Cherokee Street's Blank Space Commemorates One Year As Arts Incubator
At the south end of Cherokee Street, tucked in the woven pattern of a record store, bakery, and the occasional Mexican restaurant sits a venue with a large open window and a stenciled sign that reads “Blank Space 2847 Cherokee.”
Peer through the large windows and you’ll see just that – a few chairs scattered around, a large wall of books and some boxes filled with vinyl.
The unassuming space below, where DJ sets and live performances happen, is just as sparse. But that’s intentional. It’s open for a purpose – book signings, art shows, album release parties, talking and listening to music – what it is supposed to be is all up to the user.
It’s not a space that is trying to do it all – it just is, says owner Kaveh Razani. With Blank Space, he’s trying to bridge the gap between business and community activism.
The eclectic neighborhood, long-known for its multicultural feel, gives him a leg up. The space opened nearly a year ago, but the idea of arts and culture by and for the people was with him long before. “We’re seeing a lot of money come in and a lot of development come in - and it’s not by any means upper class capitol in a lot of ways," he says.
"It is a lot of grassroots artists – there’s a lot of folks here that have good ideas and see ‘opportunity’ here. I just don’t think it’s necessarily fair for that type of development to happen without those same opportunities being presented to the folks that have been here and whose neighborhood this was before it was our neighborhood.”
In the past year, artists and activists in and around St. Louis have flocked to the spot to house their event. It’s not atypical to have a movie screening one night, a community group gathering the next, and then an instrumental set the night after that.
Razani is a partner in an event promotion group he co-created called Lane 4, but the biggest success of the venue can be attributed to the community. Word of mouth and social media have helped to spread the work – bands have even written on the group’s Facebook page asking for an opportunity to have a show there.
On a snowy Thursday night, four DJ’s set up shop at Blank Space to host their first beat-based and instrumental music showcase called ‘Louder Than Words.’ For roughly two hours, the quartet of gentlemen would trade off mixing and interacting with the audience while they kept them moving and grooving.
Daniel Sanders, better known as “Abnormal,” is one of the beat-makers involved in the showcase. He’s known Kaveh for years and has performed several times at Blank Space since it opened. He feels that Blank Space has some real staying power behind it, and admires the feel of both openness and exclusivity he experiences when he arrives.
"For the poetry events, the music stuff we do, I feel like it’s unique enough to actually have some staying power in this city where you see a lot of things fail in a short span of time,” he says. "I’ve been to The Gramophone, I’ve been to The Firebird, I’ve been to even small spots and it’s just – none of them really have that vibe, and I don’t know how to describe it. It’s just something about this place that just exudes that warm, comforting, got great people around me great music vibe that I don’t get anywhere else, honestly, in this city.”
Michael Franco, a guitarist and producer in the jazz and hip-hop instrumental duo Franco Hill, echoes his sentiment. “Blank Space is just like – it’s like home. It’s everything – everybody fits here,” he says. Franco grew up in St. Louis, and feels that the open door understanding of Blank Space helps to break down the racial and cultural fragments of the city.
“I’ve seen art shows and jam session and all kinds of stuff here. [The space] fits itself around whatever is going on. Nobody is going to look at you crazy for walking in the door no matter what you look like where in the city you are from or where you are going to. It’s just all about everybody. It’s just an awesome spot."
It hasn’t all been smooth sailing, however. The space’s opening event was shut down early by the police on its opening night for serving alcohol without a license. And then there’s the sustainability aspect. While keeping interest high hasn’t been a problem, Blank Space operates on a 50 percent profit sharing model from the events that it hosts, and not every event can guarantee enough overhead to pay their bills – and that leaves a lot of hours and space to fill in the daytime. For that, Razani is planning to open a coffee and tea house, and set up a yearly sustainer program for Blank Space supporters – kind of like a club membership?
“You know with us it’s about creating a space that people can come to without feeling the pressure to have to spend money here. I think if we create a situation where folks can support this space through a sustainership and see discounts on the back end, then we know that at the beginning of any given year that we’ve got enough money to keep the lights on and the rent paid,” he says.
As an organizer, Razani is understandably proud of what he has helped to create, but knows that the time will come one day when he will have to step away and take his experiences to a new project. Ultimately, he wants his space to open a door that musicians, artists, and community organizers may have felt was closed to them and their talent – or may have just not been the right fit in the mainstream.
“We don’t make an effort to be anything – we make an effort not to be something. And in so doing we find a way to become more accessible to folks than your kind of loaded, well-funded, not well-funded, or fringe or anything. It really works because when folks have the opportunity to approach something without feeling judged or feeling like there is a bill to fit, then it truly is an open ended space."
That being said, the word is out that Blank Space is open to all – and the canvas is ready to be splattered.
Blank Space will present a grand re-opening on March 23. Visit the venue’s Facebook page for more information.
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