VILNIUS - Behind the gates of a defunct, Soviet-era printing factory, piles of dirt, gaping pits and a stack of metal pipes occupy the courtyard. Members of a construction crew are busily going in and out of a three-story building.
At the main entrance to the hallway a whiff of dust lingers and an open door reveals a large, empty performance space.
Inside, the only light comes from a standing lamp in the center of the room. It strikes an eerie glow against the signature black stage paint covering the high walls and ceiling.
In the months ahead, the dozens of rooms in this vast industrial complex will be filled with music, dance and the sounds of applause for aspiring independent Lithuanian artists.
This building site on Siltadarzio Street is the future home of the Arts Printing House, a one-of-a-kind art center that aims to give budding performers a boost by providing, among other things, a viable place to work.
Despite ongoing construction and the lack of an interior design contract, the staff members are moving to their new office spaces in October. In the next two months, they'll send out a call for applications from artists who want to use the space. Some artists have already expressed an interest.
"I think it's the only place for young choreographers to have dancers start out. It's truly amazing," said Gita Strikyte, a manager for contemporary dancer Loreta Juodkaite. "We don't have contemporary dance schools and venues to rehearse [in Vilnius]."
Strikyte said Juodkaite wants to work with professional dancers and become an in-house resident at the building. She also said the Arts Printing House could become a kind of focal point that motivates dancers to stay committed to working together in one place.
Percussionist Tomas Dobrovolskis of the Jazz Musicians' Association has experienced the same lack of available venues for his performances. He said that currently the only place he and his peers can perform in Vilnius is the Neringa Cafe, and he's counting on the Arts Printing House to fill the void.
"We need a place right now. It's a great idea and we're waiting and waiting [for the opening]," he said. "It will be a possibility to join creative forces together and share ideas."
"There is no other multi-functional art center occupying a post-industrial space in Lithuania," said Arts Printing House spokeswoman Kristina Savickiene. "This is a one-of-a-kind pilot project."
While this project itself is certainly unique, the idea of using industrial space for performance art is nothing new. Because modern dance, like other forms of modern art, was officially discouraged by the Soviet government, performers were not provided with stages or rehearsal space. Many groups ended up converting factories, slaughterhouses, warehouses and dairies into underground hangouts that showcased various projects.
Similarly, here in Vilnius, performing arts groups and individuals had been using this broken-down factory at Maririonio and Siltadarzio for years without the proper legal permission. In 2002, the state-owned property was given over to the city government, who leased out 3,800 square meters of the complex to the Arts Printing House. The non-profit organization has already been making headlines of late by facilitating various performing arts and educational projects.
In 2003, with 2.5 million litas in financing from EU structural funds and the city government, the Arts Printing House began construction.
Now several rooms are near completion with newly installed windows and electrical fixtures.
There are three main performance spaces. The largest one, located behind the back of the courtyard, offers 200 seats, the smallest, 60 seats.
Savickiene said one of the main concerns is providing proper equipment, including professional dance floors, stage lighting and seating.
"We want it [the performance space] to be as modern as possible," she said, expressing the hope that stars from abroad would also eventually perform here.
The center will have a cafe, a cinema, a reception hall and a downstairs lounge for make-up and costume rooms.
Another important feature of the facility will be an information center where computers, reading material, videos and DVDs will help visitors learn more about the performing arts world.
For the budding performers themselves though, the key issue will still be the availability of an affordable place to work.
"The prices for artists will be very favorable and nowhere close to the commercial market prices," Savickiene said.
Space will be rented out in three ways: for in-house residencies, as temporary spaces for independent artists, and for commercial use for special conferences and events.
The business of art
Beyond providing cheap space, the Arts Printing House will support the aspiring young artists by giving them public relations skills and the know-how for organizing projects, Savickiene said.
"It's similar to the business world," she said. "Young professionals who [initially] don't have the appropriate training and resources learn how to start making a profit. For us, we expect them to gain revenue from box office sales to sustain themselves. We're here to coach them in cultural management."
If everything goes according to plan, Savickene said, the performers will eventually become successful in their box office sales and will become self-supporting. Then the Arts Printing House can go on to help more emerging artists.
This kind of art incubator, it's hoped, will be a boon to Lithuania's cultural world.
In any case, the Arts Printing House is a name Vilnius residents will want to remember. It's poised to become a prime destination for those who want to see the cutting edge of the nation's performing arts scene.