Sufjan Stevens and Osso performed at the Project Lodge in October 2009.
The Project Lodge will leave 817 East Johnson St. in late September, when its lease expires. The all-ages music venue and art space has occupied the storefront since February 2008. Good Style Shop -- a vintage-fashion shop, record store and music venue at 402 East Washington Ave. -- will move in October 1.
The venue may forgo a home base for a short while, especially if a good lease is hard to find. At least it's in good company: Wisconsin Union Theater will be homeless until fall of 2014 thanks to a major renovation project.
There are a lot of mights on the table right now. Volunteer James Littiebrant says the Project Lodge crew might focus on booking shows at places such as Gates of Heaven, the historic synagogue in James Madison Park. Executive Director Bessie Cherry says the venue's concerts might also take place in local houses, small clubs such as the Frequency, and like-minded art spaces such as Bright Red Studios, a recently opened spot at 9 North Ingersoll St. Events might also be moved to restaurants, bars and coffee shops that don't usually host music.
Chris Lay, a stand-up comic and friend of mine who runs the venue's increasingly popular ProLo Comedy Showcase is also seeking a new home for his Sunday event. For now, it will continue on East Johnson Street.
Happiness in scrappiness
Born and raised on East Johnson, the Project Lodge is no stranger to struggle. In the early days, founders Kendra Larson and Chris Buckingham discovered the many joys of noise complaints. When they moved back to Portland, Oregon, in the summer of 2009, it wasn't immediately clear who -- if anyone -- would take over.
So far, neither Cherry nor the volunteers have suggested that the Project Lodge will simply shut down. When I asked Littiebrant about this situation, he said that if worst comes to worst, the current crew would launch an independent promotions group and book shows at venues around the city.
Cherry and her volunteers received a booster shot of morale and money earlier this year, thanks to two benefit shows and a Kickstarter drive that raised $8,000. Since starting a new day job this year, Cherry's role in the day-to-day operations has decreased. She says volunteer Kenny Monroe, a member of the band Pioneer, is "really the one in charge" at the moment.
Hunting for a new Lodge
Despite these changes, Cherry has spent much of 2012 searching for the Project Lodge's new home. For the most part, she's focused on Capitol Square and the near-east side. Several potential spots haven't worked out, including Hans' Sewing & Vacuum Repair at 1521 Williamson St., across from Mickey's Tavern, and a former art studio at 2716 Atwood Ave.
"We are still holding out a little hope that one space we really liked, seemingly ideal in every way, will come through," says Cherry. "But there was another party who had looked at it prior to use and potentially may have first dibs. That place had great acoustics, a good location and wouldn't require much building out to suit our purposes. Plus the price was right."
It might be quicker to settle for any available space, but Cherry knows exactly what she wants.
"We need to have two bathrooms and over 1,200 square feet -- preferably 2,000," she says. "And natural light is a plus since where we move, we will also be doing plenty of art shows. Other than that, a floor and a ceiling and some art-friendly walls. And [the space gets] bonus points for not costing one-fourth of my year's salary each month."
She'd also like to be able to sell beer and wine, though becoming a bar is not part of the plan.
Challenges and triumphs
The Project Lodge's problems aren't confined to noise complaints. Though the all-ages venue doesn't have a liquor license, it lets patrons bring their own alcohol to shows. This policy has invited scrutiny from the police and the city. Plus, at times -- like right now -- the venue's events calendar gets pretty lean.
Any one of these challenges could have sunk the Project Lodge, but they didn't. The venue's leaders have continued to book a vast variety of local bands and touring acts. They've has also helped launch the Surrounded by Reality avant-jazz series; the Media Embassy film series; the Monsters of Poetry reading series; and dozens of art shows, craft events and comedy performances.
The venue's team of volunteers is more stable than ever as well. A group of six or so books shows, collects cover charges, runs the soundboard, updates the website and designs the show flyers. The stage is missing some tiles, one bathroom never has enough damn paper towels, and there's no way the venue can support itself on such meager cover charges, but these folks show up and do what they're supposed to do. For Friday night's show featuring the Garza, Things Falling Apart and Tyranny is Tyranny, Littiebrant handled both the door and the sound. He couldn't be two places at once, but he dutifully tracked down those who wandered in and gathered $5 from each of them.
The Project Lodge has spawned a writing project, too. Monroe, Littiebrant and fellow volunteers Tom Teslik, Jackie Kursel and Daniella Echeverria recently launched Wisconsin DIY, a website filled with feature stories about Project Lodge visitors and local grassroots art projects. Littiebrant says this group plans to grow Wisconsin DIY into a larger arts-journalism outlet. Additionally, it might co-present shows the Project Lodge hosts while homeless.
Ghosts of concerts past
At least some of the Project Lodge's spirit will linger in the Johnson Street storefront. Good Style Shop owner Peter Benck says his store now operates as a "community collective." (Full disclosure: Benck is an Isthmus account executive.)
Much like the Project Lodge, Good Style Shop has been an unconventional venue that's served a pretty broad audience. Since Peaking Lights' Indra Dunis and Aaron Coyes opened it in 2009, the tiny shop has hosted performances by Thee Oh Sees, Acid Mothers Temple, and a host of local noise and drone musicians.
For now, Benck plans to keep the stage, which will host shows at least once a month if all goes according to plan.
One thing's for certain: The original Project Lodge was a magical place. I'll never forget when an art installation turned the space into a sort of giant kaleidoscope. The door and front windows were papered over, except for a little slot. Through this hole, I glimpsed a room full of swirling, multicolored light.