone.
Creating access to art for all was her goal when she founded the nonprofit group, Friends of Public Art. Similarly, removing barriers for artists to create was the impetus for her project, 17ROX, which provides affordable studio space downtown.
Georgia Cassimatis builds a network in Keene
Cassimatis moved to the area from Long Island 14 years ago. She subsequently earned her masters in sustainable development and climate change at Antioch University.
A lifelong patron of the arts (one of her own artistic passions is photography) and through her masters program, Cassimatis met keystone community members who are active in the arts.
She focused her final year at Antioch (2013) building the social capital she’d need to form Friends of Public Art.
Since spring of 2014, the board has met monthly and gained municipal partners who support the group’s work.
By 2017, Cassimatis had met the group of people that would help her launch Keene’s first mural festival in 2019. Specifically, the festival gathered roughly 200 muralists and sign painters from across the country and beyond known as the Walldogs. They collectively painted 16 public outdoor murals around downtown Keene chronicling important pieces of the city’s past.
Cassimatis introduces 17ROX artist studios
In 2018, Patti Moreno, who knew Cassimatis from her involvement with previous public art events in Winchester (where Moreno lives), purchased the building (with co-owner and husband Robert Patton-Spruill) on Roxbury Street that also houses Twenty-One Bar & Grill and Country Life Restaurant. She reached out to Cassimatis about her potentially using the upstairs vacant space for art studios.
“I took the key and started showing it to everyone I knew,” she said of the Roxbury Street space, “the mayor, council members…”
After conducting a feasibility study she did with the help of the NH Small Business Development Center, which determined there was a demand for affordable studio space, she began advertising and had two artists sign up for space at 17ROX right away—one a painter and another a recording engineer.
The grand opening of 17ROX was in January of 2019.
“Seven rooms were empty then,” said Cassimatis. “I now have 13 rooms and I can’t keep a room empty. Word of mouth works.”
“17ROX is more than just a rental,” touts the organization’s website (www.17rox.com). Spaces are from 70 to just under 500 square feet, and rental includes 24/7 access, WiFi, utilities, a common area, gallery space, collaboration on projects with other arts organizations and events in Keene as well as other artists in the building. The website also boasts 17ROX has the “lowest possible rent in a downtown setting.”
Furthermore, artists can have privacy, or open their doors to the community.
17ROX enlivens the local arts community
Presently, renters include artists in multimedia, photography/videography, fine arts and music. Many of them exhibit on a rotating basis every three months. She and the artists get the word out on social media (for example with paid advertisements to people in 50 to 100-mile radius) and flyers hung around the downtown area.
“It’s a way to connect all community—during a show opening, (visitors will) meet nice people with their doors open; you’ll see a lot of fine art and access to snacks and wine and beverages,” said Cassimatis.
“Depending on how much time they have, artists may stay five minutes or three hours and will be on-hand to talk to people. All the art is for sale and you can tour each studio. You’ll hear some music and have great conversation—snacks and conversation are free. You can immerse yourself in art and feel uplifted. It’s a meditative experience. The goal is for people to see something they didn’t expect.”
Cassimatis’ philosophy guides her work
Cassimatis stressed that any money brought in from rent goes right back into the business. Secondly, she doesn’t take commission on art sold.
“I’m not trying to capitalize,” she said.
Markedly, the majority of 17ROX renters are not full-time artists.
“They have a steady income and are able to budget (for rent),” she said. “In return, they get the space they want and don’t have to stress about it.”
“Public art does that for free,” she said. “It prevents that feeling of ‘Do I belong?’ ‘Is this the place for me?’ You don’t have to step in the door and worry about what you’re wearing. As you walk by, it slows you down and takes you away from your phone. It can inspire your thoughts and dreams. It helps form bonds and networking and communication. It brings out the rudimentary experience of being human.”
For more information about the Arts Access Project: opening doors to the arts, visit Arts Access project and resources.