Growing Fort Wayne's creative community from the inside out

When Jon Brown looks at the walkable streets and quaint shops of East State Village, he sees a part of the city with potential to grow into a cultural district similar to Mass Ave or Fountain Square in Indianapolis.

When he looks at Fort Wayne, in general, he sees local artists and musicians who give the city character and have the potential to take it to the next level.

Now, he's bringing both of these visions together in his daily work.

As the owner of a shop and creative space called Collective State at 1321 E. State Blvd., Brown curates local art and music in a one-stop retail location. 

Northeast resident Jon Brown owns and operates Collective State.

His shop primarily serves a growing population in northeast Indiana that wants to buy local art and music, and it gives artists a year-round space to market their work.

But more than a mere opportunity to sell products, Brown envisions his space as a creative meeting place on the northeast side of town—a place where locals can frequent and always find something interesting and where budding artists can turn passion projects into full-time careers.

A longtime resident of the 46805 area, Brown lives blocks away from his storefront on Alabama Street with his three daughters Delaney, 11, Ruby, 10, and Lucy, 6.

His partner, Lissa, is a local artist, and her work, along with the work of more than 50 other artists and musicians, covers Collective State's walls and shelves, neatly styled into Instagrammable arrangements.

Collective State sells local art and music at 1321 E. State Blvd.

Brown sat down with Input Fort Wayne to tell us more about the space, and how it's influencing Fort Wayne's evolving art scene.

IFW: Tell us about your personal history, and when you first got involved with the arts.

My personal history is less of an artist and more of an arts advocate and facilitator.

I grew up here. Lived here my whole life, and had different random jobs when I was young, and I had kids when I was young.

I ended up going to work at a steel mill for about 10 years, actually, but I've always been super involved and interested in our local arts, culture, music, shows, art openings, and all that.

My partner, Lissa Brown, is an artist. She does Tiny Clementine Art.

We love our local arts community, and we knew that there was this massive amount of talent here that is amazing.

Brown's partner, Lissa, sells her Tiny Clementine Art at the shop.

IFW: Before you opened Collective State, you and Lissa started the Fort Wayne Free Art Collective. Tell us about that project.

We started the Fort Wayne Free Art Collective in 2016 because we were having this discussion about how art should be more accessible to everyone.

You know, sometimes the arts can be a relatively intimidating thing. Either from a financial perspective, or just not being involved, or not knowing where to go, or where to find things.

All those kind of things.

What we wanted to do was to make it easy for people, so we started doing art drops. We would package up art that we got as donations from local artists, and post it up somewhere. Take a picture of it, and put it on social media. Then we'd allow people to walk by and find it and take it home with them for free to give them a little bit of beauty and enrich their lives.

When we were trying to go bigger than that with the organization, we decided to look into doing public art projects because that's the most accessible form of art. You can just walk down the street and experience it, and it changes the landscape of the city.

So we reached out to Corey Rader at the Brass Rail and Jerrod Tobias and our friend Ryan Krueckeberg came on, too. That was in 2016 when we did the Brass Rail mural project, which is a mural of a boar and a Native American.

I'd say this idea for Collective State was working its way into being a reality for the last couple years. It stemmed from that organization to discussion and brainstorming and trying to figure out what could be the next best benefit to local artists.

Brown created Collective State to feature local products.

In 2017, I left my job at Steel Dynamics, and I went to work at Bravas for awhile, and I got a call about this building.

I have lived in the 05 since 2005, and I had been past this building tons of times. I had actually called the landlord a handful of times, and he always said it was leased or whatever. So we talked to him in the spring, when I was transitioning out of my last job, and he said, "Somebody just signed a two year lease. It's not going to be available for a long time."

So I thought, "Oh well, that's fine. No worries."

Apparently, whoever was in here before just let it go, so he got ahold of us in October, and was like, "Hey, the building is open. Are you still interested?"

And I was like, "Sure, yeah! Ok, we'll try it."

So this all stemmed from that. It was an easy, organic thing for this to come into what it is.

I'm trying to figure out a way to help sustain and support our creative community in any way I can.

IFW: What inspired you to create an entirely local retail space?

I've always believed in the amount of talent we have here, and the fact that there are so many absolutely incredible local artists and musicians and creators that have lived here.

I was always confused why there wasn't a place that was just all of our local stuff.

You can find local things all over the place. But there's so many people here that I knew that we could fill up a space with all of this local art, and not only help them to provide an additional source of income, but provide a year-round location that they could send people to find their stuff.

You know, so many times, artists work in seasonal markets, or they have art openings, or art shows, but all those things are temporary. They all are done at the end of the day or the weekend or the month. So where do you go from there?
That's what I wanted this to be.

I wanted people to have a space to have something all the time and be able to bring in income all the time and help, hopefully, boost them from being an artist and having another career to being a full-time working artist and being able to sustain themselves, and make money doing whatever their craft is.

Collective State sells products by more than 50 local artists.

IFW: How close would you say Fort Wayne is to having a strong market like that, which can support full-time local artists?

There are several artists here that I would say are on that line.

I think our market in Fort Wayne has changed so drastically in the last five years with the economic development downtown, the evolving culture, and the importance that people are placing on local art and music and culture and performance.
I don't think that existed as much in the past.

People used to have to struggle find things to do. Now it seems like day-to-day there's a huge variety of cultural things going on. Fort Wayne is starting to take the importance of that a little more seriously, including the focus they put on downtown and the way that development is going with more local restaurants and spaces for artists, events, and markets.

We're trying to help support that community. But I also think we have a lot more that we can do in that regard.

I especially would say I think a big focus for sustaining creatives in our city should be design. We don't have a significant amount of focus on design in our city. We have some, but if you go to larger cities, that's where you have artists who can sustain themselves in the creative sector.

In terms of developing a body of work as an artist, it doesn't always immediately pay you, but you have to have that time to be able to create and have that space to put all of this energy into an art show. So if we can find a way to help sustain our artists while they're in that process of creating those bodies of work, that would be great.

I think if we can bolster that, then that's what's going to put our creative community over the edge and help it grow and get bigger.

It's going to be these artists who live here having the opportunity to really throw themselves into their work, and I think we would be surprised what they could accomplish if that was possible.

IFW: Tell us about the name Collective State.

It was Lissa who came up with that, and I think it's perfect.

Not only is it just convenient that it happens to be on State Street. But really what this is about is being inclusive, and making art accessible and inviting and comfortable for everybody in this community.

I never wanted this to be just a retail space. This is supposed to be a place where people in the community can have workshops and classes and events and live music and performance art. All of these things are going to be heavily involved in what this is here.

This is more about the community having a way to come together and a creative way to learn and grow and experience and see something beautiful in this neighborhood, specifically.

The 05 is an amazing neighborhood, and so many people love the 05. The housing market is great here and everything.
But so many of the people who live here tend to go downtown or to the 02 or 07 to spend a lot of their time. So I wanted to provide something here, in this neighborhood, so people have something to do, especially in the summer.

I want to make this more of a community neighborhood spot that people know they can come spend time and see beautiful things.

IFW: For people who don't know about the 05, what is the area like?

The 05 is unlike any other neighborhood in Fort Wayne.

The people in the 05 are I think some of the most welcoming and friendly and interconnected with one another.

So many people who live in this area know one another, work together, and are friends. There are kids everywhere.

It feels very much like a family neighborhood area—not even just from the kids aspect, but just because people are friendly, and they look out for one another.

It has a lot of walkable things, too.

So many times in the summer here, you just see people out everywhere, all over the place doing things. It's different in that aspect, and it's safe, and people wave when you walk down the street, especially in East State Village.

This is one of the areas I've always looked at as having so much potential. You know, you go to Detroit or Indy or Chicago, and you have those outlying neighborhoods. In Indy, you have Fountain Square, Mass Ave, and they're not quite downtown, but they're really cool areas around it.

I think this area here has a huge potential to be that; it just needs a push in the right direction. There's already great businesses here like Zinnia's Bakehouse across the street. There's Pio Market II, and there's the Acme.

I think this area just needs a little push to unite those places, and that's what I think Collective State has the potential to be is that push in the right direction—that tipping point to help people say, "Oh I'm going to go to East State Village because I know there's going to be things that I can do there."

IFW: Along with being a place for local art, music is also big part of what you do. Until now, there hasn't really been anywhere to buy local bands' music and merchandise other than going to their shows, right?

That's exactly right. Local music was one of the things I wanted to be a huge focus of this because I love our local music community, and I have forever.

I've gone to see tons of shows in this city. I think the level of talent we have in our city for the size of Fort Wayne, it's crazy. It's stellar. I mean, it's so good. There's so many talented people here.

But something I always thought was strange was that you couldn't find it anywhere.

I go to the Brass Rail, and I go watch a show and get the band's merch, and all that. But there's a lot of people who don't.
You either work that schedule, or you don't go out, or don't go to bars, or you're not 21.

There's all these different factors that keep you from having the opportunity to really get ahold of the local music or local t-shirts or stickers or anything like that. So I wanted to provide a place for all of these local bands to have that all the time.

With local bands, also, they're often on tour when people want to buy a t-shirt or an album. So I wanted to be able to provide as much of a space for our local music community as much as I can here.

Local bands' music and merchandise is available at Collective State.

Logistically, for visual artists, I have to pick and curate the space to the best of my ability. But as far as local music goes, I want to have as large of a cross section of everything as I can. I don't think there can be too much of that.

My goal is to set up a listening station so people can try out music in the shop. Right now, a lot of the bands have stuff on Spotify, so I can play it here in the shop.

IFW: Are you still accepting artists and bands into Collective State?

At this point, I'm not sure how many more visual artists I can add as for the size of my space. I'm trying to stay balanced across all mediums and artists.

But as far as music goes, we have more room.

I encourage everyone to reach out to me. Typically, I prefer people to send me a selection of their work, photos of their art, what they do, and I'll take a look and see if I have the ability to take it. Then we can work something out.

I'm grateful for the opportunity to do this. I have always been a person that just wants to see these people succeed because I believe in them, and I believe that when people come in here, they'll go, "Oh, all of these people live here? This is incredible. I had no idea."

I want people to have that moment and realize what exists here in our city, and I think as soon as they do, they'll be into it, and you'll see our creative community grow.

Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara is a Fort Wayne native, passionate about her hometown and its ongoing revival. As Managing Editor of Input Fort Wayne, she enjoys writing about interesting people and ideas in northeast Indiana. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.
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