THROWN FROM THE LOOP
The former Gunther Electronics building at 5080 Delmar Boulevard is once again pulsating with energy thanks to its new occupant, Craft Alliance. Located in the Delmar Maker District, the renovated digs have consolidated the Craft Alliance offices, studios, gift shop and art space onto one floor, enabling the organization to provide more programming and broader educational outreach.
While leaving the five decades of history and tradition of their former headquarters in the University City Loop was difficult, this expansion continues Craft Alliance’s mission of revealing the power of craft’s unique qualities, its evolving role in society and its full potential for innovation. The vibrant new space is designed to enhance interaction among artists, teachers, students and surrounding communities.
Executive Director Mark Witzling commented on the obstacles Craft Alliance faced as it relocated to a new site that was much larger in size than their old home. “The biggest thing was figuring out how to coordinate a complete relocation and a complete redevelopment of a building while still serving the community with arts programming,” he said. “We continued our classes and exhibitions that were already in place, so a lot of it came down to timing.”
Witzling, who took over in 2018, explains that Craft Alliance’s journey to last October’s opening in their new neighborhood was the culmination of a long process. “In the summer of 2019, we had decided to consolidate our Grand Center location into our space in the Loop. We did that knowing that we would eventually need to find a new location. The building in the Delmar Loop served us well but we were outgrowing it, and ultimately, we knew that we needed to have a single location in a place that made sense for Craft Alliance strategically.”
The Delmar Maker District, with a mission to create a destination for locals and tourists to create, learn, shop and socialize, offered the perfect opportunity. A 501(c)(3) nonprofit founded by Jim McKelvey and Doug Auer, the Delmar Maker District supports local artists, veterans and community members to facilitate engagement in the arts. It was McKelvey’s and Auer’s shared love of glassblowing that inspired them to start Third Degree Glass Factory in the 5200 block of Delmar in 2002. They’re now building on the success of that venture to tackle a much larger project together: the revitalization of the surrounding blocks of Delmar.
According to Witzling, the notion of moving to the blossoming Maker District gained momentum following a series of conversations with colleagues already in the District. As talks intensified, one thing led to another, which eventually moved into deep discussions about repositioning the entire organization. As plans to move were set in motion, he became even more excited.
“We are excited to be a part of the Delmar Maker District. The collaboration between all of the organizations down here -- The Magic House, MADE Makerspace and Third Degree Glass Factory -- has all of us constantly working together as we look for ways to bring the community together. We want all of the artists here and at the other organizations to interact with one another. That is part of the vision.”
Now a fixture in the burgeoning Maker District, Craft Alliance features studios for metalworking, fiber, ceramics, glass, wood, 2D, and digital as a complement for a contemporary exhibition gallery, artist-in-residence space, and a retail shop that features a large selection of handcrafted items.
Vicki Sauter, chair of the board of Craft Alliance, outlines some of the limitations of the old facility. “We could not address the needs of folks with accessibility issues, for example. Now, we can bring everyone to the table to learn crafts for joy or for a career. Also, there wasn’t a lot of synergy between Craft Alliance and other makers further east on Delmar. Now we have various types of artists working together. There is lots of energy.”
Witzling also hopes the new building will foster a renewed sense of creativity and community among artists. “Our expanded studio space is more efficient in creating the interaction we wanted. For instance, there are windows between the individual studios as well as garage doors that come out from them so that you can see through them and see what other people are doing. The entire facility is brighter and airier. We also added skylights to bring in additional natural light. Overall, we moved into a much more beautiful space.”
Witzling also spoke about how Craft Alliance is embracing new technologies and techniques to amplify artistic connectivity with those they serve. “Technology can serve everything but you have to stay on top of it. In craft, there are both traditional techniques as well as new techniques, which are constantly developing. Technology helps us stay in tune with the industry as a whole because we know what is happening nationally in the craft community and are deeply engaged in understanding how we can bring those trends to our table. At the end of the day, we want students to be able to take advantage of and learn about both traditional and new techniques. But ultimately it is about giving them the vehicle to express themselves.”
When asked how the new building supports the long-term future for the organization, Witzling responded, “I think it reinforces how well-positioned Craft Alliance is to serve as an important artistic resource for the community because it allows us to broaden our efforts to engage artists and students.”
David Charak, a nationally renowned collector of crafts from St. Louis, seconds Craft Alliance’s significance in this arena. “I have supported them deeply and dearly. People I know from collecting crafts around the country are aware of the crafts community in St. Louis. Craft Alliance can bring to the community meaningful programs and exhibits -- and educate those who want to be educated. Certainly, having a facility that promotes crafts the way they do enhances that possibility.”
Witzling champions our city as an environment for crafts. “Craft Alliance is the only arts organization dedicated solely to craft arts and education in St. Louis. Overall, craft in both the Midwest and in our city is strong. As a result, Craft Alliance and its outstanding reputation are involved in a national community that is always talking to each other and innovating.” For more information on Craft Alliance programming, classes, camps and outreach, visit https://craftalliance.org.