A workout of art

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August 4, 2003 // UPDATED 11:01 am - April 30, 2007
By: Anna Pratt
Anna Pratt

The Downtown YWCA will soon be 'the Arts Y'

Picture a recreation center where art magazines pile up next to exercise machines. You rent studio space and then saunter off to the sauna. Your gym bag is full of Spandex, deodorant and paintbrushes. Welcome to the Downtown Arts Y, where you maintain your physical and artistic health.

"As much as I'm interested in keeping my body in shape, I'd be interested in joining something more cultural," said Patrick Scully, longtime YWCA member, dancer and the man behind the Downtown Arts Y push. "We live between PCs and cars."

Scully approached the Minneapolis YWCA's CEO Nancy Hite with his vision for a center of fitness and culture last summer. With its proximity to other arts organizations and its need to increase membership, Hite and Downtown's Health and Fitness Director Karen Sterk agreed: the Downtown YWCA, 1130 Nicollet Mall, was the perfect place to give the Arts Y concept a try.

"We want to make a Y for the arts that's what a Y is to fitness," said Sterk. If all goes well, the YWCA hopes to expand to other locations.

Getting started

The transformation has begun. 2 Desperate Chicks rehearsed "The Sugar Daddy Project" in the community room for the Fringe Festival, Aug. 1-10, (go to www.fringefestival.com for show times). A traveling exhibit from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, "Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals 1933-45" runs Monday, Aug. 4 through Sept. 26 in the atrium, which the Y recarpeted and painted gold for the occasion. And a poetry reading, "Shout It from the Roof," is scheduled to take place on, where else, the roof of the Y the first week of September.

In addition, Scully teaches a gay men's dance line in the gym and is in the midst of practices (at the Y) for another show, "Get Naked on Stage." But there are bigger plans in the works.

A place for artists

Over the past few months, the Downtown Y and Scully convened focus groups of writers, visual artists and dancers. If money were no object, the artists were asked, what would they like the Arts Y to be? Artists toured the building and began to dream.

An Arts Y is a lot of things. "Dancers have very different needs from writers who have very different needs from visual artists," Scully said.

"Writers are meditative, they need quiet spaces," said Carolyn Holbrook, director of SASE: the Write Place, who also represents writers in the Arts Y's development.

"They have a room we hope we can use a lot, a windowed room. It's a wonderful place to sit and dream and allow the brain to wander," said Holbrook. "Another space makes great cubicles. We could have computers and rent time. There are many possibilities."

But sculptor Jill Waterhouse, the first artist to exhibit in the Downtown YWCA in the early \'80s when there was a gallery in the building's entrance, said she sees an Arts Y as "an outlet to release destructive steam." Waterhouse has a friend who transforms carved pumpkins into beautiful dragons. Maybe he could carve some pumpkins for a family Halloween? "We'd throw them into the pool and bob for them. We'll call it Bobbing for Peace."

Visual artist Doug Padilla has a simpler vision, "I see a place where artists can work out, drink a cup of coffee and read arts magazines."

Regardless of their differences, what most artists have in common is a difficult time finding affordable space. And that's something the Y can help with, Hite said.

Every space represents an opportunity. Sterk said artists were interested in using the racquetball court for "aerial artistry," an athletic performance art popularized by groups like Cirque du Soleil. There's also a hardwood-floored gym that was once covered by carpet, causing the wood to buckle. The uneven floor could hurt dancers' feet, but other artists expressed interest in using the space. The roof's large walls are perfect for projecting summer movies. And they could do performance art close to the roof's edge so Nicollet Mall-walkers could watch the dramas unfold like a silent film.

Art, it does a body good.

In addition to offering both performance and studio space, the Arts Y addresses a community not typically engaged with their physical health.

"I worry about people in the arts," said Padilla, a self-proclaimed jock and soccer coach. "I'm in my 50s. Many artists who're in their 50s aren't healthy."

One solution is to make art physical; think aerobic drawing. "Make art good for your body, too," Waterhouse said. "Make it about the process of drawing. Follow motion around the room. Get on a treadmill and draw, or draw a model running on the treadmill." Waterhouse once visited an Arizona Y where a class drew someone on a treadmill for three hours. "Something happened between the artists and the runner," she said.

Beyond these walls

The Arts Y concept was inspired by the 92nd Street Y in New York City, which hosts concerts, films, spoken word, and dance classes, which is also where renowned authors and playwrights like Edward Albee lecture.

As the 92nd Street Y is committed to the Jewish community, the Downtown Y remains devoted to racial justice and women's equality. As part of exploring the Arts Y concept, however, the Y has also expanded into environmental issues.

Due, in part, to concerns about a lack of parking to support additional members, Scully suggested "Why not make it a 'green Y?'" Beyond asking people to walk, bike or take the bus, Scully envisions "fitness machines [that] generate electricity instead of needing to be plugged in. Saline or Ozone used in the pool instead of chlorine."

Currently, membership to the Arts Y is included in a regular Y membership -- $44 monthly with a $79 introductory fee. But artists who teach classes could get discounts, said Sterk. There's also talk of establishing a tool lending library and a skills exchange or barter system, where a physical therapist, for example, could trade a massage for art lessons or artwork.

To help implement these grand visions, said Sterk, the Downtown YWCA is looking to hire a coordinator. "If you know a good candidate," she said, "send them my way."

To find out more about the Arts Y, contact Karen Sterk at Ksterk@ywcampls.org.