‘Just heartbroken’: Gateway City Arts shutters in pandemic

  • Gateway City Arts in Holyoke has been closed since March. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Gateway City Arts co-directors Vitek Kruta, left, and Lori Divine are shown outside the Holyoke venue on Jan. 19, 2018. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Folk rockers The Felice Brothers play the main stage at Gateway City Arts in January 2018. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/GUNNAR MACCORMACK

Staff Writer
Published: 12/11/2020 4:35:04 PM

HOLYOKE — Gateway City Arts, which over the last several years became a vital hub for the city’s artistic scene, is closing its doors for good.

In a lengthy Facebook post on Friday, Lori Divine and Vitek Kruta, who bought an old industrial facility on Race Street almost a decade ago and transformed it into a multi-dimensional arts venue, said the pandemic has made it too difficult to maintain the business — and the uncertainty of not knowing when live music can return forced their decision.

“We have reached the point where we just don’t have the resources and energy to try to survive,” the couple wrote. “It took us 10 years to start feeling that we could make it, and then Covid took it all away.”

Gateway shut its doors in mid-March, just a few nights after hosting “a sold-out concert of 500 people in the Hub (and) a theater production with over 100 people,” Divine and Kruta wrote. Meantime, business at a new restaurant at the venue, Judd’s, that had opened a few months earlier, “was booming.”

But in a phone interview on Friday, Divine said a federal PPP loan, the sale of take-out food from Judd’s, as well as money raised through a GoFundMe campaign, has not been enough over the last several months to meet expenses at Gateway — even after the venue furloughed virtually all their employees.

“I’m just heartbroken,” she said. “We poured so much energy and work into building this, and we had such wonderful employees ... we were able to bring so many great musicians here, make connections to the community. But we couldn’t overcome the pandemic.”

“The uncertainty of how long this situation is going to last has just made everything too difficult,” Divine added.

She said she also was deeply upset that Congress has provided no additional funding for businesses and citizens since passage of the CARES Act back in early spring. Members of Congress continue to spar over a second relief package, with Republican senators resisting the larger outlay — about $2 trillion — that Democrats have called for.

“People are hurting,” said Divine. “Businesses are closing, people are facing eviction from their homes, and the government does nothing.”

Earlier this year, she and Kruta noted that Gateway’s financial woes have been compounded by its status as a multipurpose venue; as such, they wrote in a previous Facebook post, the venue is obligated to maintain what they call a host of “costly permits, licenses, different kinds of insurances and general overhead.”

That’s a function of Gateway’s diversity. It has two large performance spaces, one that can accommodate about 500 people (called The Hub) and the other about 125. There’s also an art gallery, two eateries and a beer garden, rental space for start-up businesses, and a woodshop. It’s served as a forum for film, theater and numerous public and community events.

The venue is located in a 32,000-square foot building that once housed a printing company. Divine and Kruta, who bought the building in 2012, as well as an adjacent warehouse, then slowly but steadily renovated the spaces for new use.

In an interview with the Gazette in 2018, the couple, who are both painters, said they had initially simply been looking for studio space, in particular for Kruta’s set design and art-restoration work. But they then began to envision the building on Race Street as a possible community hub and arts venue.

Gateway became a particularly popular destination for music, including for promoters from outside the region. John Sanders, a former Iron Horse employee who works with DSP Shows, an Ithaca, N.Y.-based company that books concerts in the region, has been booking shows at Gateway since 2017.

In a Gazette interview in 2018, Sanders called the Holyoke arts center an excellent venue: “The attention to detail in providing a great experience to both the artists and the audiences is apparent from the moment you set foot there.”

Jim Olsen, president of the Signature Sounds record label in Northampton and a longtime music producer in the region, called the news of Gateway’s closing “a very sad day for the music and arts community in the Valley.”

“Lori and Vitek took a huge leap of faith in creating such a fabulous facility,” Olsen said in an email, “and they built a first-class venue that any town would be proud to host.”

Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse, who has been a Gateway supporter over the years and staged a number of campaign events there, could not be reached for comment Friday.

Divine said Gateway got about $120,000 in PPP funding earlier this year and also raised close to $40,000 in GoFundMe donations. They also sold takeout food through June but then had to shut that down, in part from sheer exhaustion.

On the busiest nights at Gateway, Divine said, there could be as many as 40 people working at the facility, between regular staff and people hired to sell tickets, work security, and do other jobs. In more recent months, it’s mostly been her and Kruta handling day-to-day business.

“I’m going to turn 68 in a few weeks,” she said with a rueful laugh. “I don’t have the energy I used to have.”

Her hope is that some entrepreneur — “A younger person with more energy,” Divine said — or perhaps a coalition of artists might be willing to buy the business when COVID-19 has run its course. Maybe someone from New York City might be looking for a change of scenery, she added.

Divine said she and Kruta are grateful to everyone who has supported the arts center over the years, and to their employees. “Magic happened at Gateway when we all came together,” the couple wrote on Facebook.

Olsen, at Signature Sounds, echoed that thought, while also offering a warning of the threats faced by arts communities everywhere.

“Unfortunately, we’re seeing venue closings across America as the government refuses to prioritize saving these vital institutions during the pandemic,” he said. “I’m hopeful someone will step forward to keep (Divine and Kruta’s) vision alive and save Gateway.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.


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