Bay Area artists Larry Silva and Tom Franco have known Reno throughout the years, mostly due to its proximity to Tahoe.
Silva spent summers in his parents’ cabin as a child. Franco spent time on the slopes. They eventually discovered the region’s burgeoning arts culture as well, including Burning Man, which served as a major inspiration.
So when they decided to expand their Berkeley-based arts collective, Makers Paradise, they felt called to consider Reno—literally: In 2019, a developer they had worked with on a similar project told them about a new space he was working on; he wanted to feature a heavy arts presence there.
“He says, ‘We’re doing this big project; we want 20% for the arts,’ which is insane, which is unheard of,” Franco said. “No developers think that way. Their group was willing to take that—I don’t want to call it a risk, but in a traditional sense, it was like, ‘Oh yeah, we’re taking a risk.’”
What used to be Shoppers Square has now reopened as Reno Public Market, a combination food court, shopping center and events stage. Most of the building’s northwest wing is now occupied by Silva and Franco’s vision: a combination art gallery, studio collective and workshop space devoted to serving Reno’s artists and the public alike.
Franco and Silva have made their careers in art. Silva, director of the collective, spent the past two decades as a faculty member and the employment coordinator at the College of Alameda, overseeing a fabrication lab used by Bay Area artists and students. Through his work, he came to see the mutual benefits of connecting artists with underserved and medically affected communities.
“I work with veterans with (post-traumatic stress disorder), and I had created all these art-therapy programs in the Bay Area that were real successful for artists to go out and work in either assisted or skilled-nursing or veterans’ homes, where they went out as teaching artists with some of my students and did art projects and things like that,” Silva said.
One of Silva’s students introduced him to Franco, a multimedia artist, sculptor and co-founder of Firehouse Art Collective. Firehouse has established multiple locations around the East Bay since its inception in 2004, offering studio and collaborative space in an area well known for its artistic and cultural pedigree. With their complementary experience and shared goal of helping artists gain material and communal support, Franco and Silva partnered to create Makers Paradise in Berkeley in 2018.
“We share this goal and interest of, ‘Here’s a physical space to create community and art for who wants to use it,’” said Franco, the community engagement director for Makers Paradise. “We’re not coming in with a pre-planned agenda of how it needs to be used, and that’s really supportive of the artist’s challenge. And when I say artist’s challenge, it’s just like being creative, being alive, being spontaneous, being excited in what you’re doing.”
Makers Paradise is a nonprofit that combines its founders’ priorities and strengths. Artists can find creative support in the form of materials, tools and dedicated workshops alongside community outreach, charity events and a general opportunity for collaboration.
As the Berkeley space found initial success, Franco and Silva first considered expanding to a location in Santa Cruz, which didn’t ultimately pan out. In 2019, they were approached by developer Doug Wiele about the Reno Public Market project. Franco and Silva said they had worked with Wiele on a similar multi-business project years before.
“We were there as an art studio,” Franco said. “We all kind of learned together this model of, ‘Hey, you can have retail and restaurants and public spaces that are complemented and boosted by art happening on site.’ And it became a very successful journey for all of us saying, ‘Hey, this really works.’”
The much anticipated Reno Public Market took over the erstwhile Shoppers Square—well known to locals since the ’60s—and now features more than a dozen restaurants, bars and cafés, alongside a live events stage and space for retail shopping. Midtown mainstay Junkee Clothing Exchange even plans to move to the market.
Franco and Silva found the prospect of a large facility with proximity to a bustling food and shopping center perfect for their goals, but before they signed the lease, they made it a point to familiarize themselves with the local community.
“Prior to making our decision on the space, we met with Nettie Oliverio,” the arts and culture director for Reno Public Market, Silva said. “She took us on tours of everywhere all over Reno—we went to The Generator; we went to the Potentialist (Workshop); we went to all the local art spots. … And we felt very welcomed, and we were really impressed with how everybody we met was just excited about this space being open.”
Meeting local artists and learning about existing institutions and opportunities was integral to the design process. They prioritized asking which kinds of amenities and tools would help Reno’s artists—and interested citizens—find ownership and utility in the space.
Locals asked for more classrooms and more gallery space. “So we made sure we had that,” Franco said.
The Inner Workings
Makers Paradise signed onto the Reno Public Market project shortly before the pandemic delayed its overall development. More recently, the historic winter continued to delay the buildout. Still, elements of their vision are already working.
The Makers Paradise gallery already hosts works from members—everything from garments to photography to illustrated and painted works—as well as donated pieces from the existing space in Berkeley, and a few pieces by Franco and Silva themselves. There is so much work already on display that they needed to borrow an unused outlet space across the hall as a temporary overflow gallery.
While gallery space is a priority, it isn’t the main economic driver of Makers Paradise. They charge a 30% commission on gallery sales, but most of the funding comes from monthly studio-rental fees, donations, corporate partnerships and grants.
“All the money that we make goes into our programming, and we’re more about the programs, although we’ve got to be sustainable,” Silva said. “But the gallery is kind of an extension for our members where they can show their art, and then, also, if we make art here, we can show it. But the big thing is the programming and the studio space here.”
The gallery also provides wider exposure for Makers Paradise artists, Silva said, as members can also elect to have their work displayed at the Berkeley location, and vice versa. Silva also sees the gallery as an opportunity for artists to learn the soft skills to help them sell their work.
“We … teach them how to sell, teach them how to market, teach them how to present their art, how to frame their art, know where the market is, know what your costs are,” Silva said. “Some of these artists, they’ll spend more money on the canvas and the art supplies than they’re selling the piece for.”
At the back of the gallery is the main entrance to the primary workshop space—a cavernous room with windows that face Casazza Drive to the north—which opens onto a gated patio outside. Silva hopes to use this space for charity events and to host larger works.
“The kiln will be out here,” Silva said. “People can do some art stuff out here like spray painting or something; we’ll have a little area for it.”
The ground-floor space will be a mixed-purpose facility with group tables and larger tools, like a printing press and a silkscreen machine, as well as audio-visual equipment for presentations and the like.
Upstairs, there will be room for 17 individual studios. Each will make use of four-foot privacy walls to delineate the spaces—but the studios are meant to facilitate collaboration, meaning they will be open and visible to members. Studio rentals go for around $350 per month, Silva said, and members will be able to access their spaces 24-7 with a digital door code.
“Anybody who’s a member can use any of our equipment,” Silva said. “So they get a lot of amenities with being a member, too. We have a heat press; we have 3-D printers; we have sewing machines. We’re going to have a table here for jewelry making … and we’ll have copiers and printers. These spaces here are going to be for community organizations that we work with.”
Including the gallery, workshops and studio space, Makers Paradise has more than 8,000 square feet of space. Several local arts and community organizations have already signed up to partner with the facility for classes and charity events, including the Sierra Watercolor Society. There will also be veterans’ art groups and classes for kids.
Makerspaces, art galleries and workshops aren’t new to Reno, a town whose government and tourism initiatives work hard to position it as an “arts town”; the headlining art event of the summer even says as much. Much is made of the city’s financial investment in the arts, and Reno’s proximity to Burning Man grants a certain cultural cache.
To Kelsey Sweet, program manager at Makers Paradise, the new space combines all of these elements with the draw of Reno Public Market, establishing a place where artists and the general public have a chance to connect organically. Even people who don’t go to the market with the intention to make art have the opportunity to explore the gallery and learn more about the opportunities available in the same building. Meanwhile, artists have a dedicated space to create, with amenities like the food court and galleries to connect with potential audiences.
“The mission behind Makers Paradise is very much about building community and getting people to make art, I think, more so than showing art,” Sweet said. “What I really like about the Makers Paradise model, and Tom and Larry both, is they very much have that momentum behind them—or just that mission to bring people out of the woodwork and give them the tools and the skills and the community to be able to create culture.”
Sweet has worked in the Reno arts community for years. Apart from starting and helping with various art initiatives and spaces, she studied the principles of transformative leadership for her master’s degree, bridging the gaps between art and psychology while working with developmentally disabled children and adults. Her background and local experience aligned with the goals of Makers Paradise, she said, and she came on board as program manager in June 2022.
“It extends beyond, ‘Let’s just take somebody and teach them how to make art,’ or, you know, ‘Take an artist and give them a place to work,’” Sweet said. “It’s allowing me the opportunity to take all these ideas and all this research that I’ve had in mind for the last 20 years and start applying things and bringing different aspects together.”
The owners and staff of Makers Paradise emphasize that they aren’t coming to Reno to fix anything that’s broken.
“I think artists everywhere need pretty much the same things,” Franco said. “We’re talking about: What do you do in a specific location that will be successful? So those are the refinements—how to customize it for a certain area. Every city in the United States, even across the world, would benefit from this kind of project.”
For more information, visit www.makersparadise.org or follow @makersparadisereno on Instagram.
This article was produced by Double Scoop, Nevada’s visual arts publication. Read more at www.doublescoop.art.