By Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2013
When Flatbed Press first opened in the 18,000-square-foot warehouse on East Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in 1999, the concept of a community of artists and creative professionals seemed new for East Austin.
A few indie theater groups had begun to transform neighborhood buildings before 2000. And some modest-size artist workshops already called the east side home, including Slugfest Print Workshop a few blocks from Flatbed.
But 14 years ago when Flatbed — a nationally recognized fine art print publisher — converted the enormous former shoe store warehouse into a place for its own operations and for other artists and galleries, everyone wondered if the art crowd would follow.
For years, Flatbed had occupied a brick building in a then-forgotten corner downtown near the Seaholm Power Plant. But when a demand for more space and the threat of nearby development loomed, it was time to move Flatbed's fine art presses.
"We didn't know if people would find us, though," says Flatbed co-founder Katherine Brimberry.
People did. In fact, more than 1,000 turned up at Flatbed's East Austin debut in 1999.
Flatbed is now a fixture on the arts landscape. For seven years, the University of Texas rented out space in Flatbed for its student and faculty exhibits while its own art building underwent a major remodel. And Flatbed has a very Austin-esque buzz, too: Sandra Bullock stopped in recently to see Flatbed's current exhibit of etchings by her pal, Austin indie rocker Bob Schneider.
With the popular East Austin Studio Tour launching its 12th iteration this weekend, the Flatbed complex is just one of the 160 official stops on the free two-weekend tour. And it's just one of many large East Austin facilities that act as collective homes to artists, galleries and creative professionals. (See the sidebar on other artist hives to check out.)
Earlier this year, the Flatbed complex gained its newest tenant — Gallery Shoal Creek. And while seemingly not a big change on the arts landscape, the relocation nevertheless speaks of East Austin's now intractable profile as an arts destination.
Nearly half a century old, Gallery Shoal Creek is Austin's oldest fine art gallery. As its name implies, the gallery called the West Austin area around Shoal Creek home since its founding in 1965.
Owned by Judy Taylor since 1989, the gallery, which represents artists from around the country, most recently occupied digs on San Gabriel Street, just off Lamar Boulevard. But when Taylor's lease was ending last year, she got restless and started looking around town for a place where there was a little more art action.
"I wasn't at first specifically looking at a location in East Austin," says Taylor. "The attraction was Flatbed and what Katherine was doing here and the synergy of sharing a place with other like-minded businesses."
Taylor reports that business is good since the move. "Our long-time patrons and collectors had no trouble following us, and we get a lot more traffic through the gallery now — people stopping to see something else and then discovering we're here."
For E.A.S.T., Taylor is featuring four Austin artists — Shawn Camp, Catherine Dudley, Katie Maratta and Sandra C. Fernandez.
The vagaries of Austin's changing creative cityscape also landed photographer Tina Weitz at Flatbed.
After more than a decade operating her Studio 2 Gallery on South Lamar Boulevard, which specialized in fine art photography, Weitz closed up shop in 2012, when a rent increase proved more than she could afford.
By the time her gallery closed, Weitz had already been producing pop-up exhibits at Flatbed during EAST. And then after joining the Flatbed Press staff last year, Weitz rebooted her own exhibition operation there.
Now Weitz's tiny Photo Méthode Gallery is a Flatbed tenant. And she coordinates Flatbed's O2Gallery, an exhibit space rented out to a changing roster of artists. For E.A.S.T., Weitz is exhibiting her Polaroid-based art as well as photographs by Laura Pickett Calfree.
"It made sense to restart my gallery here," says Weitz. "It's good to be in a community where everybody is on common ground."
Flatbed's immediate neighborhood buzzes with a different vibe than it did in 1999 when it was edged by empty stretches of urban brownfield land.
Now, there's the MetroRail MLK Jr. Station just a block away. (And yes, people have used it to travel from downtown to Flatbed). The Sustainable Food Center hosts a weekly farmers market across street. A few blocks away, a luxury mixed-use development is under construction.
A long-term lease means Flatbed will continue for at least the foreseeable future, Brimberry says. "We've got a good community here now. We'd like to keep that," she says.