Losing a Gem

Jun 7, 2010

A Kalamazoo arts organization that was considered a real success story has shut its doors, for now. Michigan Radio's Kyle Norris looks at why The Smart Shop Metal Arts Center has closed and what the future may hold.

Holly Fisher is standing inside the Smart Shop art gallery. Its walls are pink and green and deep red. Stacks of art are everywhere and everything is up for sale.

"Each item has a number and each item has a price," she says. "What we've got for sale are a big stack of campfire forks that have been hand forged out of steel, plasma-cut steel skull Christmas ornaments, and candle holders."

Fisher says it's hard to be around all this stuff and see the demise of Smart Shop.

Fisher founded Smart Shop in 2002. She bought a big industrial building on the north-side of Kalamazoo. She won a $100,000 Cool Cities grant from the state to help renovate the building and she created this place where all kinds of people could come and learn the metal arts—things like blacksmithing, metal smithing, jewelry making and sculpture with found objects.

Fisher says one of her favorite things about Smart Shop was that it wasn't just for artsy types. All kinds of people came here from girl scouts to senior citizens.

"But then we'd have the firemen and the mayor and the guy that runs the auto repair shop down road and the beer distributor," adds Fisher.

One of the people who took a lot of classes and became a member of Smart Shop was Kathy Kreager. Her background is in social work, not art. But studying with Fisher and learning how to work with heavy metal gave Kreager the courage to make a huge life change, and become a full-time artist.

"I would never be doing this had I not had the years at Smart Shop to grow as an artist and experiment and make mistakes along the way in a supportive environment like that."

But people will no longer have opportunities to study at Smart Shop because the organization closed its doors last month.

Vince Faust says Smart Shop closed for several reasons, including the economy and low enrollment. Smart Shop was a non-profit run by a board of directors. Vince Faust was the board's president.

Faust says, "This is a story about a specialized arts organization struggling for a couple of years to find a wide enough audience and not being able to do so."

Faust says Smart Shop definitely had its hard core group of devotees who loved the place. But he says when you're a specialty arts organization it's tough to attract a critical mass of people who can be supportive over the long run.

If artists or art organizations are having a tough time it's important to ask for help.

At least, that's what Beth McCann says. She's with the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo. McCann says arts councils are there for support and advice.

"I think that's very important at this time for folks not to wait until it's dooms day to reach out," says McCann, "and I'm not saying that's what happened with Smart Shop."

But McCann says the more you reach out and get help from other people, the stronger you can be.

For Holly Fisher Smart Shop's closing is a blow professionally and personally.

"Well I lost my job and I don't think I've lost faith. I'm sure I will continue teaching and making and studying and being a metal artist and a blacksmith and a metal smith for quite some time."

Fisher says she'll keep doing her thing in her own way, and on a smaller scale.

Meanwhile the Smart Shop board is taking some time to think about whether they can create a new, different version of Smart Shop sometime in the future.