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Art as a business

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GLENS FALLS - Take a stroll through the upper floor offices of Flores & Flores, a print media advertising agency on Lawrence Street, and the scope of its client base catches your attention. On the wall are colorful graphics representing work done for clients such as Nabisco, Pepsico and other national accounts.

With clients in such far-flung places as Houston, New Orleans and along the East Coast, agency owners Frankie Flores and Lisa Cirelli-Flores needed a location that offered access to its client base while having flexibility in terms of layout and function.

What they found exceeded their expectations. The former Troy Shirt factory building is a converted manufacturing site that has quietly been transformed into a commercial hub that has somehow slipped under the radar of local officials.

"This reminds me of something you'd expect to see in Soho," said Leonard Fosbrook, president of the Warren County Economic Development Corp. "I never realized how much was here. These are real businesses that are being successful."

Fosbrook's reaction to what he found in the building is common. The building has come to life slowly. For the first few years of its reincarnation, it had the reputation as being a home to garage bands needing practice space and a place for starving artists to practice their craft in hopes of someday making a living at it.

A communal synergy

The former Troy Shirt factory building is a home for artists, but few of them are starving.

"We have starting artists," Frankie Flores said with a grin.

Much of the 80,000-square-foot historic warehouse is leased, with many of the tenants coming within the last year or so. The evolution of the building from hobby space to a place where art is a business is being driven by its tenants who, they say, can see the potential.

"We want to push this building as an arts district, a tourist destination," said Lisa Flores, who also operates Crimson Gallery in the building featuring the couple's art. "This town's not as small as people think. Though there's more gallery space in Saratoga, there's more art happening here. People here really appreciate art. The problem is, nobody really pushes it."

The Floreses have dubbed the movement WAG, which stands for Warehouse Artist Group. Their goal, Lisa Flores said, is to have an arts community that is both home to thriving commercial enterprises and a destination in which the public can come to experience art and the creative process. A key component of that is to develop synergy among the various areas of expertise in the building.

"For example, we're in advertising and next door is a photographer, Craig Murphy," Cirelli-Flores said. "That's a natural match where we can exchange services and both be better for it."

During the last year, the WAG artists have held a series of open houses that have drawn from 1,000 to 1,500 visitors for each event. A percentage of the proceeds from the open houses is being pooled to pay for renovations to a first-floor space that will serve as a gallery where artists can show and sell their works.

Building owner Eric Unkauf said the building's success is largely the product of word of mouth.

"It seems to be gravitating toward artists and artisans," he said. "It's the tenants who have been the driving force. … Little by little, it has grown."

The idea of developing a first-floor gallery is one that Unkauf endorses and is encouraging.

"Hopefully, all the artists will become involved with that," he said. "It will provide a means for them to sell their art and, in turn, it will make them better long-term tenants."

The art being made in the building is diverse enough to draw a significant number of people to WAG open houses.

"About half are from the Glens Falls area and half are from Albany and other places," Frankie Flores said of the crowds. The ability to draw numbers like that to a site that is off the main path is one reason for enthusiasm about the building's viability.

"There's a place in Raleigh-Durham (North Carolina) called Art Space," said Jason Brooks, a glass-blower who has set up shop in the former shirt company. "It's 10 years old. It's in a restored building. It's a place where people can come and see artists at work. We see that potential here."

Brooks started blowing glass in his garage as a hobby but is doing it as his livelihood at the shirt company building. Future plans for his business include an interactive component where people can come and watch glass-blowing demonstrations and even participate.

A fit for diverse needs

Cecilia Frittelli and her husband Richard Lockwood moved their handwoven textile business from Crown Point to a space in the building a year ago. They did so to be in a larger community that provided more amenities for their children. They ultimately decided to live in Saratoga County but found the economics of locating their business in the old shirt company to be a good fit, not to mention the historical connection of locating a textile business in the former mill.

"It feels good," Frittelli said. "It's nice to be cleaning the floor and run across an old shirt button. It fits."

Frittelli & Lockwood deal with a client base that is spread among the major fashion centers of Boston, New York and Washington. Their business does not rely on walk-in customers. Locating in the shirt company made sense, Frittelli said, because of the flexibility of space - "the raw space with high ceilings and tall windows" and because of the availability of skilled weavers.

Delia Bowstead and John Schulz are, by their own description, refugees from New York City.

"We met up here," Bowstead said. "We wanted to open our business up here away from the city. We looked everywhere from Woodstock in the Catskills to Vermont."

Ultimately, it was the couple's familiarity with the area that led them to Lawrence Street as a place to pen their high-end contemporary furniture business. Both Schulz and Bowstead have a background in theater set design and they liked the building's proximity to Adirondack Scenic in Argyle. Bowstead had worked for a designer in Pottersville. The relative ease in getting to New York City was also a factor, Bowstead said.

The couple boasts impressive contacts and clients, including the legendary New York City scene shop Steigelbauer and late-night talk show host Conan O'Brien, for whom Bowstead & Schulz built two desks, one with hidden trap doors.

A model for the city

The building's use as an arts commercial hub fits with what is outlined in the yet-to-be-adopted city master plan.

"That's a viable evolution of a lot buildings like this," said city Economic Development Director James Martin. "What's really good is that it's an excellent use of upper floors."

Martin said that in conjunction with the Lower Adirondack Regional Arts Council and the North Country Arts Center, he is pushing for the creation of an arts district in the city that would encourage a concentration of arts and art-related businesses.

"I'm even talking to Saratoga and some of the other communities," Martin said. "They don't have enough places for artists. I really think that's a niche we can fill."

Still, largely without city help and without financial backing from any of the local government economic development groups, the Troy Shirt building is emerging as a model of what is possible for the city's aging building stock.

"It's innovative," Fosbrook said. "We talk about business incubators. Here we have a place that seems to be functioning very much like that."

For the artists and business owners of WAG, Troy Shirt Works is the land of opportunity.

"More and more, artists are looking at this as a professional building," Cirelli-Flores said. "It offers a chance to come in and grow a business."


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