Five years may not seem an awfully long time, but for a Portland all-ages music venue, it's an eternity. So in the half-decade that the Artistery has been open on Southeast Division Street—it has considerably longer roots as an underground venue and Christian artists collective that began in 2001 in the Brooklyn neighborhood with sponsorship from the Imago Dei church—it has endeared itself to more than one generation of music fans and artists.
What's even rarer than the Artistery's lifespan is its self-sufficient financial structure: In addition to the basement-level venue, the house—nondescript but for a large painted "A" on its side—holds nine artist studios. Those artists, in addition to paying rent, must volunteer at the venue on show nights. The communal nature of the venture not only lends the club character, it has kept it alive.
For the past eight years, Aaron Shepherd has been the ringmaster for the Artistery circus. On his watch, he's seen it go from an insular art experiment to a thriving (entirely secular) venue.
In January, 32-year-old Shepherd learned that the Artistery building had been sold to a large developer (the club's final string of shows is slated for this week) that wanted the building's tenants out immediately. Behind the counter at his in-venue record store, the Biz, Shepherd is cheery despite a chest cold and the pending demolition of a community he has been instrumental in creating. "You never know where life'll take you," he says.
WW: Were you surprised to be kicked out on such short notice?
Aaron Shepherd: It was a surprise. First, [the landlord] asked us if we could get out in 30 days. I didn't see any way it could happen, and it didn't make any sense. All of a sudden there's a "closed" sign on the door? Maybe [the Artistery] isn't the most incredible thing Portland's ever seen, but it meant something to some people. So he ended up giving us 60 days, and we planned the last week of shows.
How did that last week come together?
I'm extremely nostalgic, and so I remembered what I considered the golden years of this place. And I just started calling bands. And everybody said, "Of course." The type of people I wanted to be here were the type of people who wanted to do it. That felt good.
Were you ever shut down by the cops in the early days?
At the [Brooklyn neighborhood] house we were really lucky—we had really loud shows down there, but no one ever complained. So it was kind of a shock when we moved here and cops would show up. The neighborhood just wasn't used to us. There are a lot of stresses running a place like this. If we get shut down, it's not just a venue, there are nine people using studio space here. So it's irresponsible to say, âYeah, screw it, who cares?â
Do you see a silver lining for all-ages music in Portland?
Absolutely. I mean, it takes a while for you to turn 21 [laughs]. That seems like a very long time when you're in high school or junior high or whenever it is that you decide you want to see live music, and I hope that's motivation for people to start something. There are places that are doing this sort of thing while supporting themselves with alcohol sales—Backspace, Branx—I don't look down on that at all. Art should be available to everyone, so however you can make that happen is cool. It's hard to say that the Artistery is the model, because it's not. It's just a thing that happened for a period of time.
Do you have advice for people who want to start something like Artistery?
I think you just figure out what you want to do, decide if it's a good thing to do or not and then do it. It's so straightforward to me! What else are we here for if not to just go for it? That's what we did. We didn't have a blueprint for this place; it just evolved, and we let it evolve. That's important, too: Don't hold on too tightly to your ideals. Just pick the important ones and stick to those.
SEE IT: The Artistery hosts four final shows this week. See music calendar for details.