Between Front and Broad street on Sixth, a handful of businesses create an isosceles triangle of industrial creativity that contributes to downtown Boise's arts culture. They aren't typical art galleries and though they welcome walk-ins, most of their business comes via word-of-mouth and referrals. On the whole, the products that come out of these companies are special ordered or come out at regular intervals. This creative enclave includes Classic Design Studio, Rocket Neon and Boise Art Glass in the Ming Studios building; North by Northwest Productions; and Boise Weekly. Encircled by Boise Art Museum and The Flicks to the north, Ballet Idaho, Boise Contemporary Theater, Trey McIntyre Project to the northeast and BoDo's AIR program to the east, these Sixth Street businesses are an integral part of what is naturally turning into a vibrant downtown arts district.
Classic Design Studio creates signs, awnings and architectural details that help define a business. When a restaurant or store opens or remodels, Classic Design is often called upon to fashion the shingle the business will hang, a visual that helps brand a place and that may also entice potential visitors inside.
Fire and police personnel who now work at the new City Hall West are greeted each day by iconic images and faces of their predecessors set in stone, a job awarded to Classic Design by the city's Department of Arts and History.
Classic Design is a family-run business, one that has been a part of Noel Weber Jr.'s life and the Boise landscape for a long time. Weber's mother and father moved into their small steep-roofed, brick building on Sixth Street in the late '80s. They slowly expanded until they occupied the two adjoining buildings, including the large garage that used to house Ming Auto Body. The hodgepodge of architecture outside reflects the myriad processes that go on inside working with materials from glass to concrete and using methods from hand-carving to machining molds. The business's location downtown is not by accident.
"When we moved into the building in '87 or '88, we intentionally looked downtown for the building," Weber said. They wanted to be a part of and help foster downtown's growth and successes. Being located downtown affords a sense of credibility in the eyes of other downtowners, and also may appeal to companies outside the grid looking for a business to provide a modern, urban product. Weber believes that being located downtown is a key to their longevity, in part due to their visibility to the hundreds of pedestrians and cars that pass by on any given day.
"I think one of the big advantages of being in a downtown location is people walk by and they'll stop in and see new and different things we're doing," Weber said. "To be able to give someone a tour of new projects, it's nice and kind of inspiring to see people's reactions and to get to interact with them. I think having a studio in a far off place would be so isolating."
Wil Kirkman is also a part of the downtown vibe. He owns and operates Rocket Neon which is housed in the big Ming Studios building and said his inspiration is less about the geography and more about the people who live and work around here. He agreed that this area could easily become an acknowledged arts district; it just can't be forced.
"Areas like Hidden Springs and Bown Crossing didn't happen organically," Kirkman said. "So they're too artificial"
Filip Vogelpohl, owner of Boise Art Glass, said he does think working downtown is vital to the kind of work he does, and that both his surroundings and the people around him contribute to his work.
"I had a retail store for three and a half years on Orchard by the freeway. It sucked," Vogelpohl said. "I did OK, but nothing like I do down here."
It's beneficial for Vogelpohl to be near like-minded artists and craftsmen and to be in a location where the public has easy access to him.
"It's nice to turn to [Weber] and say, 'Hey, what do you think?' and work out a problem together," he said. "Plus, this is one of the stops for the trolley on First Thursdays. That's amazing."
Boise Weekly owner and publisher Sally Freeman also believes that working downtown makes a difference in how the public perceives the paper and, in turn, the kind of product the Boise Weekly has become.
It had always been important to her to own the building BW occupied for viability and sustainability. Though she looked at places in other areas of town, she kept her eyes out for available property downtown.
"It's critical to be downtown," Freeman said. "It's a matter of credibility and perception ... and as part of the re-branding when we bought Boise Weekly, I felt like a really strong storefront presence was important." She also felt that presence would have less of an effect in one of the outlying areas of town and believed that places like Classic Design and NXNW would foster creativity in her business.
North By Northwest Productions was already on Sixth and Broad streets when Freeman and Boise Weekly moved in. The firm was founded in Spokane in 1990 and opened a Boise branch in Boise in 1993. Because they don't have a strong storefront presence, many people don't know what goes on in the building that used to be a John Deere dealership, but when you see or hear an Idaho Lottery or a Peterson Toyota commercial, it was likely produced at NXNW.
They take a creative idea from an ad agency and turn it into a viable product, something general manager Shane Jibben described as "visualization to picturalization."
Jibben said being located downtown definitely influences how his employees feel about their jobs and about how, as a team, they work.
Every Monday, Jibben puts together a list of lunches for the week. He walks to Winco to do the shopping, and then prepares lunch for his employees each day. Often times after lunch, several of them walk over to Julia Davis Park for a little exercise before heading back to work. One of his employees is learning to play the cello and brings the instrument to work so that he can practice during downtime. Jibben said if NXNW was located in a different part of town, much of what makes it a comfortable, low-key environment would be lost.
Though what the businesses on this block do may not be traditional art, whether it's making a commercial, putting out a newspaper, or manufacturing a store sign, the people who make these products are a creative, artistic bunch and believe their environment only serves to better their work. As Boise grows in size and scope, arts and cultural districts should begin to form like clusters of wildflowers. In the little triangle of commerce on Sixth between Broad and Front, we're already pointing our faces toward the sun.