The Swiss Army Knife of Holyoke: Gateway City Arts brings versatility and vibrance to the city

Original Article Published: 2/8/2018 4:25:50 PM

It started as a search for a new studio — some place of modest size and space where Vitek Kruta could do his painting, set design and art-restoration work.

But along the way, Kruta and his partner, fellow artist Lori Divine, found a much larger space: about 32,000 square feet of it, to be exact, on three floors and in a basement. And that’s not including the empty warehouse next door that was also part of the property.

It was a bit large for a studio. But Kruta and Divine  thought the former Judd Paper Company building might be a good location for something more expansive, more embracing: a full-flung arts locale that would offer live music, dance and theater, as well as art studios, classes, and affordable rental space for start-up businesses, particularly those connected to the arts.

Welcome to Gateway City Arts in Holyoke

The old factory and warehouse space on Race Street, which dates from the early 20th century, has come a long way since Divine and Kruta decided to buy it in 2012. Back then, the building was in decent enough shape, they say, but there were plenty of problems. The roof leaked, most of the windows were boarded up, the heating system was shot, and the elevator wasn’t working.

Today, Gateway, which is set alongside one of Holyoke’s famous canals, is “still evolving,” says Divine. “It’s grown in ways we might not have originally seen. But the biggest part of the vision was always to promote community, artistic community — we wanted to give an opportunity to people to do their craft and share it.”

With two performance spaces and a small restaurant/bistro — the latter moves partly outdoors from late spring through early fall when it has a beer garden — Gateway has become a key part of the Valley’s music scene in the last few years, with acts ranging from bluegrass and folk to rock ‘n’ roll. But the center also offers a bunch of other activities: dance and art classes, start-up space for small businesses, private party areas and a woodshop with tools. There’s a staff of 24, including Kruta and Divine — the couple enjoy studio space up on the third floor.

That’s not to mention events like the talk last year by Dennis Lehane, the bestselling Boston mystery writer, a poetry slam, and “Czechtoberfest,” a festival  featuring traditional meats, cheeses, desserts and beers from the Czech Republic, Kruta’s native country. And in April, Carmen Yulín Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, will speak at Gateway during a visit to western Massachusetts, which also includes a stop at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley.

Their versatility has even earned them a nickname: “We’ve been called the Swiss army knife of Holyoke,” says Kruta, who immigrated to the United States in the early 1990s.

He and Divine, who live in Holyoke, also see Gateway as part of a revitalizing city that has a rich past and a promising future, but which still has to work against the perception among some that it’s shadowed by crime and poverty, not a place where people might want to come to see a show or event.

“Holyoke has an amazing history,” says Kruta, who has headed the city’s Historical Commission and been active in other work around the city, including giving free art lessons at the Holyoke Boys and Girls  Club and joining a campaign to preserve the 116-year-old Mater Dolorosa Church. “We want to be part of the effort to show everybody that the city has a lot to offer.”

Into the labyrinth

Visiting Gateway — all of it — can seem at first like entering a labyrinth. The center is shaped roughly like a square horseshoe. To the right is the main performance space (the former warehouse) known as The Hub, which can accommodate a crowd up to 500; there’s also a bar. To the left are the basement and three floors of the former factory, which houses the smaller performance stage, called the Mark Landy Party Hall (named for the contractor who built the room) and other functions like rental space, classrooms, administrative offices and the woodshop.

Connecting these two separate sections of Gateway is The Bistro, a two-level eatery that’s partly decorated with some of Kruta’s paintings.

“We hadn’t originally thought about having a restaurant,” says Divine. “But once we started having bigger [music] shows, and if we were serving alcohol, we needed to offer food, too.”

“There’s really no place else to eat in downtown Holyoke past 4 p.m., expect pizza,” adds Kruta. Given some concertgoers at Gateway are coming from as far away as Connecticut, Boston or sometimes eastern New York state, he notes, “They have to have access to food.”

In keeping with the center’s multi-use philosophy, Gateway’s kitchen also doubles as a co-working space that can be rented for short periods of time by someone preparing a meal for, say, a large private party or office function.

The second floor has been divided into small but cozy 10 x 10 foot studio/work spaces that rent for $150 a month, some larger rooms for conferences, and common spaces where renters can get to know one another. On a recent weekday morning, John and Megan Regan, a West Springfield couple who run a puppet theater, CactusHead Puppets, were working on some of their material in one of the common areas.

“We needed more space — we were having a hard time doing all our work in our apartment,” said Megan Regan, who added that she and her husband have been renting space at Gateway for about three years. “And it’s great to be in a place where you’re part of a bigger artistic community.”

Being part of a bigger artistic community — the Valley’s busy music scene in particular — is also a central tenet of Gateway. The Mark Landy Party Hall opened in 2014, The Hub in 2015, and two promoters who have regularly produced shows there give high marks to both spaces.

“We really like working with Gateway City Arts,” says Jim Olsen, president of Signature Sounds in Northampton and the producer of concerts throughout the Valley under the title Signature Sounds Presents. “It has a really friendly and welcoming vibe. It’s comfortable and inviting for both the artists and the audience.”

Signature recently produced two shows for The Hub at Gateway: folk rockers The Felice Brothers in January, and the jam/dance band Rubblebucket on New Year’s Eve. Olsen, in an email, said the larger stage “has a rock club feel, but it’s so much more than that, with a really good restaurant and bar.”

And, he said, “It’s also great to bring live music to Holyoke. There’s so many venues in the northern part of the Valley, but not much in the south. It’s a really welcome addition to the club scene.”

In fact, it was Peter Hamelin, live music director for Signature, who initially worked with Kruta and Divine to map out plans for the Mark Landy Party Hall in 2014, and Hamelin in turn introduced the space to John Sanders, of DSP Shows, a Ithaca, N.Y.-based company that books many concerts in this region (Sanders formerly worked at the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton).

In an email, Sanders said “The attention to detail in providing a great experience to both the artists and the audiences is apparent from the moment you set foot” in Gateway. He added that he booked his first two shows there last summer — Rusted Root and Chris Robinson — with a plan to “get my feet wet in a new venue and see how everything went. Both of those shows sold out and the feedback from both the artists and the fans was terrific.”

DSP has now done seven shows at Gateway in the last six months and has four more scheduled so far in 2018 — and Sanders says he hopes there will be many more to come.

What’s also coming to Gateway this year is something new: art exhibits. The center has just opened a show, running through March 3, of work by the late Connecticut painter Robert Templeton, who created many portraits of civil-rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy, as well as other public figures like President Jimmy Carter. His portrait of Carter hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

The exhibit, on Gateway’s first floor, across the floor from the Mark Landy Party Hall, is part of a number of events the Holyoke center is hosting to recognize Black History Month. Last week, Kevin Templeton, the artist’s son, greeted visitors during an opening reception and said he was thrilled to find a new venue for his father’s work. “I think Lori and Vitek have done an amazing job here in all the different things they’re offering,” he said.

When it comes to art shows, “We’re looking to do maybe six a year, probably starting small and then going from there,” says Kruta. “We’re nearing the end of our construction phase, and after that we’ll have more time to focus on other things — and putting on exhibits is an important part of that.”

If you build it, they will come

Indeed, construction and renovation has been an ongoing process ever since the couple bought the property. One of the last big hurdles is converting a freight elevator in the main building to a legally compliant passenger elevator (renters are currently obligated to use the stairs to get to the upper floors). They’ve received a $165,000 state grant for the work, which covers half the expected cost.

The couple would not say how much they’ve paid to get to where they are today; Divine says a handful of grants from Holyoke and the state, rental income and “private investment” have financed the repairs. But the scope of that work can be gleaned in some of the costs they tick off: $80,000 to fix the main building’s roof, for instance, and $35,000 for the plumbing for the bathrooms that were added to The Hub.

They say they’ve put in lots of sweat equity to make changes, too. For The Hub, “The cheapest estimate we got to paint the floor was $17,000,” says Kruta. “So we painted it ourselves.”

Kruta and Divine’s personal stories have a lot to do with how they created Gateway. Kruta’s is something of an odyssey. Born in Prague in what was then Czechoslovakia, he and his artist father fled the Soviet-dominated country in the early 1980s and landed in the former West Germany, where Kruta made a living restoring churches across the country.

Father and son then separately made their way some years later to the Connecticut estate of Milos Forman, the famous Czech-born film director (“Loves of a Blonde,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Amadeus”), with whom they had a connection.

“We lived on the estate [in Litchfield County] and maintained it, and I started some art galleries and an illustration business, did restoration work, worked with artists presenting different shows,” said Kruta. “Basically, I did something similar to what I’m doing now, but on a smaller scale.”

Kruta moved with his then-wife and family to Northampton in 2001 and began teaching painting at the Guild Studio School (now in Easthampton). Divine, then living in Northampton and working as a physical therapist, began taking some of those classes with Kruta as a way to deal with the stress she was facing caring for her late husband, Dennis Hudson, who was battling cancer.

“That’s why art and art education is so important to me, because it can be so transformative,” said Divine, who paints primarily with acrylics and has also served on the board of directors for The Guild and at Snow Farm, the arts and crafts program in Williamsburg. “It really gave me a different way of looking at the world.”

Kruta developed a friendship with Divine and Hudson, which became increasingly important to him as his own marriage ended. And after Hudson, a longtime professor of religion at Smith College, died in 2006, Kruta’s friendship with Divine eventually blossomed into something more.

Today, the couple are hoping to continue building on their efforts to incubate small businesses at Gateway and give beginning artists a way to get started in the field. It’s no easy task, says Kruta — “Part of it is teaching artists not to give away their work” — but they believe Gateway, as a model of diverse artistic activities, can help artists along the way.