As an artist, Iri Alexander yearned for a space in Olympia where she could work on her craft and connect with other creators. When she couldn’t find such a place, they and a few collaborators banded together to make their wish a reality.
“Being able to find people that have skills you don’t have and create a good all-around community is something that’s important for artists,” Alexander said. “I just hadn’t really seen that being developed. So, that was something I was really excited to have the opportunity to create.”
After securing some funding, they opened Olympia Lamplighters in 2019 as a small downtown business. But then the pandemic hit months later in 2020, forcing them limit their activities and reevaluate what they started.
Today, Olympia Lamplighters is a non-profit art gallery, co-working space and educational hub for a variety of creators located at 211 Fourth Ave. E. Though the organizational model changed, business director Avalon Kragness said the mission remains the same.
“It’s a safe space for people to come in, create their artwork and also inspire each other,” Kragness said. “We want to break down those invisible barriers that are in between different types of artists. For example, a singer and a painter — they can talk with each other and inspire each other to further their art.”
What Lamplighters offers
Visitors to the location will see two standing lamps on the sidewalk with signs that welcome people in. A gallery of artworks for sale by local artists hang behind a glass façade. Inside, more gallery items line the walls on either side of a creative area.
The space includes modular tables and couches where people can work or “just hang out and chill,” Kragness said. It also includes a sound-treated recording room with computers and a small professional sound booth.
Storage lockers, spare art supplies and a small resource library are available as well.
Towards the back are independent workspaces that individual artists may rent. Beyond this space is another room with a stage where Lamplighters hosts classes, events and even dances.
The organization is funded by grants, donations and a pay-what-you-want membership model. Kragness said most members are in their 20s and 30s, but they also get a number of older adults for some events, such as a figure drawing class.
Alexander, who serves as creative director, said the art classes she teaches are intended for adults but occasionally draw older teenagers.
However, the team aims to welcome people of all ages, identities and economic backgrounds. To that aim, they have partnered with some local non-profits and hosted events that serve marginalized groups.
One of the other nonprofits they have partnered with is Collaborative Association for Reintegration and Education (CARE), which assists youth and young adults impacted by the justice system.
Emily Clouse, executive director of CARE, said her organization hosts art-based peer counseling sessions at Olympia Lamplighters.
Clouse initially purchased a membership in 2021 so she could work at the space. During her time there, Alexander helped Clouse develop a website for CARE and the two non-profits eventually forged a partnership.
“They empowered me, not only to have support in the moment when I really needed it, but also to learn the skills to do it on my own,” Clouse said. “I think that’s what Lamplighters is about, not just for me, but for others. It’s a space to work on not only art, but any creative process, and they’re there every step of the way.”
Alexander said most of the staff members at Olympia Lamplighters are queer. So, it’s important for them that the space is friendly to that community.
“The queer community also needs a place where they can just go and maybe bring their kids to have fun dancing, participate in an event, or have fun without necessarily worrying about alcohol,” Alexander said.
Olympia Lamplighters also has a queer closet, which contains free donated clothes for people in need. Kragness said Natalie Coblentz, a local artist also known as Wild Tiny, helped create the closet, especially to help people who are transitioning.
How Lamplighters got started
Alexander and Kragness co-founded Olympia Lamplighters along with artist Tiger Hurd and Chad Holland, who bankrolled the start of the project. The latter two have since left the non-profit for other pursuits.
The founders opened their doors on Oct. 4, 2019. The few clients who initially used the space appreciated what they were trying to build, Kragness said. More people came as word of mouth spread, and the community they envisioned began to take shape.
Then came the pandemic. Olympia Lamplighters closed their doors in March 2020 and tried to serve people via Zoom to limited success, Kragness said.
“For the people who were enjoying the space, it definitely was a blow,” Kragness said. “Most people were still able to do things at home, they were just more distracted … and they did miss the community that we’d already started building.”
The situation proved challenging for the leadership team too. Kragness said they may not have made it through the pandemic if it had it not been for an “angel investor” who agreed to continue funding them.
They cautiously began to reopen the space in summer 2020. At the urging of the anonymous investor, Kragness said they converted into a non-profit later that year.
“For us, it was a labor of love,” Alexander said. “It was really important to maintain this space as much as we could.”
Artists gradually returned to the space and the founders began to network with the wider non-profit and business community in Olympia.
“Our connections have enabled us to grow not only our membership, but also our connections within the city,” Kragness said. “We’re now able to have a voice with a lot of things that are happening here in Olympia.”
Now, Kragness said she has regular conversations with the Thurston County Chamber of Commerce, Olympia Downtown Alliance and City of Olympia.
Yet, funding remains tight. Kragness said they operate at about a $1,500-a-month deficit. But she said they are not in danger of closing anytime soon.
“We seem to be lucky enough to find funding when that (danger) starts to become a thing,” Kragness said. “Grant money helps to cover anything that we’re behind on.”
Alexander described the financial challenges as typical of a fledgling nonprofit. “I wholeheartedly believe that with the growth that we’ve been having and just the work that we’re putting in, that we’re going to be fine,” Alexander said.
Both said they hope to eventually move into a bigger space, preferably still in downtown Olympia, and expand their offerings.
Cost and visiting information
Olympia Lamplighters is open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday unless otherwise posted on their social media, according to their website.
People can purchase a day pass for $10 or a week pass for $40 to use the space. Lamplighters also offers a pay-what-you- want membership with a suggested price of $75 per month for standard uses or $100 per month for those who want access to the recording room.
Renting a desk at the space costs $125 a month.
They host community nights every Tuesday starting at 5 p.m. These include a game night, drawing night, crafting night and writing night. Anyone can attend regardless of funds, but donations are accepted at the door.
Additional information about specific events, classes and more can be found on their website.