Cat Sieh, Director of Make.Shift
  • Kevin Lowdon
  • Cat Sieh, Director of Make.Shift
Make.Shift is a not-for-profit organization in Bellingham, which provides affordable and sustainable services for the city's artists and musicians. The organization runs inside of 306 Flora street, a 1920s art deco building. I recently called up Cat Sieh, the Director of Make.Shift, and talked about what the organization is up to, as well as their latest encounter from the city's fire department.

Can you explain Make.Shift as an organization?

Cat Sieh: Make.Shift is a not-for-profit organization based in Bellingham, WA, downtown. We support independent artists and musicians by providing low-cost resources to help them succeed. We do that through a variety of programs. We have a fully functional art gallery that has exhibitions every month, we participate in the downtown art walk once a month, and we host three to four live shows a month, and those are all drug and alcohol free and all ages—local bands, touring bands, the whole thing.

We also provide 16 art and music studios and have anywhere between 40-50 tenants of artists and musicians at any given time. Also, I think we have more than a dozen bands practicing here at any given time. Over 500 people come out to every art walk reception and roughly 700 kids come to our shows every month.

Wow, that sounds great. Can you give me a brief history of the current Make.Shift space?

We took over almost exactly two years ago, in 2011. Basically, beforehand, it was also an art organization called JINX Art Space. It was for-profit at that time. It was started by some art and music lovers and had art studios, a few band studios, the gallery upstairs, and only about one show a month. JINX was awesome and everyone loved it, but it was a super underground venue that was not playing by the rules. While we loved it, when we moved in we "legitimized" a lot of the space and repurposed a lot so that we could have more tenants.

We probably have twice as many tenants and bands. It was a priority to have band practice spaces and regular shows. Currently we're in a building with a lot of weird original "characteristics." We did a lot of aesthetic renovations, including the gallery, as well as put thousands of dollars into this building, which was our own money, while working with our landlord to upgrade other parts of the building. For about two years a lot of our staff members have spent a good amount of their lives in this basement—building a stage, building sound dampening, making the space more usable.

How much money has Make.Shift put into the space so far?

I think we have easily sunk somewhere around $10,000 in this building, just for initial improvements and making that basement usable.

And that doesn't even count manpower does it?

Yeah, that does not include manpower. And that also doesn't count a $5,000 gallery renovation that the landlord did. That was the landlord's money on that one. But yeah, endless hours of labor creating a space that has appropriate lighting, and spaces that are more comfortable as far as heating and basic infrastructure to keep our tenants happy.

You recently had an inspection from the fire department, correct? What brought that about?

The fire department was going door-to-door, and they do this periodically throughout Bellingham. They did a pop-in throughout the art district recently, so it was coincidental. We didn't have a neighbor call in—we're thankful for that. We work really hard with our neighbors and the surrounding businesses to be a good neighbor and to have their support.

The great news is that for a building this old, and with this many issues, they were really fair with us. But the big one that they really couldn't let pass was the downstairs exiting situation. Currently we have a 6,000 sqare foot basement with a lot of individual studios in it, and the only exits to the outside are a rollup garage door and one staircase that goes to the gallery. That's the crutch of the problem. We need to install exiting that meets fire code, so for the last month we've been working with Daylight Properties, our landlord, to figure out what that means. Daylight has been working with architects and engineers to figure out where the heck we can put an exit in this building and if that's financially viable.

In the mean time, the fire department says that there is no legal way that we can have shows until the place is up to code, but they very generously gave us six months to fix it. So the great news is that we still have a home, we're still open Tuesday-Saturday, noon to 5 pm. We still have gallery shows, and found homes to host all the shows that we had booked, so that was great.

Did the shows that were moved remain all-ages?

No, because there are no all-ages venues in Bellingham except for Western Washington University. Unfortunately a lot of those had to get moved to bars, but in the very least what we didn't want to do is cancel on a band, so the band still has the opportunity to play. But obviously it's not an ideal fix.

  • Kevin Lowdon

So what's this looking like for the future of Make.Shift in the current space?

The good news is that our landlord is interested in keeping us.

Who's going to be paying for the engineers and architects to solve the exiting problem?

Daylight Properties are going to be paying for it. In the past month they've developed a hypothetical financial exiting plan that will work around the current studios and no one will be displaced. We're hoping the city will approve it very shortly.

How has the community reacted to all of this happening?

The initial outpour was amazing, especially from the local nightlife community because our peers in the 21+ venues have been generous and offered to do benefits for us. Initially, that's what we focused on so that we can try and nip this in the butt and start raising money, because for those first two weeks we really didn't know what was going to happen or how much money needed to be raised or for what. Our tenants, families, and friends have offered labor and time, but it's a little bit more complicated this time around. It's no longer, "Hey we need to build a wall here."

Also, with our demographic of people, there was an initial panic when they heard it was fire department related. We received a lot of concerned calls from the youth wondering if we were closed or what was going to happen. It's been really helpful that the fire department is letting us continue business so that we can show them that we are still open and not shut down.

Make.Shift did a really big Kickstarter when moving in to the building to help pay for initial construction. Can we look for another campaign to start soon?

A huge part of our mission is providing that space where people of all ages can see live music, and we're not going to let that go easily. We worked really hard in the last year, doing outreach in the high schools as well as at Western, and we have a lot of high school staff, which I think is really important to keeping Make.Shift relevant to that age group. Several of our volunteers can't go to our benefit shows, they can't work the door, they can't do anything and their hands are tied. They're coming to the meetings asking What can I do? When's the next show? How are we going to make this happen? Bellingham has a vibrant enough art and music scene that there's no excuse for us to have a high quality space for kids to see live music.

To learn more about upcoming Make.Shift benefits, you can check out