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The Picker Building. Sid Ceaser photo.




Last Holiday Open Studio event

Where: Picker Building, 99 Factory St. Ext., Nashua
When: Sunday, Dec. 6, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
What: Your last chance to check out the open studios at the Picker Building; artists will be around, selling the work they’ve spent months making




Goodbye to an art hub
Artists start looking for new space

12/03/15
By Kelly Sennott ksennott@hippopress.com



 For more than 10 years, Nashua’s Picker Building at 99 Factory St. Ext. has been the city’s unofficial artist hub.

The aged brick structure, complete with raggedy, wooden floors and an aesthetic still reminiscent of the old cotton mill it had been in the mid-1800s, is filled with artists on every floor. Photographers, quilters, painters, potters, glass and fiber artists have all made homes here at one point or another, and the prime location and cheap rent means there’s usually a wait list to join the club.
But in a city of increasing property value and a movement to create more quality downtown housing, it will soon come to an end; long-time owner Jack Bolger announced to tenants in mid-October via email and a letter that he’s retiring and has accepted an offer from Clocktower Place Apartments to buy the building and turn it into housing.
 
No rush
There’s no immediate rush; Bolger was unavailable for comment, but his daughter Rebecca Small said via email they plan to be around until July 2016. 
That didn’t stop a mix of feelings among current studio owners — gratefulness Bolger had been so accommodating for so many years and sadness the Picker Building’s reign was ending.
“I don’t blame Jack at all. He’s older now. He deserves the right to retire with some money in his wallet,” photographer Sid Ceaser said during an interview in his long and lean top-floor studio; he’d been in the building since graduating from the New Hampshire Institute of Art in 2004.
First-floor glass artists Mark and Kathleen Frank knew it was only a matter of time, as did many tenants, with Broad Street Parkway finishing up this month.
“We knew it was coming. Jack’s getting up there, and you know, you’ve got the parkway coming through. The value of the building would go up. [Selling] is probably something he should have done a long time ago,” Mark Frank said at the studio. “So we understand. It’s just time to move on. We’re trying to get our story out that we’re looking to stay together.”
 
Staying together
There were lots of reasons artists liked the building. Albert Wilkinson, an engraver who’s made Mayor Lozeau’s Key to the City designs, mostly wanted a place to get out of the house, while Cindy Goodman, a quilter and teacher, liked its history as an old cotton mill. Some artists, like Courtney Cummings, had done a great deal of work on the place — her studio had white-painted walls, floors and translucent fabric that draped from the ceiling to soften the light.
All artists interviewed agreed the creative hub’s growth was due to Bolger’s willingness to accommodate and keep prices low for artists, a rarity in metalsmith artist Gail Moriarty’s opinion. A renter since 2008, she likes the Picker Building’s community. When patrons visit her, they’ll often stop at another artist’s down the hall and vice-versa. When she becomes stuck on a project, she can get another creative opinion in seconds.
Which is why many want to stay together. Ceaser thinks Bolger doesn’t get enough credit for all he’s done.
“There are a lot of people in Nashua who get art awards for supporting the arts and everything, but to me, the one person who I think doesn’t get any of the recognition — he would probably play it off anyways — is the guy who owns this building, Jack Bolger. ... He has consecutively been the only person in Nashua who has housed artists for reasonable prices,” Ceaser said.
 
Catch-22
The group has already begun looking at potential replacement buildings. They’ve seen some city outreach, but at this point, no concrete plans exist except to stay in the millyard because of its vibrant cultural scene.
But as the city begins seeing an economic upturn, you come to a Catch-22. As any economist or arts enthusiast will tell you, a downtown renaissance includes the arts. They provide color, character, things to do and points of interest. They bring people to downtown businesses. But for an artist to work and live there, it needs to be affordable. 
“You’ve seen that happen countless times. Artists are willing to go where nobody is willing to go. They are the pioneers, and they always have been. They make a place cool, which drives up rents, and then they have to find a new space. That’s going to happen again and again,” Tom Galligani, City of Nashua economic development director, said via phone. 
And in Nashua, Clocktower Place expanding its reach is just one story of downtown housing development. Brady Sullivan Properties recently purchased and plans to convert an abandoned Franklin Street mill into a 168-unit apartment building, according to The Telegraph. There are also plans on Main and Prospect streets, and within smaller properties.
Galligani thinks the best bet is for artists to buy a permanent home as a collective. Artists are less certain. Ceaser in particular sees it as a “logistical nightmare.” How many people had he seen move in and out of the Picker Building the 11 years he’d been there? It prohibits a flexibility most artists need to survive.
A New Hampshire Institute of Art alum, he sees the need for affordable art studio space increasing. When he graduated, there were only six BFA kids.
“Now there are at least 100 graduating there every year, and they want spaces,” Ceaser said. “I’m watching kids from the Institute graduate, and the first thing they do is take off.”
 
The value
City Arts Nashua President Kathy Hersh said it’s important for the community to realize the value in having a close-knit arts community, which includes having downtown artist studios. The building, after all, has always been the highlight of the city’s annual ArtWalk, a huge fall cultural event for Nashua.
“I think there’s a value added in having an active arts community,” Hersh said. “And so there needs to be some appreciation of that value by members of the community who own property, or who might have property that’s appropriate for the artists.”
Despite these obstacles, Hersh had confidence the arts community would evolve, as it has for years. The potential is there; Galligani said there’s no shortage of space in Nashua. Empty buildings are everywhere, and while some artists require a little more — a woodworker might need ventilation, while a photographer will require bright windows — most don’t need much.
“They just need the building to be to code. They’re very happy with a rough space. In fact, they like it better,” Hersh said. “It’s not going to be, they’re going to find a place, and it will be theirs forever and ever. How long has the Picker Building been around with arts in it? Not that long. I remember when there wasn’t anything in there.” 





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