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Q&A: Art247 owner Heather Grimmer talks about the artist collective in Lockport

LOCKPORT - Heather N. Grimmer has had to rise above some difficult situations, but her unlikely path brought her to Lockport to become the new owner of an artist collective called ART247.

Grimmer, 35,  has not only been reinventing herself, but also the former industrial site at 247 Market St., which overlooks the Erie Canal.

The 130-year-old building formerly housed the Western Block Company, founded in 1888, which once was the largest manufacturer of block and tackle in the country. The building's industrial feel and some of the historical items remain despite its transformation into an arts center.

The arts center was founded in the early 1980s as the Market Street Art Studios by Art Hilger and Sally Bisher, who together developed a long history of providing arts, cultural learning and studio space to regional artists. With their retirement that mission was picked up by Grimmer, who bought the building in January.

Grimmer has used her architectural background and love of art to develop a plan to expand use of the building. But a fire on March 19  forced out one of the larger tenants, World Discount Auto, and put a hold on expansion plans. Grimmer said it will certainly delay, but not cancel, their plans to have the building host a coffee shop,  more classrooms, a master gallery and a mixed-use community theater/reception/art festival. For now, most of the building remains unoccupied.

Grimmer lives in Lockport with her two school-aged children, Charles, 10, and Elizabeth, 12. She met with The Buffalo News at her studio and office at Art247 which was filled with her photography.

Are you from Lockport?

I'm not. My parents were in the military and they settled in Western New York when I was little. I went to Sweet Home and then in middle and high school I went to Williamsville East. I then went to Syracuse University for architecture, which I didn't finish.

Are you an artist?

I've been here (at the Market Street site) since 2011. I am kind of a jack-of-all-trades. I worked in the architecture field for Cannon Design and Kideney from 1999 to 2005 and then left to become a general manager of a fast food restaurant because it paid really well. I learned a wealth of knowledge working for Mighty Taco from 2005 to 2008. I then was chief operating officer for a year for the Central Terminal Restoration Corp. in Buffalo.  I had two little kids in 2004 and 2006, so with two little munchkins running around it became difficult (to do the other jobs) and photography came about because I answered an ad at the Lockport Union-Sun & Journal as a fill-in. I worked there for a couple of years until someone else, who worked there with me, decided we could run an online news company ourselves - that was East Niagara Post with Scott Leffler.

But that ended?

We did that until May. (Leffler) and I just decided to go in different directions.

I also noticed that you were an outspoken advocate this past year against domestic violence.

I've lived every economic status there is. I've worked where money was not an object and I've been homeless after I had to leave my husband and I didn't have a place to go.

I have to wonder - how did you end up here, owning an art collective?

It's funny. I came to this area in 2004 and I wanted to buy the stone house on Summit Street and turn it into an art community. But I had no funds at that time. It was just a complete daydream with no validity. I walked into this place and it just happened that the day when I walked in they were looking for a new tenant. It was kind of the beginning of everything.

And now? Are you prepared to take over this art collective you've dreamed about?

I'm in a position now where I can look back five or six years ago and see an amazing transformation. Every job I've had has prepared me for this position - from managerial skills at Mighty Taco to Central Terminal CEO to studying architecture at Syracuse to photography and presentation and even creating press releases for East Niagara Post. There's really a piece of every job I've worked that has refined me for this position. Then I can bring in my own personal life, knowing that economic hardship and knowing how enriching it is to have a handout from someone who cares and providing an education in the arts. All those things tie into the mission we have here.

Do people know there is a large arts center at this site?

We have had a bit of a problem down here with people not realizing how big we are and what we hold. That's a problem for tourists across the street, at Lockport Locks and Erie Canal Cruises. We want to add windows to open it up and show that we are a very large arts complex and make it more inviting for people. We also want to give our artists an opportunity to display their work in the windows.

How are you set up right now?

We have three floors, but are using  two of those floors. A lot of our first floor is dedicated to open studios. We really try to get artists on the first floor who are working here and are displaying. Our second floor is more office-type studios, everything from web design, photography, an illustrator/children's book publisher. Those are a bit more closed off.

What types of changes would you like to make?

We have two rooms that aren't being used and are in kind of rough shape that we would like to turn into a coffee shop/snack bar - a place for parents to go while their children are in art classes and for artists to have a place to lounge. We want to have a place for artists to hang out and talk about art.

Your plans also call for a theater and gallery?

This is our current objective. I'd like to see it get done in the next year or two. Phase one, which we've already accomplished, was to add a classroom and we are going to start offering classes in January - for every age. We've already hired some artists (to teach the classes in all types of art.) Phase II will be the coffee shop. This is a five-year and a 10-year plan to turn this into a mixed-use facility. This is going to require a lot of grant writing and a lot of funding. This is outside our means right now, but when we do it will be a huge benefit to our artists and the community. Phase IV - this used to be Western Block and Tackle and there was a forgery - so we plan to remove everything to set up a main gallery. We have three-stories of space available. Our objective is to work with the Burchfield Penney Art Center and the Albright-Knox to set up mini-art exhibitions with master artists in this region.

How big is Art247 right now?

We've got about 34 studios. Not all of them are filled, but we have over 35 artists, since a couple of them share spaces. We also have an Exchange Street side of our building, which is not part of the studios, but is owned by ART247. We had planned to put in the windows using our rental funds from our studios and our Exchange Street tenants, but we still haven't recovered from the fire. That hit us financially, very hard and we haven't been able to make the improvements that we wanted to make. (That site) hasn't even been fixed yet. Our biggest problem is the roof and elements have gotten in, but luckily the brick work wasn't damaged. I am thankful for the fire department. It's not as bad as it could have been.

You bought the building in January. That was a big step

Our biggest hurdle is overcoming the fire. It really halted everything. There's a lot of disappointment in that because we had a lot of great things planned for the first year. We still have a couple of other big tenants, but we are very reliant on keeping our studio spaces rented. We've been able to meet all of our financial needs, but to compensate we are bringing in dedicated art instructors - everything from Oriental arts to yoga.

What is the biggest changes people will see since you bought the site?

We are bringing in a younger crowd. Art and Sally created a wonderful foundation of arts and art culture for this facility. We are going to grow it, revitalize the center and bring in more energy - young artists, upcoming artists and we've got a lot of really neat exhibits that really embody that coming up - like our American Graffiti vs. Street Art exhibit coming up this summer.

The Art247 gift shop gallery is open for holiday shopping from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays. Rental information, upcoming shows and information about classes are available on the website at http://www.theART247.com or on the ART247 Facebook page.

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