Hunter Helmstaedter on co-working and Massif Studio's Creative Industry Night

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As a photography student at the Art Institute of Colorado transitioning into more professional work, Hunter Helmstaedter realized he needed more than the school's studio space to carry out his projects -- and a lot of his fellow students were in the same predicament. Inspired by the creative co-working business model of spaces like Battery621, Helmstaedter decided to open Massif Studios, at 2191 South Broadway, as the first Denver co-working space with a specific focus on video and photography. Clients can purchase memberships or pay by the day or hour to rent out space in the 12,000 foot warehouse, which holds ten custom-built studios. From 4 to 10 p.m. today, Massif will open its doors to the public for a Creative Industry Night filled with live music and art, food, drink and a silent auction to benefit charities chosen by the artists; tickets are $10 or $35 VIP. In advance of the party, we caught up with Helmstaedter to talk about Massif's mission and the new model of creative co-working.

See also: The Studio builds individual work spaces and a community atmosphere in Boulder

Westword:What exactly does Massif Studios do?

Hunter Helmstaedter: The word "massif" comes from a mountaineering term. Mount Evans is our most famous massif, and everyone knows the peak of Mount Evans, but really it's made up of about sixteen different mountains and different geoforms, so the idea was that we're a media massif. We've got all these different artists in our space who really make up what we are and what we do, and the space itself is what we lease to artists. The way we do that is through co-working, which seems to be the way commercial business is going, especially with freelancers and remote workers. People are paying a low monthly fee, similar to joining a gym, and they can come in and use the facilities 24/7.

What made you want to open the studio space up to artists?

This building was built in 1951 as a grocery store and then was this leftover, vacant warehouse that my family furniture store -- I'm a fourth generation of EMW Carpets & Furniture -- was using just to store carpet and different things, and as it came into about 2007 the property taxes were going way up on the building so it became sort of unrealistic to warehouse on Broadway. I was going to school at the Art Institute at the time and was leasing space by the day to take photos -- I do a lot of catalogue photography and portraits -- and I would lease by the day, $20 here and there, and take up a small portion of the warehouse. I started inviting other students from the Art Institute down, especially some of the senior-year students who were making the transition from a college student to a professional making money, and once you crossed the line from the studios we had at the school, they were very limiting. They were at the top story of a ten-story building and so everything you shot had to go up an elevator, so it was just very limiting. It was great for education, but once students really started making that transition into a professional career they needed a little bit more to choose from. And that was my original motivation to get this going.

I saw a huge market for freelancers and remote workers, sort of that transition professional, especially with the change in digital cameras now becoming more affordable. I feel like there's more and more freelancers doing photography and I've seen and worked in a lot of co-working businesses like the Battery building on Santa Fe, where they have that co-working idea, different creative businesses sharing space, and I really was attracted to the energy that would go on in a building like that. You get the artists always stimulating your creativity with feedback or criticism, positive and negative. It's something that most people will relate to.

What makes Massif different from other co-working spaces?

We wanted to create the first photo/video/audio-specific co-working studio. Most of the studio spaces in Denver and co-working businesses focus on office space and desk space and then they might have a very small studio space and it's generally very limiting, it's tiny. We wanted to create something for the photographers and for the videographers. So we have some office space here and some open space, but we really focused on creating a large, flexible warehouse that has all the different basic photo studios built in. So we have the blue screen, we have the cyclorama, we have great south-facing window light and a ton of open space as well as a kitchen, lounge, conference/meeting area, gallery and a really unique storage locker system. Our clients come in and they sign up for membership and they pay for a locker and that gives them 24-hour access. They get their own key to the building, their own alarm access, so they become an entity of the studio and have that space to represent themselves. And some of our memberships are as low as $125 a month and we have a 12,000 square-foot warehouse, so you can really see how that transition freelancer who generally was working in their basement studio and meeting in coffee shops can come in at a nice affordable rate and really have a professional venue to showcase their work.

On the other end of that, even the most high-end groups -- photographers, huge production companies -- can really utilize the space for what it is and they can rent even more than one day at a time and do large photo shoots and video shoots and really handle a full-fledged agency's video work and photo work. We're really proud of what we've done. We opened up in June so it's been about six or seven months, and we're basically on the transition now getting over that hump to where we'll be approaching our profit margin soon. We're very excited for that, and this event that we're doing is really about kicking it off, bringing the contacts and resources that we've come in connection with over the last six months of business, and really bringing them all together at one day and opening the studio to everyone we can.

What are the benefits for artists of working in a collaborative space?

I think the biggest strength of working in a collaborative space is being surrounded by other creative professionals who can stimulate your creativity and give you feedback on your work if you ask for it. In school you grow very quickly. You have teachers and peers really criticizing your work, and once you graduate and you're on your own I feel like there's a good two years where you don't have any creative stimulus and you don't grow at all, and that's really common. I feel like all my members have said the same thing, where if you get in your own studio and do your own thing you're going to get in your head and go one direction, whereas if you're surrounded by other creatives, even if they're not in direct competition with you but they are just there to give you feedback, you can really push yourself to grow faster.

And then, obviously, the financial benefit would be our members don't worry about insuring the building and paying utility bills and marketing this and all those cleaning bills that come with the overhead of owning a building. They pay their monthly fee like joining a gym and they come in and do their work and kind of clean up a little after themselves and that's it. They don't have to worry about the stresses of what it takes to actually run a building. So when you split that amongst other artists it can make it more feasible to actually get a creative space to do what you want to do.

Co-working is our theme here. You get these artists building relationships with one another. So, for example, I was always a catalogue photographer. I had a client come to me and say they needed a catalogue, they also needed a video, and in fact they needed a whole website and design for everything. I was able to go into Massif and amongst the other members I could approach and say, hey, I've got this job I'm bidding on and I need a graphic designer or hey, I need two video guys from this group of people. I was able to assemble a team and really go for a project that I would have never had a chance on even bidding on on my own. But I was able to assemble a team that honestly was the equivalent of a full-blown agency. We had graphic designers, web guys, video guys, audio, myself as photo, and even a plethora of interns and assistants. It was really cool, because it saved the client a lot of money because they're not paying this huge agency overhead fee. They really can come into this space and feel out the artists who are here and put something together themselves from what they see.

What do you have planned for the Creative Industry Night?

We're partnering with Westword and the Colorado Ski History Museum to put on this Creative Industry Night, which is a celebration of creative professionalism, specifically in Colorado. We're inviting a lot of artists from different media, specifically painters, sculptors, photography, video, audio, even performance and culinary to come in and display what it is they do, either via a gallery display or a live demo. So there's gonna be some high-fashion live makeup artist demos and styling demos and lots of food and drink. The whole idea behind it is to break down the barriers and get all these artists and creative professionals from all the different media under one roof and just have that variety be really the theme of the event. What you generally see at a gallery opening is clearly focused on one body of work or a specific genre. We really wanted to go the exact opposite. We're just opening up the studio and showcasing the space that we have to offer and just how versatile it really is.

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