Creating a Wonderground

A crowd listens to a music performance at Terrain

Reinaldo Gil Zambrano stands alone in his studio at Richmond Art Collective, bright sun hitting him through the south-facing windows that look over Sprague Avenue toward the train station, trying to figure out where to begin.

A celebrated young printmaker from Venezuela and adjunct professor at Eastern Washington University, he is beginning a series that explores paranoia and fear. He’s wrestling with the expressions he’ll use to help the viewer engage with these emotions from different perspectives. Saranac Art Projects will show the work all September. But first, Reinaldo has to make it.

After finishing his MFA at the University of Idaho in Moscow, Reinaldo moved to Spokane to teach. “Since coming here, I’ve been impressed by the community, the support,” he says. “When I am surrounded by others making art and sharing it, it inspires me to do my work, even when I don’t feel like it.”

That idea — that art is made by people, but catalyzed by community — has been at the heart of a decade-long experiment seeking to fundamentally change the way people think about Spokane, and how Spokane thinks about its artistic community.

In 2008, while Reinaldo was still growing up in Venezuela, a group of born-and-raised Spokanites were witnessing the mass exodus of the most creative and talented young people they knew and wanted to see if they could stop the bleeding. “It was this self-fulfilling prophecy,” says Ginger Ewing. “Growing up here, you are fed this narrative that if you want to thrive as a creative person, you have to leave. So people left.”

“We heard so many people saying the same thing — there’s no creative community here,” Luke Baumgarten adds, “so we asked the question: Why can’t we create a community out of all the people saying that?”

Ewing, Baumgarten, Patrick Kendrick, Sara Hornor, and Mariah McKay formed an organizing committee (originally called “ Wonderground”) and planned a one-night exhibition, concert, and celebration called Terrain, to get all those artists, musicians, comedians and writers in a room to show their work, build connections with one another, engage with the broader community, and hopefully stay.

A decade later, that one-night experiment has become a movement.

That first party was such a hit that Terrain (the organization) still holds Terrain (the event) every year on the first Friday in October during Spokane Arts’ Arts Month.

The founders knew they had struck a chord, but they had also thrown open a door. A diverse group of creative people began reaching out. Younger artists asked for help connecting with the establishment. Institutions like the Museum of Arts & Culture and the Spokane Symphony asked for help connecting with younger audiences.

As Terrain has grown from a one-off art party to a cultural juggernaut with a permanent art gallery, performing art space, and year-round programming, the organization has focused on responding to community needs by building connections.

Their answer to the philosophical questions — How can we define art in broader, more inclusive terms? How can we knock down walls, promote equity, leave behind snobbery and gatekeeping? — became the scaffold of Terrain’s mission.

More specific needs have yielded more concrete results. For instance, the most persistent question — how can I make money through art? — collided with the reality that Spokane County’s surprisingly robust community of working artists (7,000 strong) was being starved by a pitifully anemic market (visual art sales were just 33% of the national average in 2014).

“We did some quick math,” Baumgarten remembers. “If art sales here are a third of the national average, we could either ask the people already buying art to buy three times as much ... or try to triple the number of art buyers.”

By then, Terrain’s flagship event was routinely drawing crowds of 5,000 people (those crowds have since swelled to over 9,000 in 2017), so people were engaging with art. They just weren’t buying it.

The result was Bazaar, a summer art market with affordable booth fees for emerging artists, and the requirement that vendors sell at least half their work for under $100 — allowing first-time art buyers to follow their heart without worrying so much about their wallet. In 5 years, sales for the one-day market have blossomed from $36,000 in 2014 to over $120,000 in 2018.

When the owner of a vacant building downtown publicly complained about vandalism, Ewing — now Terrain’s Executive Director — instantly thought of artists’ constant requests for more public exhibition opportunities. This sparked the idea for Window Dressing, a program activating vacant storefronts with public art displays.

When artists began finding greater sales success, they came back wanting to deepen their entrepreneurial toolkit. This led to Creative Enterprise, a partnership between Terrain and the Avista Center for Entrepreneurship at Community Colleges of Spokane that offers an intensive 12-week business bootcamp for artists and makers.

In 2017, Creative Enterprise’s toolkit led naturally to the artists wanting a communal space to get real-world experience selling and interacting with the public. Pop Up Shop was born: a year-round brick-and-mortar storefront at the Steam Plant featuring art, apparel, and home goods from 20 local makers.

Now 10 years old, the organizers imagine spending the next decade helping grow Terrain's programs and working to ensure that, as people continue flocking to Spokane as quickly as they used to leave, artists of all ages will have a stronger and stronger voice in the city.

And while there’s lot of different modes of engagement going on — from education to retail — Jackie Caro, Terrain’s Operations Director, says the underlying drive of everything they do is to strengthen Spokane’s creative scene by increasing access to it.

“We are always reaching out, always pointing to tangible artwork and events to say these artists and makers are here, and they are producing great work,” Caro says. “And when the community sees it, they support it.”

Learn more about Terrain»

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