Sunday, July 21, 2024

The Foundry in East Cambridge at the time of its ribbon-cutting ceremony in June 22, 2022. (Photo: Tyler Motes)

It’s been only one year since the Cambridge Foundry opened its doors. From the time the city held the first public forums on it 10 years ago, requesting ideas for reuse of the long-vacant 1890 building, to the structure’s transformation into “a self-sustaining center for creativity and collaboration,” The Foundry’s been like a giant brick-red pin cushion for hopes and dreams.

Some asserted that its mélange of arts, crafts, technology, entrepreneurship, workforce education and community activities would be perfect for generating life-changing experiences and outcomes. Others prophesied The Foundry would break down barriers between Kendall Square and the less affluent neighborhoods nearby.

On the most basic level, The Foundry’s first 12 months have been predictably busy: artists and makers use the specialized spaces equipped for woodworking, jewelry metalworking, fiber arts and fine arts work regularly, and designers create projects with the 3D printers and laser cutters. Movement classes keep the dance studio booked. The variously sized community rooms have become convenient for groups craving in-person gatherings again. The large performance space for theatrical and other events fills a variety of needs, including the recent Black Biz Ball.

There’ve been some surprises too. For Foundry Consortium executive director Diana Navarrete-Rackauckas, overseeing the many interns and fellows coming through The Foundry has been particularly gratifying. “In terms of individual workforce development, through the different organizations that we’ve partnered with, it’s been really exciting to see these folks get to explore their interests, and then have all of them come back to volunteer. It definitely brings a lot of joy.”

Foundry woodworking shop member Erin McLaughlin builds a shelf to fit an awkward corner, saying, “It’s the first time in years I’ve needed to use the Pythagorean theorem.” (Photo: Monica Velgos)

Navarette-Rackauckas points to another way The Foundry fulfills its multi-armed pitch: some theater performances used sets made in the wood shop and costumes made in the textile shop, or just used the equipment to tweak what they already had. She’s thrilled that art studio users have gotten to know people with makerspace memberships to the point where they’re creating works together. “And some have started businesses together, which feels like the dream,” she adds.

Foundry advisory committee member Lauren O’Neal agrees it’s a dream space. “Artists and creators are often pushed out of the very neighborhoods they are intended to serve. These programs often get the ‘remainder’ spaces – those that are hard to access, dusty, poorly lit and without proper equipment,” says O’Neal, a senior lecturer for graduate program in arts administration at Boston University’s Metropolitan College. “The Foundry provides bright and well-designed spaces and equipment. Not only are they affordable and accessible, they are joyful.”

Renovated for $46 million by the city, The Foundry’s programs and property are managed by the nonprofit consortium’s six-member staff, with programming fees and event rentals covering their salaries. Donations, when ample enough, go toward providing free memberships to the makerspaces and maintaining a sliding-scale fee structure for those who teach and attend classes.

Foundry Consortium executive director Diana Navarrete-Rackauckas at the ribbon-cutting ceremony. (Photo: Tyler Motes)

Consortium staff discovered this year that more than 60 percent of people teaching classes rented space at the lower end of the sliding scale. “We’ve realized there’s a big, big need for people to have access to space that’s affordable to them without having to take on the burden of maintaining their own space,” Navarette-Rackauckas says.

The Cambridge Redevelopment Authority finds business and nonprofit tenants for the building, with rental revenue covering facility operations and maintenance. Olema Oncology became a tenant just last month. “There’s still approximately 4,000 square feet available on the third floor, available as one suite or divided up further,” Authority executive director Tom Evans says. “We’ve been talking to education organizations, startups and art organizations.”

Navarette-Rackauckas believes that allowing The Foundry to grow organically, guided by a program rubric, has yielded a “genuine investment in interaction in this space” – typically hard to pull off in just a year, she says. “The artists giving classes and the folks who use the makerspaces feel a sense of ownership over the culture that’s here, and they’re happy to lend [staff] a hand and their expertise to help it run as smoothly as possible.”

That’s not to say everything has worked itself out: A large multipurpose room designed to be flexible has all electrical outlets on the walls, which hampers hands-on workshops. (The Design Room is the only one with overhanging outlets.) The Food Lab lacks an exhaust hood and has proved too small for some culinary purposes. Lastly, the café space no longer houses a small offshoot of Vester Café. “They, as well as other operators, have indicated an interest in waiting until the office space is leased up in order to expect the foot traffic they would need,” Evans says. “We expect to keep the space for a café or other food service.”

The Foundry under construction in September 2021. (Photo: Tyler Motes)

Goals for the next 12 months? The consortium executive director says they include, along with applying for more grants, determining which infrastructure issues need more investment and which must stay a quirky feature; bringing in laptop carts to attract more tech-specific classes; finding the funding to open on Sundays; building up a group of artists to teach specific skills, especially introductory courses on sewing, weaving, jewelry making and basic furniture and woodworking skills – “classes that give people a taste, so they can decide if it’s something they want to continue doing”; spreading awareness of all makerspaces in the area, including The Hive, in Cambridge’s main public library, with some type of asset-based community network map; making the February break-week festival even bigger; and widening awareness of The Foundry through the kind of trusted influencers that consortium community manager Nikoi Coley-Ribeiro calls “community navigators.”

The focus on community, in its deeper-than-geographic sense, might be what keeps the building from being simply an expensive bulletin board of random but terrific-sounding activities. “We’re seeing community-organizing work take hold here, because people feel safe to do it,” Navarette-Rackauckas says. “Sharing with each other, learning from each other in a more formal kind of way, between individuals and organizations. That kind of work would feel at home here.”

“There are a lot of really wonderful places and beautiful facilities all throughout Cambridge. Still, some people will notice that folks don’t always show up when they hold a family night or an open lab in one of them. My encouragement is always ‘Do one here and build the trust,’” Navarette-Rackauckas says. “It’s really beautiful that this space can serve as a meeting point. One of the major values of The Foundry is being a bridge between different places.”

The next application process for holding March, April and May classes at The Foundry closes Nov. 19, with selections made Dec. 1. Information is here.