The Magic Of Marks
When Garrick Paikai reflects on the growth that his troupe On The Spot Improv has seen over the years, he says, “It is kind of crazy.”
It’s hardly hyperbole.
When Paikai launched it in 2001, it was just a bunch of college kids who, he admits, didn’t really know that much about improv. Now, though, On The Spot has earned a slew of accolades, been recognized internationally (an improv troupe in Italy even has a show that pays homage to their work), and they are set to embark on a national tour next year.
Paikai credits the Chinatown-based community arts center that they operate out of — The ARTS at Marks Garage — with helping to facilitate that growth.
“The constant exposure and trying new stuff at The ARTS has really helped us,” Paikai says. “If it wasn’t for The ARTS, we wouldn’t be able to tour the country like we are now.”
That, The ARTS at Marks Garage executive director Rich Richardson says, is exactly the type of thing he wants to come out of the space. Founded as a way to support local artists and bolster the arts community at large, The ARTS at Marks Garage is an eclectic mashup — part office, part gallery, and part performance venue — that not only plays host to a range of exhibits, performances and events, but also is home to a number of arts businesses and groups like On The Spot.
“There are great theaters and there are great galleries and there are great co-working spaces around the world, but they are hardly ever all in one spot,” Richardson says.
“Everybody trying to do what they love to do in the same space is kind of an amazing feeling — there is something really nice about it,” he adds. “When it works, it is pure joy.”
The path that The ARTS at Marks has forged hasn’t always been easy — its existence, after all, has spanned a time when Chinatown was viewed as a less than desirable area, as well as the recession — but The ARTS has made it through: On Saturday, Nov. 19, it celebrates its 15th anniversary with its Raise The Roof fundraiser from 6 to 10 p.m.
As Richardson explains it, ARTS at Marks came out of “a communal effort to fill the void of the Honolulu arts scene.”
A cadre of groups including Hawaii Craftsmen, Hawaii Arts Alliance and Hawaii Academy of Performing Arts had realized that they all were facing issues like the one Kimberley Coffee-Isaak was having: Hawaii Craftsmen, of which she was executive director at the time, ran largely out of her home office. It would have been nice to have an actual office, as well as room to run its exhibits and workshops, but who could afford rent for an office on their own?
“There are so many small nonprofit arts organizations that have similar needs,” Coffee-Isaak says. “Everybody wanted a more visual public presence.”
If these organizations came together to share resources, they reasoned, it would make things easier. They decided there were three major things lacking: A gallery for exhibitions, a performance venue, and office space. The ARTS at Marks was designed to fulfill all these needs at once.
But beyond that, there was an underlying goal that transcended the space itself; they wanted to create an arts district and cultivate the scene as a whole.
“From the get-go, we came at it with that objective,” Richardson recalls. “We focused on making sure that people had the opportunity to appreciate and participate in the arts, and the rest would follow.”
Now, nearly every day of the week, it seems you can find something different at The ARTS at Marks Garage — exhibits, performances and classes, as well as its participation in Chinatown-wide community events like First Friday. Plus, it runs an after-school Teen Arts program that covers everything from sculpture to filmmaking, and down the street, it’s got the Chinatown Artists Lofts that serve as live-work spaces for photographers, area business owners, illustrators and more.
Like with On The Spot, it’s also an incubator of sorts for a range of arts nonprofits and groups. Others it houses include Hawaii Shakespeare Festival and PA‘I Foundation, both of which host their annual events at The ARTS. Playwriting group PlayBuilders and spoken word nonprofit Pacific Tongues, which runs writing and slam poetry program Youth Speaks Hawaii, also call The ARTS home.
That same incubator-type function also applies to its work with individual artists.
“Our focus has really been on getting people who are … not commercially successful, yet, a place to experiment, to try things out and get feedback,” Richardson says. “It works as a kind of laboratory like that.”
A decade ago, when visual artist Carl F.K. Pao returned to the islands after some time away, he sought to re-establish himself locally. The ARTS allowed him to be flexible in how he presented his work — “people think of gallery space as you hanging something up on the wall, but (ARTS at Marks) is open to painting on the walls, they are open to doing performances,” Pao says — and put him in front of a broad audience.
Exhibiting at ARTS at Marks for the last decade, Pao says, has “immensely benefitted my career because of … the type of exposure you have with people coming into those different events. You get these different crowds, which you don’t necessarily get when you show at a museum or a high-end gallery.”
The reach of ARTS at Marks has been such that any conversation of growth and change in Chinatown feels incomplete without a mention of it. (It’s been featured in The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times in articles focusing on Chinatown’s revitalization.)
When ARTS at Marks was facing financial troubles last year, Kumu Kahua Theatre, as Richardson phrases it, “came to our rescue.” But more than just supporting local theater, Kumu Kahua managing director Donna Blanchard says that they saw helping the center as a way to support the community as a whole, given ARTS at Marks’ impact.
“Really when you look at downtown and Chinatown, it is very important that we keep our neighborhood dynamic for it to be vital — and I think of Kumu Kahua Theatre and The ARTS at Marks Garage as two of the cornerstones in keeping that happening,” Blanchard says. “We want to keep our neighborhood thriving; we want to keep a lot of foot traffic through there.”
In just a few weeks, the interior of ARTS at Marks as it appears now will be completely demolished; it’s working with local architecture firm Group 70 to transform the building into an open, modernized space come January.
“They gave us two options: safe and comfortable, or radical,” Richardson says. “Of course, we chose radical.”
That means all of the offices and cubicles will be removed to make way for an open floor plan, the gallery space will be revamped, and the performance area will double in size.
The upcoming fundraiser, fittingly, is largely an artistic production in and of itself.
The nearly 100 cars that usually occupy the top of the parking garage will be cleared out, replaced by live music, food booths, drinks, a gallery and even roller derby demonstrations.
“You will have the ability to cruise around and enjoy different vignettes and scenes as they pop up,” Richardson says.
And while he specifically is describing the event itself, it seems to also be an apt telling of The ARTS at Marks Garage in general: “The whole idea is just to get a lot of elements of surprise in there — you won’t really know what to expect.”
“We are going to have a lot of things happening at once,” says The ARTS at Marks Garage executive director Rich Richardson of the Nov. 19 “Raise The Roof” fundraiser.
Taking place on the roof of the 1159 Nuuanu Ave. building, the fundraiser will feature food, live entertainment, performances and more from 6 to 10 p.m.
Featured performers include dj mr. nick, Taimane and Good Foot. Other entertainment will include demonstrations by Pacific Roller Derby, poetry readings, puppetry and more. Local artists Solomon Enos and Carl F.K. Pao will be giving a TED Talk-esque presentation. A gallery showcasing pieces from various local artists also will be on display.
Chinatown eateries including Grondin French-Latin Kitchen, J.J. Dolan’s, Palate Craft & Eatery and Bethel Union will be setting up shop on the roof. Beverages will be provided by Kona Brewing Company and Andis Wine.
All-inclusive individual tickets cost $80, with descending prices available for groups. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit artsatmarks.com or eventbrite.com.