An Artistic Ecosystem

Alma Mater in downtown Tacoma celebrates its one-year anniversary of being a cultural hub for creatives.

Upon pulling up to Alma Mater for the first time, one might think they’ve arrived at the wrong destination. Its plain, concrete exterior doesn’t quite match up with the airy and modern interior that has become a blank canvas for the artist community to capitalize on.

Alma Mater contains a glamorous cocktail bar adorned with velvet seating; a cozy coffee shop and restaurant; and an artists’ hub with an event hall, co-working space, and recording studio all wrapped up in one beautiful — slightly unassuming — box.

It’s been a year since it opened in downtown Tacoma, and Alma Mater hasn’t lost its magic. If anything, it’s an ever-growing tour de force locals have fallen in love with.

Its presence has become a huge asset to Tacoma’s artistic community. Because the creative culture in the area has so much diversity but there are limited venues for it to all coexist, the co-founders — Rachel Ervin, Aaron Spiro, and Jason Heminger — decided to do something about it.

“We’ve lost so many of those spaces because of the internet, because of gentrification, because of all sorts of reasons,” Ervin said. “And I personally really missed that — having just a central ecosystem where you can show up, and the barrier of entry was nothing. I knew and really felt in my bones that our culture was missing that.”

Even though she’s lived all over the world throughout her life, Ervin said she’s never lived somewhere as long as she’s lived in Tacoma.  It was the first place she truly felt a sense of community — a feeling of home — which is why she decided to stay and raise her family here. Her fellow co-founders, Spiro and Heminger are long-time Tacoma residents, and have been active members of the artistic community for some time. Ervin said many of the people that use, visit, or work in Alma Mater are equally active in Tacoma’s creative community.

Tacoma native Jackie Casella has also been involved in the art scene here as long as she can remember. Casella runs the literary group Creative Colloquy and works as a co-lead at the Matriarch Lounge cocktail bar at Alma Mater.

“One of the things that makes [Tacoma’s art scene] unique is how inclusive it is,” Casella said. “I think in some other cities, art can feel very unapproachable to people in general. They might feel like they have to be skilled in the arts or knowledgeable in the arts to appreciate it, and, in Tacoma, I don’t feel like that’s the case.”

And it’s a good thing for Casella, too. She said she doesn’t exactly identify as an artist herself. Her background is in writing about the arts for various publications including City Arts and WRIST Magazine, and she has spent a large amount of her professional years in the service industry as a bartender.

“I myself can’t paint. I can’t write a good short story. But supporting the arts — I’m like the ultimate groupie,” Casella said. “I’m going to do what I can: I can write, and I can bartend. And I’m going to use those things to support my community.”

And that’s what she did. She founded Creative Colloquy in 2014 with the intent to foster a literary community in the South Sound. It does this through online publications and its monthly reading event, held at Honey, Alma Mater’s café.

“We always joke about how writers and readers just sit there and kind of pound away at our keyboards. It’s a solitary action. It’s not something you do in groups typically,” Casella said. “So, for us to kind of lure people out and entice them enough for all these introverts to fill a room, it’s inspiring to see that people take that invitation as an opportunity to connect with their peers.”

In Alma Mater’s coworking space, artists come together to invigorate their own creativity through connections with other creatives. Grit City Magazine is a tenant, Post Defiance is relaunching there, and various other writers and visual artists use it regularly.

“Getting people who are normally in these artistic silos in Tacoma in the same room, working next to each other, is huge,” Ervin said.

Although some artists generally create in solitude, there are others that thrive on crowds. Alma Mater has space for both. Its event venue, Fawcett Hall, is seeing a great variety of different programming in the entertainment and performing arts. This can be attributed, in part, to Darryl Crews, a producer and entertainment entrepreneur who has helped to develop programming. He’s also created his own talk show, The Night Show with Will & Keilani, which takes the stage at Fawcett Hall once a month.

He recalled walking through Fawcett Hall for the first time and fully establishing his long-evolving idea for The Night Show. Although he’d been conceptualizing it for years, he didn’t feel he had the necessary collection of elements to bring it to reality — until Alma Mater was established.

The Night Show, hosted at Alma Mater, is an “entertainment experience” in the words of Crews. It’s a Tacoma-focused late-night show and live event, hosted by Will Jordan, a Grammy-nominated artist from Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood, and Keilani Afalava, a previous Miss Washington pageant winner who is now a doctoral student and speaker on domestic violence issues. Each episode features a community guest, a national guest, and a live performance. The show is working on distribution of its filmed content right now, but the live events are available to attend in the meantime.

The goal of the show, and of Crews’s contribution to Alma Mater’s programming, was to create something that was multigenerational, multicultural, and multiplatform — a home for everybody; just like the venue.

As Alma Mater continues to grow into itself, one balancing act the founders grapple with is ensuring profitability without compromising their values.

Ervin described Alma Mater’s financial set-up as “slim profit.” They try to keep their spaces as accessible as possible. She said the workspace costs are low and they try to hold as many free events as they can, but they have to ensure that they can keep the business sustainable as well. Most of their income comes from food, beverage, and alcohol sales, as well as income from the venue. This maintains consistent profits without sacrificing their mission of being arts-led and arts-driven, Ervin said.

The idea behind this space was something that the co-founders had been formulating since they first met over a decade ago, all being passionate about the arts and founding their friendship on those shared interests. The opportunity to bring it into reality came when Heminger formed a connection with a funder. This is where some controversy around Alma Mater had arisen. That funder was James Walton, the grandson of Sam Walton — the founder of Walmart.

If you remember how many protests broke out before the construction of our own Walmart on Union Street, you might understand why some Tacoma residents weren’t particularly pleased with the way Alma Mater was backed. Ervin acknowledged that she understood this hesitation, but that James Walton has been using his family’s fortune to give back to communities in the forms of sustainable arts, native rights, and the environment. She said she strongly believes he had good intentions with his investment, and that it’s allowed the co-founders to provide a space that Tacoma artists deeply needed.

Though some have looked upon the new venue with leery eyes, Ervin said the majority are welcoming it with open arms. And there is still a lot of room to grow.

“I am excited for the day where there’s something happening every night in here. The spaces are being used to their full potential and people are using this building like it’s their home,” Ervin said.

With only one year under its belt, we can’t wait to see how Alma Mater will develop into the future.

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