Space, the Final Frontier: Sokoloff Is On To Something Big

With 750,000 artists and audiences expected, she has the vision of a town. Call it "Town Stages."

Town Stages CEO Robin Sokoloff. Photo: Michael Kushner.

Robin Sokoloff doesn’t wait. The NYC-based executive director-dancer-choreographer-producer needed a space for her own performances and for those of her friends — many of them women and minorities. She has built not one, but two venues, utilized by thousands of people in the arts. And with her second space, she may be on the verge of redefining the business model for creating new work.

Sokoloff is a serious multi-hyphenate. The show she produced in Times Square, Spotlight Live, ran for two years and garnered press from national outlets (Good Morning America) and local ones (Fox 5 News). She also produced for Multi Image Group, the cutting-edge event company. Armed with a sociology degree from New York University and much artistic training, she apprenticed in a public skills-training program called NEW: Non-Traditional Employment for Women, which earned her a spot in The United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, Local 157. “This was my curvy, wandering path to being a space-maker,” she explains. “I built roadways and a building so I could learn how to best build an all-inclusive home for me and my collaborators.” An enthusiastic volunteer, she’s certified as a rape crisis counselor in New York. And she’s a “sanctioned athlete” with the US Figure Skating Association.

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As Sokoloff notes, her year-long experience as a carpenter helped her to build Loft227, the Chelsea space that she operated from 2012 until October of last year. She estimates that some 70,000 artists passed through it in those years. The problem was, at only 74 seats, both Sokoloff and her rental clients outgrew it. “We’d get projects that needed 150, 200, 225 seats. We were saying ‘no’ all the time, and people were still emailing and calling and asking ‘Are you sure we can’t fit?’ There is no actual way for an artist to get beyond a 74-seat space to Broadway. There’s no in-between anymore.”

Maybe now there is. Inspired by the success of Loft227, Sokoloff and her team created the Sokoloff Arts Foundation — and then spent two years running a capital campaign that involved “a small but mighty group of supporters dedicated to our expansion.”

It was a space hunt that took time and fortitude: Sokoloff claims she heard “298 no’s” until a single yes was found. But found it was — at 221 West Broadway in Tribeca, in an empty space owned by a nonprofit cultural organization. “I was scared to move downtown, but it is quite convenient: we’re off every single train line right at Canal Street,” she says. “It’s a gorgeous dual storefront — two stories, absolutely glamorous. I think it was waiting for us.” Formerly in the building was a restaurant. Given the recent relaxing of NYC’s cabaret laws, Sokoloff hopes that getting all required licenses for the space (including to serve alcohol) will be easier than is typical in a highly bureaucratized city.

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The new space is Town Stages. Picture multiple event spaces — and all rights available for naming. “We’ve got six gorgeous spaces and we’d love to see a lady-boss name on one of those spaces — or a person of color,” Sokoloff explains. “That would be a big paradigm shift in the community, to find the people who want to blaze a new path.”

The business model for Town Stages also won’t hold to common practice: it will be neither a membership organization nor one-price-suits-everyone. And even though Sokoloff Arts is a nonprofit organization, it won’t apply for every possible grant: “There are often strings attached to [foundation] money. If you’re going to solve the problem of representation, where the money comes from matters.” Instead, Sokoloff offers a promise:

The more Town Stages rents at a profit, the more we ease the financial burden of making work for those under our umbrella.

And so, Town Stages will be available for many conceivable purposes, from workshops and fundraisers to concerts and performances. Cognizant of how each dollar fits the mission — to help underrepresented artists — different rates will apply to different constituencies. “We will book a Citibank event for full price and then do our best to subsidize an independent artist,” Sokoloff says. “We’re like Robin Hood. We’re redistributing wealth.”

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You can therefore expect to see and hear more underrepresented voices at Town Stages — and for them to feel safe and supported. “We will see close to 750,000 people in and out of our doors over the next 10 to 15 years,” Sokoloff predicts. “We’ll create tens of thousands of jobs for local artists, business people, event makers, curators. A hub like this is an economy unto itself. We are supporting organizations that care about mental health, about domestic violence and sexual assault, about neurological disorders. We know there’s only good to be gained within our space.”

To that end, Town Stages recently announced an inaugural fellowship program for artists. “The idea, as an artist, is to create something unique. If you’re an artist and a creator and trying [to work] another way, that’s what we do here. My hope is that people keep coming on board and trying another way.”

Called “part residency, part incubator, and part home base,” the first fellowship cohort will spotlight individuals, companies and collaborators, including: Jessica Anderson (with Stefanie Izzo, Alex Kocheva, Amy Stewart and the Astoria Music Project); Caps Lock Theatre (Mariah MacCarthy, Melissa Lusk and Leta Tremblay); Joanna Carpenter and Matt Cox (with Kristin McCarthy Parker, Stephen Stout and Colin Waitt); Ephrat Asherie Dance; Esperance Theater Company (Katie Hartke, Charlie Murphy and Ryan Quinn); Jono Freedrix; Jason Jacobs; Matthew Jellison; Christine Toy Johnson; Hyeyoung Kim and Shoshana Greenberg; Steven Kopp; Yan Li; Made with Sass (Samantha Slater); Jessie Mahon; MAWU; MelimelL Digital Art Design; Rebecca Odorisio; Pocket Universe (Alyssa May Gold); Charlotte Purser; Richard Pictures Presents (David Hilder and Dan McCoy); Ripening (Vanessa Walters and Brian Gonzalez aka Taxiplasm); Andy Scott; Shallow Graves (Jenny Lester and Juliana Jurenas); Crystal Skillman; The Long Table (David Loewy, Noah Reece, Greg Taubman and Jocelyn Vammer); The Rigano Songbook (David and Paul Rigano); and Jamila Youngstedt.

Sokoloff doesn’t wait — for someone else to make things better for artists. She’s adamant that everyone in her orbit possess the same sense of openness and collaboration. “The only way for women to take up more space is for women to make space for other women, like literally and figuratively. There are plenty of places for people with unlimited resources. And everyone’s the same color. And we’re not that place.”