A fire consumed the old Roberts Shoes building on Sunday night. Dozens of artists had studios in the space; some even lived in the building.
According to the Minneapolis Fire Department’s Twitter page, no victims or injuries were reported, and they are still investigating the cause. Battalion Chief Bryan Tyner, the public information officer for the department, believes the fire most likely started in the boiler room.
“There was very heavy smoke and very heavy heat,” he says. “We weren’t able to advance enough to do an interior attack, which is our preferred method. We had to go defensive from the outside.”
Tyner adds that the firefighters were able to hook into the sprinkler connection, creating a water curtain around the building that stopped the fire from spreading.
Artists, photographers, designers, and DJs used the building, as well as a Zumba studio and other small businesses. Historically, the building has housed many artists and arts organizations, including Open Eye Figure Theater, In the Heart of the Beast, and Obsidian Arts. Minnesota author Robert M. Pirsig penned the classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance while living in the building in the 1970s.
Artist Sean Smuda, who ran the Shoebox Gallery until Roberts Shoes closed, lost his new spaces, Pirsig Gallery and the Biennale Beinalley, in the fire.
“Total loss,” he posted on Facebook. In another post he said donations could be sent via PayPal to his last name at Yahoo.com.
Filmmaker and photographer Alex Uhrich says he lost $4,000 worth of equipment and his entire 35 millimeter archive. “I shot film all through college,” he says. “[I lost] 8,000 frames of film and hundreds of polaroids.”
Uhrich is starting a Roberts Shoes Displacement Fund at Gofundme for artists in the building, including himself and his partner, an illustrator.
“I’ve talked to a couple of other people that had spots in the building,” he says. “We are brainstorming ways that we can fundraise.” Uhrich has also been in talks with Moon Palace Books to organize a fundraiser there.
“It’s a huge bummer because affordable arts spaces are difficult to find, especially in south Minneapolis,” he says. “It’s a place that is very storied. Lots of my friends that are makers in the city have had spaces in there and still did at this point. I feel like I’m still in shock.”
Musician and sound designer Peter Morrow says he lost $10,000 dollars of equipment in the fire. He shared a studio space with five others, who all had losses as well. “It was a mixture of art and all the tools we use to make the art,” he says.
Morrow says that Joy Spika, one of the artists in that space, lost a decade’s worth of artwork while DJ collective DJ-U lost thousands of dollars of equipment.
“Everybody’s frantic,” says Rosa Garcia, a member of the MRAC-funded DJ-U. The collective had already been trying to raise money for their mentorship and workshop program for women, non-binary, and femme people of color who want to learn how to DJ. “We’ll be looking for space. Hopefully, a donated space,” she says.
Even before Garcia had a studio space, she had been part of the building’s artistic community. “I had been going there probably since I was a teenager,” she says. She recalls dance events in the capoeira studio, and fantastic evenings up on the rooftop looking at the skyline.
“We had a beautiful thing going on there. The impact is huge,” she says. “We all kind of know that there’s probably some condo developer that wants to gentrify that corner. I’m kind of upset.”
Michelle Barnes, known as DJ Michel.Be, didn’t have studio space in the building, but lost a $1,500 DJ controller she had just purchased in the fire. The controller had been in the DJ_U space for their mentorship program. There’s a Gofundme campaign to help Barnes replace the equipment.
“I was using DJ-ing as a healing tool and as a way to connect with community,” she says. “It was more than a piece of equipment. It was part of a long-term goal of showing up for community.”
The collective she had been working with was supportive of queer and POC folks. “It’s so important for artists to not only have spaces for each other but to do the work and invest in ourselves,” she says. “Art doesn’t pay a whole lot. To invest in this craft takes a lot of work.”
Alana Horton lost her drum kit in the same space, where her band Bella Yaga practices. She says the building had an incredible ecosystem of artists. “It was a friendly community. It was great being able to pop down and borrow stuff from people. Having space to create is a rare and valuable thing.”