Ogden • Thaine Fischer walked into a 90-year-old parking garage, and what he saw surprised him.
“Besides all the pigeons and broken windows, it was the natural light,” said Fischer, managing partner of The Monarch, the newly opened artists’ center and events venue in downtown Ogden. “This had all these windows, old barrel roofs, an incredible architectural style. I was just blown away by that.”
The Monarch — which opened in November in what was once a 200-stall covered parking structure for the nearby Bigelow Hotel — is now the center of what Fischer, Ogden artists and civic leaders hope will be a bustling creative district, adding luster to a city that long has fought a reputation for crime and urban squalor.
“We have to shake this whole thing that Ogden always had,” said Jane Font, a painter and YouTuber who is renting one of the 40 studio spaces in The Monarch. Font cited how someone posted an article about the district on Facebook, “and someone scoffed, ‘Oh, Ogden has a creative district? I thought they were called crack houses.’”
Pop artist Chuck Bodily said Ogden’s history may explain why it’s a nurturing place for artists.
“Because it was built up around the railroad, as opposed to just a Mormon outpost, it’s got a little bit more diversity,” Bodily said. “It’s very open-minded to creative pursuits.”
Transplants — like Bodily, who moved to Ogden from Cedar City — say it took them a little time to feel part of Ogden’s arts community.
“When I first came, 25th Street was sort of sparse and empty,” said Eleanor Thorp, a Bachelor of Fine Arts student at Weber State University in Ogden. “I think businesses have begun to flourish more and more on 25th Street. They’ve started to get gentrified, and make it more comfortable for visitors.”
Kelly Carper, a freelance writer and publicist (who counts The Monarch among her clients), moved to Ogden two years ago from Santa Fe, N.M., which has a thriving art scene. She said, “I wasn’t overly excited by it when I first got here. I had to get involved, and see the people behind the scenes that were working to make it happen.”
Even before The Monarch’s opening, efforts were being made to develop an arts scene downtown. In 2013, Font co-founded Pandemonium, an art gallery and gathering place on 25th Street. Before that, she said, “the scene was relegated to a couple theaters and a couple of art galleries.”
Unlike Salt Lake City and Park City, “there were not a lot of places for people to connect” among Weber County’s artists, Font said. Pandemonium provided such a place. The gallery focused on nontraditional art — abstracts over landscapes — and “darker, stranger stuff,” Font said.
The approach drew a crowd. “Those artists seemed to seek me out,” said Font. But the magic was short-lived: Font sold her share of Pandemonium to her partner in 2017 to concentrate on her other career, creating the “Painting With Jane” YouTube tutorial series, which now has nearly a quarter-million subscribers. The gallery closed in 2018.
Jake McIntire, whose firm Union Creative Agency consults Utah cities in developing arts venues, said that in Ogden, “there were not enough places for our creative community to gather. Spaces like [The Monarch] give visibility to what already exists, to gather, connect and be seen.”
McIntire’s firm helped push Ogden’s city council to approve, unanimously, development of the Nine Rails creative district, an ambitious effort to tie together arts and culture venues in downtown Ogden.
The effort, McIntire said, “created a strong common vision that people could see themselves in.”
The city supports development of the Nine Rails district through its Arts and Culture Master Plan. In the fiscal year 2020 budget, the Ogden City Council added $100,000 in arts grants, in addition to $200,000 for capital improvements — with the money all coming, after a council decision in June, from lease revenue from the city’s major industrial park, Business Depot Ogden.
The Nine Rails district runs more than four blocks west to east, from Grant Avenue to Madison Avenue, between 24th and 26th streets, with historic 25th Street as the spine. The area spans from Peery’s Egyptian Theatre and Ogden Amphitheater — home of the ever-expanding Ogden Twilight Concert Series in the summer — to the Eccles Art Center and the Weber County Library.
CRAFT LAKE CITY IN OGDEN
Craft Lake City presents its first Holiday Market, with handmade gifts, vintage vendors, craft foodies and Santa. Roosters Brewing Co. and Five Wives Vodka will serve their latest offerings at a cash bar.
Where • The Monarch, 455 25th St., Ogden
When • Saturday, Dec. 7, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Admission • $5; free for kids 12 and under; tickets available at craftlakecity.com/holiday-market
At the center of the zone, what officials call the “creative intensive” section, are The Monarch and The Argo House, a refurbished Victorian home that opened in September 2018 as a “design colony.” It’s the headquarters of a design firm, a photographer’s studio, McIntire’s firm and other creative businesses.
The arts are an established economic driver for communities, said Scott Sprenger, dean of arts and humanities at Weber State University.
“I know that scouts for companies that want to relocate, they come in and do an evaluation of the arts scene,” Sprenger said. “If there’s not performing arts or visual arts venues, then it’s not going to be as interesting to them. It’s part of their calculus.”
Beyond the money, though, Sprenger said, “arts inspire people. If you’re just thinking of just practical or utilitarian terms, there’s no soul in a city.”
Fischer, the developer of The Monarch, said, “We’ve never found an arts district in America that’s failed, ever. The only failure is that they get so successful that the people who started them get kicked out.”
The Monarch boasts 40 artists’ studio spaces, now filled by painters, quilters and sculptors, among others. Sara Austin sells prints of her drawings from her space in The Monarch, and she creates new art there.
“It’s been a great motivator, to put myself out there,” Austin said. “I also see other people’s art and get inspiration from their creativity. … It’s nice to have a designated place to create. It’s also nice to have people come through, and seeing your stuff, and getting exposed in that way.”
Font was in a creative slump — “I lost my art,” she said — before, “as a last-ditch effort to keep being an artist,” she applied for a space at The Monarch.
“Within the first month that I moved in, I just felt so inspired, and I was there every single day — sometimes at 6 o’clock in the morning,” Font said. “In that time, I created probably twice as many paintings in one month than I had in the previous six months combined.”
The Monarch also is home to Art Box, a combination of gift shop and candle-making workshop, and WB’s, a coffee house and wine bar launched by restaurateur Amy Britt, proprietor of Utah’s three Pig & a Jelly Jar cafes. (Carper, through her pop-up gallery business, Carper Contemporary, provides art for WB’s walls, and sets up exhibitions in The Argo House’s space.)
“I feel like [Ogden is] really on the cusp of something great, especially in its arts community,” said Angela Brown, editor and publisher of SLUG magazine and founder of Craft Lake City. “There are more creatives investing in their community here, and so we want to be a part of that.”
That sense of promise is propelling not only The Monarch, but Ogden’s arts community at large.
As Carper said, “There’s so much a feeling that you’re on the ground level of something that can really become something great.”