Originally published on Forbes.com
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Robin Sokoloff wears many hats: dancer, choreographer, lighting designer, construction worker, activist and producer are some of them. The founder and Executive Director of the artistic hub Loft227 recently signed a lease on a 9,000-square-foot storefront facility in Tribeca. Located at 221 West Broadway, this space is now known as Town Stages, a new female-driven cultural institution and event venue that functions as a for-profit with a not-for-profit arm.
Passionate about building platforms for women and minority artists, Sokoloff, Town Stages’ Executive Director, plans on Town Stages being home to underrepresented and unheard voices in the community. The venue, which includes a mainstage, a cabaret lounge and a multi-use event space, will also serve as a home base for the recipients of its fellowship program.
“Having gender parity and diversity in the producing pool is important to get that kind of work onstage,” Sokoloff said. “So you’ve got to be both an artist and an advocate for your art and the art of others, or else it doesn’t happen.”
Sokoloff’s journey to Town Stages first began when rents in New York started skyrocketing. “I began this journey as just one artist looking to survive rising rents and hyper-gentrification in New York City’s residential and commercial market,” she said. “Since I moved here in 1999, my apartment rent only got higher, and my apartment size only got smaller. That’s the difference between having one job and being able to practice and create for that job in your own living room, and now needing four jobs and a secondary space to rent just to hope to do the work that I do. Nineteen different apartments later, and renting in hundreds of studios and theaters all over the city, I had to ask myself: Where is this going? Then the market melted down.”
As rents rose higher and higher following the recession, artists were unable to access spaces needed to work and live. Sokoloff decided she had to do something.
“You careen through your life as an artist and you look around at the changing economic landscape in New York and you go, ‘This is not going anywhere. Someone has to do something about this,'” she recalled, adding that she never intended to go into business but she knew space was both the problem and the solution. “It’s top down. That’s always the most expensive part of making art in New York City: the space. So what happens if there’s no spaces, there’s no places to make art, no places to pay artists, no places to work as artists?”
Using what she called a “robin hood”-type business model, Sokoloff founded Loft227, a home for artists and innovators, in March 2012. Over five years, almost 70,000 people created almost 900 different works of art at the downtown hub.
Describing her business model as a “sort of wealth redistribution,” she said, “If you were a more high-end corporate outfit, and you had the budget, I would take the fullness of that budget and you can rent the space at the kind of rate you can afford, and I would take that and subsidize the next emerging artist. So not everyone was paying the same. If you are able to pay the full rate of my space, you are enabling many, many different artists to pay the rate they can afford.”
But Loft227 could only hold 74 people in its audience, and Sokoloff found herself turning away close to 7,000 functions over five years due to space restrictions. So she began the search for a new space—a process that took three years and 298 no’s before securing Town Stages. The venue, which can seat 225 people in its largest space, has already been home to musical theater workshops, film screenings and BAE Uprising, a community event following the 2018 Women’s March.
Along with a new space, Sokoloff is embracing a new structure of the business model used at Loft227. While Sokoloff Arts is a non-profit, Town Stages LLC is a for-profit owned by Sokoloff Arts, whose name is on the lease.
Despite establishing Sokoloff Arts as a non-profit Sokoloff has never sought funding or applied for grants, preferring to be self-sustaining. Town Stages will also follow that business model, with space rentals for weddings, bar mitzvahs and business events internally subsidizing its newly-announced fellowship.
“We do not have outside funding. We have not sought it yet,” Sokoloff said. “This is a 100% self-sustaining nonprofit. You can also think of that mathematically that we are the reverse of an airline seating model. When you try to book a seat on Jet Blue, the fuller the flight gets, the more expensive your seat gets. I’m the reverse. The fuller my calendar gets and the more income that comes in on my calendar, the more affordable I get to everyone else who has a mission, who’s trying to put up their art, who’s traditionally told no.”
In its inaugural year, Town Stages is granting 28 recipients the Sokoloff Arts fellowship. The program, which includes artists, entrepreneurs, writers, content creators and activists, is described as “part residency, part incubator, and part home base: offering the ultimate creative freedom to grow.” Along with free access to the shared spaces and subsidies for rehearsal, performance and event space, the fellowship offers the opportunities for artistic collaborations.
“Free space is a weird idea in New York,” Sokoloff reflected, adding that Town Stages will offer a “clubhouse environment” where the fellows can interact with each other. “You can begin your work developmentally in our cabaret lounge. And you can move into the space we’re renovating to a 60-74-seater and if you’re kicking butt, you can go to the 120-seater. You can stay on property with us and because we’re not a seasonal theater company, you’re not butting up against another show.”
By focusing on racial and sexual diversity in the venue’s programming, Sokoloff hopes the art supported by Town Stages will help to continue the difficult conversations about social justice currently taking place.
“We keep saying we are a women-led venue,” she said. “That is a radical act. It shouldn’t be, but we are. I never planned to open a company. I never planned to run a thing. It’s just that every time I worked somewhere, I hit the ceiling. Or I was sexually harassed. Or I was sexually assaulted. Every single workplace was like that for me, and look how much I have to offer. One day I had to stand up for myself and go, ‘I have too much to offer.'” Adding that her plan is a “scalable model,” she said, “The long-term goal—when we run out of space here—is to get more space.”