The Pink Garter Plaza, Jackson’s alternative art hub, has everything from coffee to cocktails, snowboards to tattoos.
It’s a rare community that raises millions of dollars to erect a monument to the arts, as Jackson Hole has with its Center for the Arts.
It’s an extraordinary community that supports two arts centers.
Jackson’s 80,000-or-so-square-foot nonprofit Center for the Arts conspicuously occupies a large town- and county-owned lot two blocks off Town Square, where it serves as home to 19 arts and education nonprofits such as Dancers’ Workshop, the Art Association, Off Square Theatre, and Central Wyoming College.
But just a half block off Town Square is Jackson’s second center for art, with stages and gallery walls, places to eat and drink, as well as studios trading in more specialized arts.
The Pink Garter is not a nonprofit (though the margins of some of its residents are narrow). It’s a commercial development, built in 1971, that has over the decades housed countless apparel shops, coffee houses, a frozen yogurt joint, and various places to grab a bite. And, at the top of the staircase that rises from its central common space, it has always had the Pink Garter Theatre, where scores of shows have been produced by a number of community theater groups, some for-profit companies and, for a time, the nonprofit that became Off Square. But for whatever reason—the second-floor hurdle, the lack of conspicuous marquee signage, the traveling and resident public’s apathy for live theater—the 350-or-so-seat venue struggled.
Then, a bit over five years ago, Dom Gagliardi got his hands on the place.
“I used to run the Mangy Moose entertainment,” he said via email from travels during which, one presumes, he was preparing for the busy summer to come. “As it got more and more difficult to get people out to the village at night to see concerts, it became clear if we were to have a music venue, it would need to be in town, where more people live.”
In 2008, he produced a show at the Pink Garter with Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, who had broken onto the national scene just the year before. The group’s agent contacted him with a date he wanted to fill and the need for a venue.
“I kind of stumbled upon the Pink Garter when they were in between uses of the theater, and we did that one show,” Gagliardi said.
But that one show was the start of something. Gagliardi jumped at the opportunity to take the space, and over the past five years he has played host to local talents, rising stars and performance powerhouses: the Infamous Stringdusters, Public Enemy, Karl Denson, Band of Horses, Leftover Salmon, TV on the Radio and, in May, Jack White. He removed most of the theater seating, creating a large, open, two-tiered space where folks can boogie if they want or chill on the sidelines.
The final touch in the reinvention of the Pink Garter Theatre was The Rose, a bar and restaurant across from the theater lobby that, thanks to a creative culinary team, brings a touch of art to the alcoholic concoctions it crafts. It also hosts live music most weeks during the busy seasons.
“The Rose was a much bigger project” than the theater remodel, Gagliardi said. “That needed funding and a liquor license. The Town Council was very supportive of our idea when we presented for a very coveted liquor license. I remember the quote from one of the council, that the Pink Garter was an underserved area of downtown and it needed something like this license to help bring it to life.”
Every good music venue has a late-night pizza place within easy distance, said Gagliardi, who was also the owner of the Village Cafe at Teton Village. He and his friend Tom Fay were interested in finding a good downtown spot for such an establishment. Right after the Grace Potter show, Cafe Ponza—at the time just about the only place you could buy an individual slice of pizza—put a “for sale” sign up in its space at the far southwest corner of the ground floor of the plaza.
“We both knew this building was sitting here for as long as we can remember,” said Fay, who turned the space into Pinky G’s. Since it opened it has been named “Best Pizza” in annual polls, and last year it expanded to add more seating and to squeeze in a small stage for open mics and other performances. “We had this vision to do a bar, a music theater, a quick-service restaurant, and even more, to evolve it into what it is finally.”
That was when tattoo artist Amy Dowell took up residence in the final space available in the far southeast corner of the ground floor. She said she first expressed interest in the space about a year ago, but at that time that quadrant of the Pink Garter was a construction site, as Pinky G’s was expanding and an elevator was being installed to make all levels of the plaza ADA accessible. She hung in though, waiting for the work to wrap up, then transformed one of the darker corners of the plaza into an elegant studio, with porcelain walls and an interior that manages to blend punk with Victorian style.
That corner had been occupied by Joel Handschin and his Jackson Hole Treehouse, a snowboard, skateboard and apparel shop, but only for a season. When a larger, more prominent space at the front of the plaza opened, the Treehouse moved in. It shares the space with Asymbol Gallery, conceived by snowboarder Travis Rice and artist Mike Parillo to give wall space to artists whose work intersects with Jackson Hole’s intense outdoor, sports-action lifestyle.
And Stefan Grainda brought his Jackson Hole Roasters in May 2013.
“The most appealing thing was the fact that we could finally merge our coffee roasting operation with the coffee shop itself,” Grainda, who was named building manager in January, said. (He also conducted his interview via email as he was traveling overseas.) “Also the fact that Dom’s and Tom’s business was ‘new blood’ of new young entrepreneurs.”
And then there’s the Whiskey Barber, founded by Dave Johnson, an improv comic turned famously bearded barber. He opened his original shop on East Broadway but snatched up a space in the Garter as soon as he could. A barber shop might seem like an unusual addition to an alt art hub, but Whiskey Barber is an unusual barber shop: a hipster hot spot-reading room-wunderkabinett where a gent can sip his preferred poison (you bring your own and they’ll keep it on a shelf for you) while having his tonsorial needs attended to.
“There have been some ideas I personally have not been excited about as tenants,” Gagliardi said, “[but] I couldn’t be happier with how it has turned out. They are all friends of mine.”
The other tenants said much the same thing. Dowell talked about a sense of community at the Garter, and how the clientele that frequents the businesses makes up a community, too.
“They have an appreciation for Jackson,” she said, “but also are looking for something different” from what downtown merchants have traditionally offered.
Grainda called Dowell a “very positive and needed addition to the plaza,” representative of the “new blood of entrepreneurs that this town needs” and a new “friend.”
“I love the variety of businesses that is recently there,” he said, “and I believe that we all bring new customers to each other every day.
“Everybody thrives off that vibe that we created together,” he said, “and there is more to come.”
“It is the happening spot,” said Cassandra Skipitis, who last summer was brought on by The Rose and Pink Garter Theatre as their “art events coordinator,” curating art shows for the lobby and restaurant. “It’s become an amazing venue … and with time and support it’s only going to grow and get better.”
Her art exhibits have largely focused on regional artists, which she feels is the perfect fit for the Garter.
“Young, hip new artists,” she said, describing the makeup of a recent display, “doing out-there experimental stuff, with big imaginations. That’s what this place is all about—a place to be free and everything goes.”
Perhaps most telling, the love even extends to the landlord, Dudley Miller, a businessman from Mexico, Missouri, who bought the Pink Garter about 10 years ago.
“He’s been very accommodating,” Fay said, “let us all get our feet on the ground. And two years ago, once things really started to happen, he raised his level of involvement and is doing more building improvements.”
“We have a good landlord,” Gagliardi said. “He has had a lot of faith in the vision we have brought to his building. He doesn’t live [here] so he is trusting in our influence. And he has a very difficult building to manage. It is very big, old, and takes a constant stream of money to keep it maintained and improved.”
Miller does have a home outside of Thayne, and it was from there that he spoke by phone about his investment. In 2004 or 2005 he had a condo at Love Ridge. Another resident of the Snow King area development had a shop in the Pink Garter, “and they convinced me to buy it,” he said.
“Then the economy went to crap. It’s been a struggle up to now, but these last two months, finally everything is rented.”
That goes for four small one-bedroom apartments that overlook the alley behind the plaza. And while it took the installation of an elevator, even the basement of the complex is occupied by Cornerstone Church. Now there’s some variety.
“I think it’s a good building,” Miller said. “It’s got some age to it. It hasn’t been maintained well until recently. … I think, to me, it’s in the best shape it’s been in four years,” and he has plans to continue to make improvements.
“The next big project, maybe a year away, is to redo the outside with new siding,” he said, along with refinishing the floor of the exterior plaza. “It’s pretty weathered. It will be a large undertaking.”
Miller is supportive and enthusiastic about his tenants. He called Grainda “a blessing” for his on-the-scene manager role, was excited by the success the Whiskey Barber has had, and offers high praise for Gagliardi and his persistence in making the theater work.
“Dom has struggled,” he said, “but I think he’s headed in the right direction. There’s a lot of activity … that have been pretty successful, brought some good talent to town.”
Gagliardi acknowledges the challenges of running a for-profit venue—even with concessions, alcohol and dining revenue.
“We have been in the red since we opened,” he said. “Being in the arts in a small market is extremely difficult. … We need every ticket sale, drink and food sold to be able to continue occupying a 12,000-square-foot space.
“In such a prime location, a theater space downtown does not make economic sense, it only makes emotion[al] sense,” he continued. “My old bosses at the Mangy Moose always said I was crazy to try this. The drive is to give something special to the community. … We understand our town very well. We cannot have $100 tickets all the time, and we negotiate hard with agents to keep their prices down so ticket prices can stay reasonable—$40 to $60 for TV on the Radio in such a small venue is a steal. I think people are realizing that.” .