Spur Studios to open In Ypsilanti

About two years ago now, James Marks, the founder of the custom screen printing company VG Kids, and I walked through the ruins of Tom Monaghan’s failed Ypsilanti college, Ave Maria, discussing the possibility of turning it into an incubator for ambitious local arts initiatives. The timing wasn’t right for James at that moment, but now it seems as though it is. As I write this, he is preparing to launch a new arts community in a large, vacant commercial building at 800 Lowell Street, filling a void in Ypsi that’s existed since the loss of Gallery 555 about five years ago. The building, directly adjacent to the campus Eastern Michigan University, is to be known as Spur Studios. Following is a short interview I just completed with James on the subject.

MARK: So, what’s Spur Studios?

JAMES: We took a commercial building in Ypsi and cut it into private studios for artists, bands, and other creative types who need somewhere to work. There are 2 floors- top floor for visual arts, bottom floor for bands. With 24 hour access and off-street parking, each tenant has a locking space and a 1 year lease.

The idea is to pull creative folks together into a force with enough mass to take on projects like converting unused buildings into rad opportunities- things that are beyond the scope of someone working alone.


MARK: When you and I had talked about thins kind of thing before, we were throwing around a rate of $1 per square foot, per month. Where you able to get close to that? How much will the spaces rent for? And how many units will you have on each floor?

JAMES: We got pretty close to $1/foot, each space varies. Originally we were trying to drive the price down absolutely as far as possible, but in the end felt it would be better overall to make sure things like cleaning, maintenance and future projects were alloted for in the budget.

Most spaces will rent for about $125-$350 per month flat- no utilities, no membership fees, etc. We actually have 1 space for $75/month. Its about the size of a closet with 1 window. Perfect for someone who just needs a desk and chair to zen-out and get something done. We’ve got 15 units upstairs and 15 units downstairs, plus a common kitchen, bathrooms on both floors, and a nice smoking area outside.

The vision for the space is intentionally raw and low to the ground, but at the same time stopping short of creating a total cesspool.

MARK: Do you have any tenants already lined up?

JAMES: We’ve had some interest, but we haven’t accepted anyone yet. We’ve been very cautious in letting anyone know what we were up to until we had approval from the city and a final agreement with the property owner. Starting in the next few weeks we’ll begin signing leases that take effect August 1st.

MARK: Is there a model for what you’re doing with spur? Are there things taking place around the country that you’re borrowing from?

JAMES: As far as the studios go, there are no specific examples we’re aspiring towards, just sort of a vague knowledge that places like this exist in functional arts communities like San Francisco, Brooklyn, Baltimore, etc. There are local examples for sure- 555 when they were in AA/Ypsi, The Performance Network, The Lofts in Redford… unfortunately, they stay in my mind more as examples of the ways things can go awry. Those places were amazing, I want to avoid their same fate of having been dissolved prematurely.

I did hear of a place in Brooklyn where you can rent a practice room in 3 hour blocks, and there’s already drums and amps so you can just walk in and play. We might try to do that once things are up and running.

MARK: I’ve recorded in a place in New York like that. If I remember correctly, it was called Tasty Fish. It was a great resource… Since you mentioned pitfalls, what, in your estimation, usually brings down ambitious efforts such as these?

JAMES: The 2 big lessons I’ve picked up are that A) You’ve got to have everything totally up to code, or you’re going to get shut down once you get a little momentum. That’s a no-brainer for a big retailer or a ‘straight’ business, but to a bunch of punk artists trying to get something off the ground, you can get into trouble.

And B) You’ve got to have clear, enforced expectations about what can and can’t happen in the space. For example, there’s a natural thought to live in a practice space, which will get you shut down.

I’m a little self-conscious of talking about these things at all, because we’ll be addressing these issues not with rules pasted up all over the place, but just in the presentation of the thing, the people we attract, the vibe you get when you walk in… all of that.

I think you’ve got to be careful what you spend your energy on. If you spend too much time watching the ditch, you head straight for it because its all you can see. I officially denounced myself for having brought up a negative topic.

We should be talking instead about the impact a cluster of awesomeness could have on its immediate environment.


MARK: So, what should we, the Ypsi public, expect to see generated from this COA (Cluster Of Awesomness)? How will it positively impact people’s lives?

JAMES: We’ll see Ypsi retaining more of its youth instead of watching everyone jump ship the first chance they get, taking their ideas, energy, and reputation along with them. We’ll see a tighter bond among the art scene that already exists in Ypsi, which will manifest itself in more and higher quality gallery exhibits, shows, installations, etc.

Ypsi is developing a reputation as an arts community, but I think we need to back that up with some really tangible assets if we’re going to cement that in people’s minds- such as studio space by and for artists.

As much as I cringe at the thought of it, the fact is that artists are first wave gentrifiers. Over the course of time, that means support for our businesses, increased property values, and a higher quality of life.

Its my hope that Ypsilanti has an eclectic enough base and that the transformation is happening over such a long arc of time that we’ll be spared from the cycle of mass-homogenization and corporate takeover that often happens in cool neighborhoods. But we’ll see.

MARK: Have you had an opportunity to speak yet with any of our city leaders? I’d like to think that they would be wildly supportive of this endeavor. And, I suspect they will. In discussions I’ve had with folks, most of them now recognize the fact that they dropped the ball when they allowed Gallery 555 to get away. At the very least, I think that they would acknowledge that we should have been more aggressive about helping them to find new space when they were evicted from Water Street. I guess that’s one up-side to the economic mess that we’re in – people are beginning to appreciate the value of young people with energy and vision. Nine years ago, when I lobbied that the Peninsular Paper plant be turned into artist space, no one wanted anything to do with it. They wanted to tear it down and build student housing. Then, when 555 was on Water Street, folks wanted them gone, to make room for more new development. Now, however, I think people are coming around to the reality that we can’t just build our way to success. We can’t just trust outside developers to turn things around for us. We need to invest in our people. We need to nurture our artists and our technology geeks. We need to empower entrepreneurs, and support the arts. We need to – dare I say it – give up some of the control to the next generation.

JAMES: I’ve spoken to a few people unofficially and gotten vaguely positive feedback.

I hope you’re right about the shift in viewpoint. I’ve definitely heard it discussed, but I’m not convinced that civic leaders mean the same thing as I do when we both use words like “youth”, “art”, or “culture”.

My approach doesn’t require them to understand, I’m just making sure I’m on the right side of the law, and ideally their positive opinion can be formed over time.

Which is how it should be anyway, right? If the whole thing had a big stamp of endorsement from City Hall, it doesn’t do much for the anti-authoritarian vibe that walks hand in hand with the folks we’ll attract.

MARK: So, what does an ideal candidate for Spur look like?

JAMES: We’re looking for makers and doers. People who have a need to express themselves and contribute to the world around them. That can manifest itself in so many different ways- everything from wood working to fine painting, stenciling, playing in bands, performance art, etc.

I’m not here to judge anyone on their craft or aesthetic, its more important that they be passionate about whatever it is they do. We want to create an environment of support and shared experience. Working on art is often very alienating, I think the social aspect of pulling like-minded creative people together can be just as beneficial as the practical aspect of the square footage itself.

Of course on a strictly pragmatic level, we need people who are stable in their lives and able to pay rent, otherwise you’re chasing down late rent instead of building up steam.

MARK: One last question… Will you be at Shadow Art Fair on July 18, with floor plans and photos, answering questions, etc?

JAMES: Yep, we’ll be at Shadow with some teaser info, stickers, etc. We’re unveiling the floorplan and prices at the public meeting at Corner Brewery on Sunday July 19th at 2pm, the day after Shadow.

I’m hoping the spaces will be more equitably distributed by doing this gestation period prior to selling leases.

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  1. Andy Ypsilanti
    Posted June 24, 2009 at 9:46 pm | Permalink


  2. Posted June 24, 2009 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

    Should I read that as sarcasm? I suck at interpreting ALL CAPS.

  3. Andy Ypsilanti
    Posted June 24, 2009 at 9:54 pm | Permalink

    This is the best news I’ve heard for the arts community in our area in a long time. This is exactly what we need. And, being that close to EMU, maybe we can capture some of the tallent that comes through the campus and make it part of our community. Show students that Ypsi isn’t just a place you come to binge drink for 5 years. (that was a joke) I can’t wait to see you at the Corner next month. Bravo, and thank you!

  4. Posted June 24, 2009 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

    I’ve heard that EMU is short of studio space for their students and faculty in the arts. Assuming it fits with James’ vision, it would be cool if they got onboard and sublet some space. I’d love to have EMU faculty and students interacting more with the other folks in Ypsi doing good stuff.

  5. Posted June 24, 2009 at 10:15 pm | Permalink

    I thought schoolpictures.com was moving into that building…

  6. Posted June 24, 2009 at 10:17 pm | Permalink

    The school photo startup is moving into the Ave Maria site. Actually, I think they’re already in. This is a different building. It’s the one to the right of the one with the saw-tooth roof line.

  7. Posted June 24, 2009 at 11:18 pm | Permalink

    It’s good to see some progress. We started our company in AA 5 years ago and tried to buy a building in Ypsi. The rules and regs made it not worth all the struggles. I would have much rather owned a building.

    Good luck, it sounds like a fantastic project.

  8. Jules
    Posted June 25, 2009 at 6:19 am | Permalink

    This is so exciting! I want some space. I can’t wait.

  9. Posted June 25, 2009 at 6:34 am | Permalink

    I’m really appreciative of all that is going on right now in Ypsilanti. The collective movement of what is happening right now is transforming the city.

    I had a friend visiting from Colorado who has been away from Ann Arbor/Ypsi area for five years after living here on and off for about thirty years, and I took him for a bike tour around town. He was basically like, “wow, Ypsilanti is vibrant. This is great.” Because of the economy he said he was expecting a bunch of vacant buildings everywhere, but instead he saw old mainstays along with new businesses, and lots of people out and about, enjoying the day and enjoying downtown.

    What a great city we live in! Great work, James and VG Kids, great interview Mark. Can’t wait to see how it ends up.

  10. Amanda
    Posted June 25, 2009 at 6:38 am | Permalink

    Yes, THANK YOU James for the tremendous amount of work and care I’m sure you’ve been putting in to actualize this. I love that you’re a do-er, and the impact you’ve made in Ypsi continues to grow.

  11. Oliva
    Posted June 25, 2009 at 6:50 am | Permalink

    Such excellent news–thank you, James. Things, better and better . . .
    This blog is central to the vibrancy. Our hub and spur and place to check in, know each other better. Thank you, Mark, for the tremendous effort you make and for the goodwill that so often accompanies your posts. An ongoing inspiration and contributer to better life, palpably so. Through a decade-long recession we still have good lives and our chins up, flowers growing. Even the birds are really digging this place (the robins in particular), or it sure seems that way.

  12. Quackenbush
    Posted June 25, 2009 at 7:09 am | Permalink

    This is excellent news! I’ve often thought it would be cool to convert the church that’s for sale on Washtenaw & Washingong(?) into artists’ space.

  13. Patrick
    Posted June 25, 2009 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    This is really exciting! Hats off to James for making this happen!

  14. Posted June 25, 2009 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    Where do I sign up?

  15. tim
    Posted June 25, 2009 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    James, simply incredible! I hope this “spurs” the same type of boost that Spark has given to small tech start ups. Having another incubator like platform right here in Ypsi is awesome.

  16. annie
    Posted June 25, 2009 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    this is so cool and encouraging! i count myself fortunate to have seen this city and community blossom over the time i’ve lived here and this promises to be another amazing addition. wow wow wow. so exciting.

  17. Posted June 25, 2009 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    I think is great for the community and will go very far in cementing Ypsilanti’s reputation as a welcoming community for artists. What I like about it is that it’s an actionable plan that will yield results that can be measured and studied. I too often see people in this town asking for an abstraction – we want a cool city, a hip art scene, a music scene, etc. And in asking for an abstraction, we get an abstraction in return – cool city banners!

    I think if this community started asking for specific things instead of abstractions a lot more would get done. Instead of asking for an atmosphere more conducive to artists, we should be asking for studio space and galleries. If the call is loud enough and the city can’t provide it, get the private sector involved. I’m glad that James gets this – he has heard the call and has the courage to respond.

  18. Patrick
    Posted June 25, 2009 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

    A project like this is so encouraging – not just for the artists who will have studio spaces there or be directly involved – but for everyone who makes and enjoys the unique offerings of Ypsilanti. Just generating the feeling that there is a place for such endeavors in our community can be a very empowering thing.

    I remember how disheartening it was when 555 left town and the negative feelings that some people had towards the city government following their departure. It’s very encouraging that, regardless of the city’s attitudes and actions, people who live here continue to attempt to provide environments for creative dialogue + community.

  19. Suzie
    Posted June 25, 2009 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

    How wonderful!

  20. Posted June 25, 2009 at 8:52 pm | Permalink

    ypsi gets better every day!

  21. Posted June 25, 2009 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

    I have always really liked that building. It warms my heart to know it will be put to a good use.

  22. Ypsitucky Headhunter
    Posted June 25, 2009 at 10:52 pm | Permalink

    Viva Ypsilanti! This is da’ cooooolest!

  23. Michael
    Posted June 25, 2009 at 11:47 pm | Permalink

    Hey, have you seen this news article?
    New details about Michael Jackson’s Death Emerge
    I was wondering if you were going to blog about this…

  24. Posted June 26, 2009 at 6:41 am | Permalink

    Michael, I stayed up late last night, working on a blog post about Michael Jackson, Farrah Fawcett and the destructive nature of celebrity in the United States, but I never got the balance right. In the end, I thought it best just to keep my mouth shut. But, yeah, I’m thinking about it.

  25. Posted June 26, 2009 at 7:44 am | Permalink

    Congratulations James– and thanks Mark for the interview. This is such an amazing opportunity for the arts in Ypsi– thanks so much for making it happen!

  26. Oliva
    Posted June 26, 2009 at 8:23 am | Permalink

    “Where there is love . . . ”

    Following Mark’s reply to Michael, though I’m veering off the topic at hand–this from Andrew Sullivan’s excellent blog:

    A group of people went to Nedas grave today but the forces didnt let them stay or even pray.

    Today on Neda’s grave whoever had a green sign got arrested right away.

    Tonight, like past nights, the chants of “Allah-o-Akbar” were heard on roof tops of Tehran & other cities.

    R.I.P Micheal Jackson, many in Iran loved you and grew up with your songs, despite all the Regime’s confinements and propaganda

    sorry about no news at all in these past days, I will try my best to keep you informed again as soon as possible


  27. Posted June 26, 2009 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    I’m going now to shout this from the rooftops! This is the best news I’ve heard in months.

  28. Christine M
    Posted June 26, 2009 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the info, I’m vaguely friends with Ruth and James and their daughter. They are an amazing couple who inspire me. I hope to be a business owner in Ypsilanti someday also. The more I read your blog the more I hope it becomes a reality for me.

  29. dAnNy
    Posted June 26, 2009 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    I’m vaguely their neighbor…don’t forget their son Josh the amazing magician!

  30. Carlos Jones
    Posted June 26, 2009 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    Maybe, so we all get off on the right foot, we could have the City Council draft a list of all the terms and ideas that they find offensive – like “Ypsitucky” and “Rust Belt”. That way Marks can have all the artists sign something prior to entering Spur, indicating that they will only make work unoffensive to those who matter. I’d like to start by saying that I would prefer no one paint in gray and black. No macabre. We need flower paintings, and paintings of men harvesting wheat.

  31. The kingpin
    Posted June 26, 2009 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    They should have named it “Ypsitucky Studios”…haha…I’m such a dick!

  32. dp in exile
    Posted June 26, 2009 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    I too mourned the loss of the 555 Gallery; many, many thanks for your efforts!

    On a drive around town today, I noticed folks painting the loading dock. This is fantastic!!

    The model you are building on is working well in Detroit, at the Russell Industrial Center, it should work even better here in our fair city.

    I think my favorite line in the interview was, “My approach doesn’t require them to understand, I’m just making sure I’m on the right side of the law, and ideally their positive opinion can be formed over time.”

    That’s the spirit!!

  33. Linch
    Posted June 26, 2009 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    Not to piss on anyone’s parade, but what if all the artists who come forward to participate really suck ballz?

  34. galan
    Posted June 26, 2009 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

    Congratulations James, and thanks to Mark for the interview. This sounds like/is a great thing!

  35. BallzSuckyArtist
    Posted June 27, 2009 at 2:13 am | Permalink

    Posted June 26, 2009 at 2:38 pm | Permalink
    Not to piss on anyone’s parade, but what if all the artists who come forward to participate really suck ballz?

    We can’t all suck. If there is one good artist in a million, it is worth the effort.

  36. Posted June 28, 2009 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

    Finally. I actually thought about trying to pull this off myself, but being a man of very meager means, I didn’t think I could do it. Thank god you did. We will definitely rent a space without question.

  37. Posted June 29, 2009 at 10:30 pm | Permalink

    I got so excited when reading about this on Ypsi News :) Great to read this more in-depth interview on what to expect and what James has had to go through to make it happen.

    Ypsi is lucky to have someone like James living here. I can’t wait to see more! I will definitely be at the meeting on the 19th. I’m hoping I’ll be able to afford a space there when it first opens up!

  38. Luke Bison
    Posted June 29, 2009 at 10:46 pm | Permalink

    I predict this “artists are so desperate for mutual admiration they’ll pay a monthly fee to stand upright” collective will be a huge success.

  39. Posted June 30, 2009 at 6:40 am | Permalink

    You’re one cynical mother fucker, aren’t you, Luke?

    Everyone else sees something wonderful, and you envision a big circle jerk.

  40. Posted July 6, 2009 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    hope to work with all the artists for



    cd duplication,



4 Trackbacks

  1. […] | Leave a Comment  Local readers may have heard tell –perhaps through annarbor.com or markmaynard.com, though not The Ypsilanti Citizen, bizarrely enough– of a new artist-related endeavor in Ypsi […]

  2. By SPUR Studios Ann Arbor open house on Saturday on February 11, 2011 at 10:36 pm

    […] knowing more about SPUR might want to check out my interview with James Marks, which can be found here. This entry was posted in Ann Arbor, Art and Culture, Local Business and tagged art, artists, […]

  3. […] […]

  4. By Ypsilanti’s SPUR Studios to close in July on May 7, 2015 at 7:26 pm

    […] [note: For those of you interested in knowing the context of SPUR’s launch, can check out my June 24, 2009 discussion with James Marks.] […]

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