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Monday, November 24, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 25.0° F  Light Snow Fog/Mist
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The Project Lodge's volunteer managers choose art over money
The do-it-yourselfers
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Credit:Jess Dennis

The concert is memorable in many ways, but what really strikes me - and what will linger in my mind long after - is how the man who stamps my hand thanks me.

All he says is, "Thank you for coming." But while the words are ordinary, his tone is unusually sincere. Genuine. Mindful. It doesn't sound like a rote courtesy, nor does it sound like he's trying to be sincere. It just sounds like he means it.

That night, three acts play to a not-quite-packed but very full house at the Project Lodge, the multipurpose arts space at 817 E. Johnson St. Every seat is taken, including all the hay bales serving as makeshift benches. I shuffle between a few women in their 20s in the back of the room and settle in.

What I've heard about the Project Lodge is that it's a DIY venue run by a group of volunteers on a shoestring budget. It's a place where the art, man, takes precedence over filthy lucre. (You know, the kind of filthy lucre that pays for things like good sound equipment and trained staff.)

It's not a description that inspires confidence.

But it takes less than a minute for me to change my mind. The first band, Madison's own Weather Duo, is onstage - two dudes on upright bass and cello, playing pop-friendly experimental tunes - while a woman front and center in the crowd projects arty videos to accompany the set.

It's calming. It's interesting. It's a lot of fun to hear and watch, as are the other two performances, by southern Indiana singer-songwriter Elephant Micah and Minneapolis chamber-pop band Dark Dark Dark. Honestly, it's kinda - at the risk of sounding like a middle-aged mom talking about the Nicholas Sparks book she just read - special.

In the days to come, when other people tell me there's just no place in town quite like the Project Lodge, I will know what they mean. And I will come to understand why my presence - why the presence of everyone in the audience - meant so much to the man at the door.

A raw space

The man at the door's name is Andrew Berry. He is one of the people in charge of the Project Lodge.

That's the simple way to put it, but it means a lot of things. For one, it's a volunteer position. Berry earned it by virtue of being among the handful of people to show up when Lodge founders Chris Buckingham and Kendra Larson held a meeting in summer 2009 looking for someone to take over the venue - which they'd opened in February 2008 - in preparation for their imminent move back to Portland, Ore.

"I had gone to the [Canadian indie-rock band] Frog Eyes show at the Project Lodge sometime before that - it was the first time I had been there. But I liked the space and that it was small," Berry tells me. "When I heard that Chris and Kendra were looking for people to run it, I figured I should at least find out what was going on and see if I could help."

A 25-year-old Madison native who majored in psychology and cognitive science at Dartmouth, Berry had about a year's experience booking concerts for a student group there. When the meeting was over, he was one of four new owners of "ProLo," along with Forward Music Festival organizer Bessie Cherry, artist Hayley Powers Thornton-Kennedy and singer Brooke Jackson.

Since the group took over in August 2009, Jackson and Thornton-Kennedy have dropped out of their capacity as official owner-coordinators, although both are still involved with ProLo events. Artist Tyler Mackie, 29, came on last January as the space's gallery manager.

Yes, gallery manager. Because the Project Lodge isn't just a concert venue. It's also an art gallery. And a theater. And a comedy club, the site of numerous poetry and literary readings, and an event space.

That is part of its appeal. "I love the Project Lodge because it is a raw space," says Madison music blogger Kyle Pfister, who did a concert series there a couple years ago and an art installation in May. "There's no other space in town that allows individuals to be so creative about how they want to engage in an experience. You bring in your own parameters."

But that rawness, that lack of specialization, also means a substantial amount of coordination needs to go into operating the Lodge. Though the artists of all types who showcase their work there do much of their own promotion and preparations, someone still needs to book performers, install art, run the door, handle the money, see to touring groups' needs, maintain the space and deal with the dozens of little issues that can arise every day.

And because the Project Lodge's operators are all volunteers, the return on their efforts is primarily - almost entirely, actually - psychological.

"We never make money," Cherry, 29, says. ProLo charges musicians and other performers a $50 flat fee to put on a show, plus 15% of the door. It's $100 to rent the walls as a gallery for a week. (Music shows go on concurrently when the space is used as a gallery, of course - that's part of the appeal. Says Cherry, "If you're going to put art on the walls, you should get people in there who are going to like art.")

Those monies cover rent, utilities and basic maintenance like cleaning supplies. When there are funds left over...

Well, that doesn't really happen. At present, the Lodge just aims to break even.

"We're close every month," says Berry, who serves as de facto business manager for the space, "so we pay out of pocket when we can't cover it, and essentially the justification is, it's worth it for what we've been able to sustain."

The financial commitment seems to be less of a drain than the time and effort required to keep things going smoothly. Every time an event takes place, a ProLo honcho has to be there to manage things - and they all have day jobs and lives. Cherry, who handles booking, stays up late listening to potential acts' demos and answering emails. Berry says that it's tough to pin down how many hours he devotes to the Lodge each week, but that it's hard for the group to make time just to meet.

"With the rewards not being monetary, it's difficult to balance your work at the Project Lodge with the rest of your life - because you need money to live," says Mackie, who meets with artists, before an exhibit goes up, to plan the layout. "Even though a lot of the rewards are great, I'd like it to be a venture where the people working are compensated in a monetary way. It would help ease the time crunch."

In fact, because of exactly that time crunch, she tells me, she's actually retiring as gallery manager at the end of October, and is looking for a successor.

Like somebody's living room

The dearth of cash can take its toll on the Project Lodge in other ways, too. In June, breakout Madison act Zola Jesus moved a concert that had been booked at ProLo downtown to the Frequency instead. The scuttlebutt was that it had to do with the Lodge's less than stellar sound system - which hadn't done the classically trained Jesus any favors when she'd played an EP release show there in March.

"The sound system at the Project Lodge is adequate for most of the people who play there, but with a band like Zola Jesus, where the lead vocalist is very operatic, and at the same time they have a little bit more of an instrumental basis - it was hard for the sound system at Project Lodge to handle that," says Peter Truby, who booked both shows. "I thought it sounded pretty decent in March, but when I talked to them after the fact, they said they couldn't really hear themselves."

So when the June date happened to open up at the Frequency, the band opted to switch venues. There were other considerations, too, such as the downtown space's larger capacity. (Zola Jesus had sold out the March show at ProLo, and indeed, went on to completely fill the Frequency as well.)

Truby is quick to say that the move had everything to do with practical realities and wasn't intended as a dis. He also promoted New Jersey punks Titus Andronicus' April show at the Lodge, and notes that in that case, the space's limitations "sort of improved" the show.

"They were like, 'Oh, so we don't have monitors. This'll be like an old basement show, like we used to do,'" he says. "It was actually augmented by the fact that it was sort of a throwback kinda thing."

"In some ways, the challenges are natural side effects of the strengths of the space," says Mike Lawler, producing artistic director for the Wisconsin Story Project, which since January has held monthly storytelling sessions, called Storyshares, at ProLo. Although it lacks some of the polish of other venues, the Project Lodge also escapes the strictures that are concomitant with absolute professionalism.

"It's not like running a project that you'd be taking to the Overture Center, where there are systems in place and a rigid protocol," Lawler says. "It's not an over-managed thing."

"One of the main positives is that they really are super-adaptable," agrees Adam Fell, who co-runs the monthly Monsters of Poetry series at ProLo. "We walk in and kind of feel like it's our space for our three hours."

"It's kind of like doing a house show in somebody's living room," says Madison singer-songwriter Anna Vogelzang, who's played eight shows at the Project Lodge and calls it her favorite venue in town. Besides its great natural acoustics, she says one big benefit of the smaller space is that it's a smaller space. "If you only get 10 to 15 people out on a weeknight, it's still a fun show."

Moreover, those 10 to 15 people want to be there. "We're not a bar, so you're there for the music," Cherry says. "I know that's what most venue owners go for, but maybe for us it's a little bit easier."

It's also easier for the Project Lodge team to maneuver on the spur of the moment. When bands are passing through Madison on tour but not scheduled anywhere here, Cherry says, it's often the case that the Project Lodge has an open date. Plus, the spot's size and looser format make it a good fit for a variety of acts. "The array of shows and the genres repped by the space are kind of awe-inspiring," says Truby.

He's not kidding: Last year, indie superstar Sufjan Stevens showed up to play with his backing band Osso. And then there've been Titus Andronicus and other Pitchfork darlings like Julian Lynch and Maps & Atlases. On a less musical note, the nationally lauded viral-video show "Everything Is Terrible!" was recently presented at ProLo, and on a more sober one, the Iraq Veterans Against the War brought in Muslim Peacemaker Teams director Sami Rasouli for a talk.

And though that flexibility comes with certain costs, "the Project Lodge has a greater degree of organization than others I've been involved with," says Andy Gricevich, co-organizer of the ______ Shaped Reading Series at the Lodge. (The series' name changes from event to event.)

As for financial compensation, none of the performers I speak with has any complaints. "It's actually a really good deal," Vogelzang says. "I'm way more comfortable playing the Project Lodge than some other places where they take a way bigger cut and musicians aren't getting paid."

"From my experience, the money they make always goes to the band and the toilet paper in the bathroom," says Pfister. "I think they should charge a little bit more."

Survival strategies

Whether they'll charge more remains to be seen, but Berry agrees that something has to change at ProLo. He'd like to install a high-quality sound system. More important, he'd just like the place to be around.

"In order for it to continue for five, 10, 20 years into the future, it has to be more sustainable than it is now," he says.

He and Cherry and the others have discussed options, including monetizing online content from artists and selling alcohol. They're reluctant about the alcohol, because it would mean losing the focus Cherry cherishes, and because one of Berry's favorite things about the space is that it's all-ages. "It's kind of the cash cow of music venues," he says.

Certainly the Project Lodge isn't suffering from a lack of love - even the poetry reading I attend there is standing-room-only. But translating that sentiment into ongoing viability is tougher.

"I think there's something to be said for not worrying about money and prestige, and for taking risks," says Cherry. "But anything can only survive for so long on the goodness of people's hearts."


Always seeking volunteers

About 20 people came to a recent meeting for prospective Project Lodge volunteers. "It surprised me how many people showed up, and how passionate they were," says ProLo organizer Bessie Cherry. "We're always looking for more people, though. Having a big base of volunteers - that's something we would never turn down."

Cherry says you don't need any kind of experience. The organizers will divide the current group into three committees, to cover music and events, art, and maintenance. Interested parties can help with anything from running sound at shows to cleaning or painting. There's no minimum commitment. "If people just want to pitch in once in a while, that's awesome too," says Cherry.

The Lodge is also seeking an individual or even a group to replace art gallery manager Tyler Mackie, who's leaving at the end of this month. Again, experience isn't a must. "We're looking for someone who's dedicated to being a curator of sorts, but open-minded about artists who may not have formally shown their work before," says Cherry. "And it wouldn't have to be a huge time-suck."

In the past, some students have received school credit for volunteering at ProLo, she says. To find out more, email projectlodge.madison@gmail.com.

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