From the outside, it doesn't look like much.
A simple, two-story building within earshot of Interstate 30 on Fort Worth's south side and surrounded by a cluster of noisy buildings with ominous vats sitting outside, the Gallery at Lander's Machine Shop could easily be mistaken for just another withering industrial space.
Until you step inside and let Sara Barnard lead you around.
The gallery's jill-of-all-trades, Barnard handles everything from booking to public relations to cleanup, and her enthusiasm is palpable and contagious. Look past the piles of machinery lining the walls and the power tools scattered about and you'll begin to see the space's genuine potential.
Since opening in 2008, the Gallery has played host to everything from strobe-lit raves (including a recent Star Wars-themed party) to rockabilly-tinged burlesque shows.
Not quite a concert venue, not quite an art gallery (at least in the traditional sense), it is, essentially, whatever it needs to be.
There are precious few venues in the city where music and art can commingle, which makes the arrival of a place like this all the more welcome. Whether it is utilized for photography, music, painting, burlesque or even the fine art of simply hanging out, Barnard's venture is designed to provide the community a safe haven for creative stimulus and like-minded companionship.
"It's just a space, and you're kind of at your free will to do what you want," Barnard explains.
Alongside other raw spaces in Fort Worth, including 1919 Hemphill or the Where House, the Gallery might also suggest a way forward for local artists and musicians muddling through these dismal economic times. Midsize music venues, such as the Ridglea Theater (which faces imminent closure) and the Longhorn Saloon (which was shuttered this year), are disappearing left and right. Mainstream galleries seem more hesitant than ever to take a chance on unheralded and experimental artists.
Here, though, is a venue that allows for multiple disciplines under one roof, where different kinds of artists can feed off each other's distinct energy; a venue that bridges the gap between artist and consumer, allowing an almost primal connection. Standing just a few feet from an artist and admiring his or her handiwork, or cramming into a room as a band thrashes out its music delivers a charge you can't get anywhere else. Even the unfinished, often haphazard nature of these spaces reinforces a sense of optimism for brighter days ahead.
Which is to say: Hang out for a few hours at the Gallery at Lander's Machine Shop and you, too, will think that, through art, anything is possible.
An initial arts-scene buzz
Barnard, a Fort Worth native, seized the opportunity to do something different when the original plans for the building -- conversion into lofts for rent -- didn't pan out. Her father, Fort Worth real estate developer Michael Barnard, bought the place in 2008.
That same year, Arts Goggle, the city's biannual, south side-situated celebration of art and artists, used the space. It was that event, Sara Barnard says, that led people to begin asking if they, too, could utilize the Gallery at Lander's Machine Shop -- which, at 7,000 square feet, can hold roughly 2,000 people -- for concerts or showings.
"The buzz just started going crazy," she says, "so I started booking events, talking to different people, exercising my connections."
That led to a steady stream of art showings, burlesque events and even CD-release parties. Fort Worth rockers Phantom Caste feted the arrival of their Hands to the Light EP there a few weeks ago; area acts, such as Titanmoon, have also taken the stage.
"I think it's extremely cool, because it's like the kind of place that I, as an artist, would like to live in and create in," says Titanmoon's Tyler Casey. "It gives you the feeling of where a band, like U2, would have recorded Achtung, Baby or something."
The burgeoning success of the DIY community arts space was like falling in love all over again for Barnard. The 23-year-old, an admitted live music junkie, wants nothing more than to be involved in the art and music scene in Fort Worth, particularly after she stopped going to shows for a while.
Following a hectic transitional period lasting a few years -- among other things, she was busy pursuing a degree in journalism at the University of North Texas, working a variety of day jobs (including a stint in medical marketing), and moving to Savannah, Ga., and then returning home -- Barnard is eager to settle down and focus on the Gallery.
Although Barnard isn't doing this to get rich, the project doesn't face the risks inherent in most DIY undertakings. To begin with, Barnard's father and his partners own the building, eliminating the monthly threat of rent. In lieu of a landlord, any money earned from any event is put right back into the building, funding piecemeal projects, such as the addition of air conditioning or the installation of functioning restrooms.
"It's day by day, honestly," Barnard says. "I've got events booked through the end of October, so we'll keep going, keep rolling ... That's why it is always a work in progress, drills and hammers and stuff everywhere. Every dollar that comes in goes into a project, until the building is complete, and we don't even know what that means yet."
Another crucial element of the Gallery's success to date is Barnard's willingness to embrace any and all artists, regardless of subject matter.
This year, during the Corpus Christi contretemps, Barnard says that Q Cinema, Fort Worth's gay film festival, was seriously considering staging the controversial Terrence McNally play, a "biblical parallel" about a gay man and his 12 disciples. Plans were later scrapped by Q Cinema, but Barnard feels strongly that all art, however provocative, deserves a home.
"We are just a blank canvas and we're a blank concrete space," says Barnard.
Although arts groups aren't quite beating down her door just yet, Barnard has found particular favor with the burlesque and rockabilly scenes. Creative types, such as Sarah Ellis-Hardcastle, owner of Dynamite Dames Photography, which specializes in vintage, pinup photography, are embracing the Gallery as a place to pursue their art without boundaries.
"I think [the gallery is] really awesome, because it's local, it's open and they're really laid-back," says Ellis-Hardcastle. "It being a new venue, we're trying to help it. [With so many places closing], there's going to be nothing left for creative minds in the area. I think it's important to have a building like this to enjoy."
In fact, the largest event that the Gallery at Lander's Machine Shop will host this year is the burlesque/rockabilly-themed Fort Worth Stomp at the beginning of October. The Stomp is a one-day extravaganza featuring burlesque troupe Teaserama, a handful of rockabilly bands flown in from Los Angeles and top-notch photographers, such as Roy Varga. If all goes well, Barnard says, she hopes to have events of such scale taking place every six months and to turn the Stomp into an annual event.
Not everyone is completely enthused about the Gallery at Lander's Machine Shop.
Although the gallery's website explicitly states that the building is a drug-free zone with a no tolerance policy, there are residents of the nearby Miller Lofts, as well as event attendees, who allege that drinking by minors and drug use have been prevalent.
Although Barnard says the rules are fairly lax and attendees generally police themselves, she emphasizes that the Gallery only leases the space, therefore making every event private and subject to different rules.
"IDs are thoroughly checked by both a gallery staff member, as well as a door staff member from the sponsoring party and wristbands handed out, as to clearly mark who is of age," Barnard wrote in an e-mail. "There is also undercover gallery staff on hand, watching and turning anyone over to the authorities who is breaking the law.
"We wish to be a shining part of the cultural center in Fort Worth," Barnard added, "and making our neighbors upset does not support that cause."
In addition to the inevitable neighborhood conflicts, the Gallery at Lander's Machine Shop faces an almost certainly volatile future; after all, uncertainty comes with the territory when you're dealing with art and music. Although the sheer novelty of an old industrial building-turned-art space will attract people initially, Barnard says she knows that only quality -- and a bit more quantity -- will keep them coming back.She says she even hopes that, a decade from now, the Gallery at Lander's Machine Shop could possibly stand alongside the Ridglea in the pantheon of great Fort Worth venues.
But it's a love for the endless possibilities of art, in all its forms, that keeps Sara Barnard coming back, even when it might be easier to simply let the building become something else.
"I will cling to that and I will not stop clinging to that, because I love it -- no matter how hard it gets."