Alma Mater Fills Gaps in Tacoma’s Arts Scene

Alma Mater, an unusual and striking new arts incubator, is coming together in the old Carpenter’s Union building near 15th Street and Fawcett Avenue in downtown Tacoma.

The project is the brainchild of Jason Heminger, Aaron Spiro and Rachel Ervin. Heminger’s background in experimental education, Spiro’s musical pedigree, and Ervin’s communications and PR savvy have brought the ambitious project to fruition with the help of some investors with ties to the area.

According to Ervin, the project was shaped by the question and answer: “What do you need to make it as an artist, specifically in Tacoma? You need opportunities to perform in places with consistent, great sound; a chance to make money doing it; and mentorship.”

Alma Mater Cafe
Honey cafe at Alma Mater offers coffee and breakfast daily from 7:00-4:00. Photo courtesy: Alma Mater

Alma Mater fills several gaps in that regard. Four mid-size performing spaces provide alternatives to smaller venues like Jazzbones and The Swiss as well as large venues such as those at the Broadway Center.

Ervin says the trio chose the location because it “fills a dead zone” amid several downtown arts venues: UW Tacoma’s Whitney Art Building to the south, and the downtown galleries and the Broadway Center to the north. It’s easily accessible by freeway and public transit as well. “With the cafe and the lounge, this is really a place where people can stay all day and all night,” she observed.

Tacoma-based artist Lisa Kinoshita is eager for the venue to open. “Alma Mater is stretching the boundaries of the big picture in Tacoma by providing a professional arts facility, and an exhibition and performance space for local and visiting artists,” she says. “Beyond that, it offers a much-needed central place to gather in our spread-out downtown, with a bar and cafe. I think it will draw a lot of visitors into its gravity.”

Alma Mater Tacoma
Workers put the finishing touches on Alma Mater, housed in the old Carpenter’s Union building. Photo credit: Michael Berry

Inside the main entrance, there will be a rotating gallery featuring the work of artists from around the world. To the right is Honey, a cafe, which will be open from 7:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m., serving coffee and brunch seven days a week. To the left is Matriarch, a bar and lounge, open from 4:00 p.m. until 10:00 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and from 4:00 until midnight on Friday and Saturday. The menu will feature small plates designed by Kyle Wnuk, formerly of Marrow and, more recently, Three Magnets in Olympia.

Both the bar and the cafe feature small performing spaces, and these are in addition to Fawcett Hall, the large indoor performing space, with room for about 500 patrons. The space will feature shows on Friday and Saturday evenings, and will be available for rental during the week, and the cork floor makes it ideal for dance classes. An awning covers an outdoor performance space, which is flanked by an urban forest.

All of the performance spaces are wired for sound, and are connected to the state-of-the-art recording studio on the second floor. The second floor will also be home to a communal space for artists working in a variety of media. The open space encourages interdisciplinary work.

Alma Mater Stage
A covered outdoor stage faces a newly planted urban garden. Photo credit: Michael Berry

Alma Mater’s mission is primarily educational. Aspiring artists and musicians will apply to become part of a six-month cohort that provides space to work and perform, and opportunities to learn from seasoned professionals.

Unlike many arts organizations, Alma Mater operates on a for-profit model. “Having [the cafe and bar] generating revenue allows us to be more fluid in our programming,” Ervin notes, as they don’t have to rely on donors and grants. Financial assistance in the form of scholarships or “work-study” programs will be available for those in need.

Honey is already open, and Matriarch is slated to open in early April. Houston rap legend Devin the Dude will open the large performance space with a show on April 7. “Homecoming,” a week of opening activities, is slated for April 15-21. The week begins with an art installation with ten artists exploring the concept of “home.” DJs SassyBlack and Eddie Bermuda spin on Friday night, April 19; Deep Sea Diver, Sisters, and Smokey Brights play on Saturday night; and Sunday features the Gritty City Sirens, Lucha Libre Volcánica, and Filthy FemCorps.