Brandton Manshel of GNU on the struggles of keeping a DIY space going in Fort Collins

For nearly two years, GNU: Experience Gallery has had the distinction of being one of the few DIY spaces in Fort Collins. Housed in a basement unit of a building in the city square on Linden Street, in the Old Town section of Fort Collins, GNU was originally conceived as a collective art space, but became a de facto venue for alternative art and music. Anyone who's been there can attest to the distinctive vibe of the place, which is due in no small part to the people who keep the space running.

See also: - Best of Denver 2012: Best DIY Venue -- Fort Collins: GNU Experience Gallery - Pete Bell's Rhinoceropolis doc offers insightful look at Denver's underground - Aaron Saye of Seventh Circle Music Collective on transitioning from Blast-O-Mat

For the last two years, GNU has been ground zero for underground bands like Ty Segall, Finn Riggins and Scammers from Kansas City. This, of course, is in addition to the numerous bands from Fort Collins and Denver that have played there. Since the beginning, though, GNU has always struggled to keep its doors open. Last fall, it got some assistance from an anonymous benefactor, but today it is still figuring out various ways to keep the place going as a home to underground culture in Fort Collins. We spoke with Brandton Manshel, the guy who books the shows at GNU, about the origins of the gallery, the seemingly insurmountable obstacles of sustaining a place like GNU, and his hopes for what the space can accomplish in spite of the challenges it faces.

Westword: Why did GNU get started up in that space it occupies today?

Brandton Manshel: We replaced this place that was awesome, and we didn't want to see the space go to waste or just become some stupid T-shirt shop -- which is what tends to happen in Fort Collins. Basically, it was an art gallery with, like, twenty resident artists. They were only open on First Fridays, but they were super-popular because they were the only place that showed anything that was remotely progressive.

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It wasn't avant or anything, but people here liked it because it was totally different than the aspen trees and stuff that's normally everywhere else. So they were closing because they were throwing a temper tantrum because the fire marshal shut them down one night because they had 300 people in that spot. I don't know why they didn't try to be more open, but that was their thing.

So Tomas [Herrera] and I were kind of involved in that gallery, and we've shown there, and we knew all the people involved. We heard through the grapevine that they were going to close a couple of days before they did, so we got the lease that day with the intention of being like they were, with the exception of being open all the time.

Nobody had been involved in music before like Tomas or I. But we were like, music here basically sucks, and there's not enough interesting stuff. We figured we could do that pretty easily. I didn't know how to do it, and there are no instructions, but it's not super-hard. It sort of developed by itself through word of mouth.

A lot of people from Denver and elsewhere were looking for a place to play in Colorado more than just Denver -- especially bands from Denver; they want to play someplace other than Denver. We got to where we're at not through a lot of effort on our own -- it happened because it sort of needs to be here. The capacity is about 49, so the heat is always on, and we don't want it to be on. We want it to be in a place that's legal and do things people want us to do.

Another one of those things is to get and have a liquor license. I don't know why that's necessary in Fort Collins, and it's not something I'm a fan of, but it doesn't seem to work unless people can drink at places. I don't understand what that's all about. It seems like this town is collectively alcoholic. That's popular opinion, also; that's not just me saying that.

People think that of Denver, too. I believe Denver was declared the drunkest city in America a few years back based on all the crime statistics and so forth related to alcohol consumption.

Yeah, Colorado drinks more than other places I've been. I liked that when I first moved here. It was easygoing, and everybody's always kind of drinking beer. But then it's kind of annoying when you're trying to work. In this situation, it's distracting from the art. So since that's always such a thing and we're not allowed to do that there, the police and everybody seems moderately friendly to us up to a point, and accepting of us. But I'm sure they'd prefer it if we weren't what we are.

We don't have any money and only started with enough money for rent and to try to discover what we can do. But now there's this kind of expectation of keeping the music scene going in Fort Collins. Everybody likes it, and everybody is sad if we say that we're going, and they want to help out, but there's nothing they could do but donate money or something, because we don't have enough money to hire employees, or getting a liquor license. We only have enough money to host shows.

The space is so small that we've never been able to save any more or do anything other than pay rent. We tried to move to another location in Old Town, but rent is pretty much double when you move upstairs, so that's what kept us from doing that. On the positive side, one of the reasons we were trying to raise money is because Sarah [Miller] and I want to move to San Diego, and everybody wants GNU to stay in Fort Collins, so we're trying to come up with some sort of solution where we can manage it from San Diego. We have people to volunteer to run it, but nobody to take on the lease.

Rhino, for instance, seems to have a lot more dedicated volunteers. We don't have many people that really understand the "DIY" ethic in Fort Collins. So we're trying to get money to try to employ somebody. We want to do more event-style stuff, like what happened with that Rhino show here. Less concerts and more events. As an organization, we want to start booking and band-managing, from Fort Collins to San Diego and Seattle -- kind of like what I assume Hot Congress and Vinefield are trying to do.

We just want to route DIY shows for bands and artists and do what we do, but at places that are more established and DIY-friendly, so we've been working to create a master contact list. If we close, whenever that will ultimately be, we will keep doing that. And we would like to raise money to finance a new, larger spot. Hopefully it will be in Fort Collins, as well as wherever we are.

All the bands up here, they typically book their own tours. So we've been running some promotional stuff ahead of time. We've got some bands to sign up with us to try to run some experimental tours, like Otem Rellik, Sour Boy Bitter Girl and Elway. We'll see if that works or not. Hopefully it does, and that gives us enough money to stay here. I hate to say that it all just comes down to cash, but that's America.

It's also just kind of a bummer that Fort Collins, for the most part, doesn't really support the DIY scene. They didn't know they were missing it, and now that we're there, there's a solid group of people that really like it. I'm not just super-positive about it. You've been here a bunch of times, and it's not just an art place, or an avant or modern or progressive anything. It wants to be, and it sort of looks like it is, but it's not.

Our Lyric Cinema is a small movie theater; it has two theaters, did a Kickstarter campaign because they have to buy digital projectors -- you have to do that, because the movies they want aren't going to be available on film anymore. So they had to raise $150,000 to get these projectors. Everybody loves that place until it comes down to paying for something, and then they don't really love it that much. After a short amount of time, they would drink a bunch of beer and forget about it.

That's been the legacy of Fort Collins. The Alley House has been here, and other places people have tried to do, and it's been the same story, really. It's a cool idea, but nobody will come to see out-of-town bands. For the Rhino show, pretty much, you guys brought everybody there -- almost everyone there was from Denver. That's whack. When you have really cool stuff from out of town, like when we've had Speedy Ortiz, Atomic Mama, Finn Riggins all the same week, it has been so poorly attended. It sucks. Those bands are awesome, right? Headlining or pretty big at the UMS. People are really out of touch with that here. That means nothing to them. The UMS is not something most people in Fort Collins even know about.

It hasn't always quite been like that.

I hear it comes in waves. If that's true, we're at the bottom of the wave right now.


Talking to Brett Schreiber about that, he said that when there's an active group of people there, it's pretty good. Maybe that's not the case at the moment.

Yeah, it's just basically Brett and four of us. It's pretty crappy. I hate to talk shit about it, and I like it here and everybody is cool and everything. The general "don't-care-about-it" attitude just sort of kills the scene. I don't know what it is. None of this works here, and there's not a good reason why. I hear from a lot of people that we're super-popular in theory or up and down and all over out of town.

The dodiy.org thing sends us so many things like bands from Brooklyn, Canada, Australia, Finland, so it's not hard to get big on the Internet. That's where we're at. If you have an effective Facebook thing going on, you can make anything look like it's popular. When it comes down to it, when Finn Riggins comes to play and only ten people come out, you can't think you're that popular.

Are there some physical challenges to occupying that space? What happened with that flooding over this past summer?

It's the oldest building in town, and they rented it to us without telling us that every time it rains, it floods. That time was the worst flood. Every time it rains, it floods, and it flooded the entire gallery. It was a huge pain in the ass. We had to cancel three shows, and it's just a consequence of being in a shitty place. So that put us in a situation of raising a shit ton of money so that we can move out and keep doing what we do or turn into something else and get funding from somewhere else or from someone who can turn it into something else. We're just in a situation where there's no possibility that it can stay the same.

If you do move, you want someone to keep the GNU going somewhere in Fort Collins, if not necessarily in the same space?

The possibilities are pretty limitless with the space. But it can't be like it was for a while, where it was like five shows a week. Basically there need to be more artists in this town interested in this situation. We just have a bunch of aspiring fine artists, and there's no street art or much of anything interesting. If there was that, then I could imagine a bunch of people renting out spots in the gallery, as we originally intended it to be, and having bigger events there less often.

Then that would not be a problem and would pay for itself. Or a combination of a few shows and a few more renters. The rent there is only about thirteen hundred a month, so it's not unattainable. It would be easy if there were ten people who wanted to be involved, but so far our callouts for those people have gone unanswered. I don't know why.

It is a cool thing, and it is underappreciated here, and people don't know what to do with it. I've seen other places do wackier stuff with greater ease. Like the entire city of Olympia, Washington, is just a crazy gallery, and they all get it. In Washington, where I came from, I ran a co-op commune farm, and I was a manager at an actual food co-op. People came out of the woodwork to volunteer for that stuff.

When Sarah and I moved here in order to buy and have a farm and farm here, we just expected it to sort of be like it was there because Fort Collins sort of seemed like that on the surface. But we found the same thing when we were farming. We were farming for two and a half years or more, and it was tough to get people to volunteer to help us even to trade for vegetables or anything.

Same thing with this: You can come to all the shows you want for free. You can meet the bands and drink beer and hang out with us. People joke about it that they just hang out at Surfside 7, no matter what, and then complain that nothing's going on when stuff is going on. I know that Rhino has stayed around for so long because the people that live there have jobs. I want to do this in a professional way, I guess, as a job.

The only way I can see it working out in Fort Collins is if you make it related to alcohol, which is unfortunate and stupid. But that basically means you don't make it DIY friendly, and the all-ages thing goes out the window. They don't know what they're missing. When you ask them, they care about it -- and for two seconds when they see your Kickstarter video. But it's quickly forgotten.

I don't mean to make it sound like a sad story, because we have plans for other stuff, and we want to be involved in the scene that I think will be more effective and get us to where we can have a bigger, better spot. It's not the spot that makes it anything. I like Sara Century, so I'm always going to book Sara Century. It doesn't matter if I own the Aggie or not, that's the stuff we like, and we'll still have it. But where we're at the point where no one is helping us out with this spot, and we're in an impossible predicament unless we have a bunch of money. Since we don't, that's it.

So our fundraising still goes on, and our "brand" is still kicking, but we'll be in that spot until we can figure something out. So the fundraising is basically to finance our next big thing. Depending on how much money we're able to get, we want a new spot, and it will take thousands of dollars. If we want to do this booking thing and band-management thing, it won't take as much. We have options, and you can rent out the Goodwill building, which is bigger and you can have 300 people in it, for a hundred dollars a night. So if we have to close down, we can still do shows down the block. There you go: plan B.

It can't just be just a venue. That's not even going to work all by itself. We're missing some crucial components in Fort Collins. We have a venue, [but] we don't have promotion and marketing and constant exposure. We don't have an easy way to get here. We don't have places to stay when bands come. We don't have a bunch of stuff you need. Maybe we jumped the gun, but it was accidental.

It's not one particular problem, but maybe somebody needs to come up with the answers to what you need to have an effective DIY scene in any place. I guess that's what we're trying to do. I want to involve musicians, artists and the community to have fun, new experiences. That can be anywhere. So GNU is an experience creation machine. That's what we want to be. We're not married to this spot. We want to make things happen that are cool wherever.

So where does the name come from?

It's just a clever play on words. A gnu is an animal -- a wildebeest. The used to call the Gallery Underground "GU," so we were just like, "Ha ha, let's just add an 'N' and ride their wave of alliteration." It was just sort of an inside joke. But it really confused the shit out of a lot of people. Practically no one knows what a gnu is. It's just a play on words, like something "new" to do. Not too clever, but it's confounded some people nonetheless.

Where do you stand now?

All things considered, the world has conspired to do us good, and we hope to continue chugging along just like that this next year. We'll be attempting to renovate and to open a bar in the back, improve our sound system and get some new decor and hire a couple of people, all of which we are really stoked on. Of course we still want to try to remain whatever it is that people like about us now. We, just also, hopefully, will attract some of the people who need that sort of liquid encouragement and swagger that we don't currently offer, the persuasion they need to get involved with the underground Fort Collins art scene. You know -- a compromise.

We're looking for $30,000 to make these improvements. A paltry sum when you think of how much goes into some other things. This money will do all that for us and keep us going for a whole year with no worries! We hope people see the value in what we're cookin' and donate what they can.

What? No Kickstarter?

That costs too much money. Sort of defeats the purpose, so we're just doing it the old-fashioned PayPal way.

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