On the Beat

Under Whiskey Kitchen, there’a new hub for artists, musicians. You can join, too.

The scene at the bar at IMURJ in downtown Raleigh on Friday April 28, 2017. IMURJ is a new multi-media laboratory in downtown Raleigh, bringing together musicians and artists to collaborate and sell their wares.
The scene at the bar at IMURJ in downtown Raleigh on Friday April 28, 2017. IMURJ is a new multi-media laboratory in downtown Raleigh, bringing together musicians and artists to collaborate and sell their wares. jleonard@newsobserver.com

If the organizers behind IMURJ, a new gathering spot downtown, have their way, it will be less of a showroom than a work room.

As envisioned, a band making a recording there might hook up with a painter or photographer for cover art. Or a sculptor might enlist musicians to provide soundtrack music for a project. And everyone’s portfolio grows. Maybe even careers.

Online, the “IMURJ Community” section of the website lists musicians, dancers, actors, photographers, painters and poets. In theory, at least, having them all in the same place (virtually as well as in the IMURJ space for projects and events) will spawn collaborations.

“I’m excited about the grassroots community side of it,” said Lisa Veronica Wood, singer in the local jazz band Sidecar Social Club. “I love the idea of there being this place to collaborate with other artists, a one-house stop with photographers, sound people and everything else to get it done for your music or art career.”

IMURJ is an ambitious project, centered around its 6,000-square-foot space at the corner of Martin and McDowell streets. After an unofficial “soft” opening in March, the grand opening is Thursday-Sunday, May 4-7, with events including live music, breakdancing and the beginning of a monthlong “Inhabit” exhibit of artists working in the space.

The whole thing started out as a retirement hobby.

Five years ago, Karl Thor was planning his retirement after three-plus decades in the pharmaceutical industry. Thor’s plan was to spend his golden years playing music, which he’d done for years on the side.

Booking shows, however, turned out to be a challenge. The first club he contacted told him to send an “EPK,” and he pretended to know what that was.

“I had to google it,” recalled Thor, now 61 years old. “ ‘Electronic press kit,’ OK. So I tried to get together a website with videos, sample recordings and all that. I thought I’d turn that into a turn-key system for people like me, and also young kids starting out. There’s such an emphasis on ‘DIY’ today, but you can’t do it all yourself because there’s no time left to work on your craft.”

Circumstances conspired to keep Thor from retiring after all, and he’s still working. But his retirement hobby lived on. Eventually it broadened into a template that artists beyond musicians could use – and finally, the physical spot.

The vision

Named after a phonetic play on the words “immerse” and “emerge,” IMURJ is downstairs from the Whiskey Kitchen restaurant in downtown Raleigh. Along with a comfortably appointed bar that sells coffee, beer and wine, it has a small performing stage and studios for recording as well as painting.

Also in the works is IMURJ Radio, an online radio station that organizers hope will serve as a local equivalent to streaming services like Pandora or Spotify. Similarly, IMURJ’s online galleries are meant to be a local version of the e-commerce website Etsy, showing work that businesses or art aficionados can buy or even rent.

“With the recording studio, our vision is not to try and compete with professional studios like Osceola,” said Heather Burns, IMURJ’s managing partner. “It’s to give people a place to record demos better than what they could do at home, to start the process of ramping up their music careers. We’re not trying to compete with nightclubs, either, or art galleries. This is more about bringing artists from different pursuits together and supporting them with feedback, audiences, patrons and a place to hone skills and get business help.”

Musicians and artists buy yearly memberships, which range in price from $25 for basic to $195 for “band membership” (which covers up to eight people). That gets members’ works into various places – including, for visual artists selected by IMURJ’s curators, display on its walls.

One local artist that has already worked out well for is Kevin Peddicord, a painter from Cary.

“The first showing I had there, I sold four of five paintings I had up,” said Peddicord. “That’s real high for me.”

Whiskey Kitchen connection

IMURJ’s location is not coincidental. In addition to backing IMURJ financially, Thor is also an investor in Whiskey Kitchen, where his son, chef Michael Thor, is a partner.

A serious motorcycle accident in late 2015 left the younger Thor a quadriplegic. Facing a long recovery, he is at the Shepherd Center rehabilitation hospital in Atlanta; his father Karl splits time between there and Raleigh.

After Whiskey Kitchen opened last year in the former site of a limousine service, work on the IMURJ space downstairs started last fall. Burns described the subterranean space as dark, dingy and not wired for power, so making it habitable took months of work.

Becoming sustainable

Everyone involved with IMURJ uses the phrase “passion project.” Given the expense of downtown real estate, plus the difficulty of turning art of any sort into an actual paying gig, a venture like this is ambitious and possibly quixotic.

Thor professes himself to be cautiously optimistic about IMURJ’s prospects. Along with memberships and rentals of the space, possible revenue streams include cafe sales, commissions from art sales and eventually subscriptions to IMURJ Radio (they do plan to pay royalties to musicians from subscription fees).

To become a viable long-term business, IMURJ will have to reach a certain critical mass in terms of both membership and wider impact of work done by its artists. Turning passion into profits is a tall order for any startup, especially in the arts.

“To a certain extent, yes, this could wind up being philanthropy,” Thor said. “But I do anticipate IMURJ becoming profitable, eventually. I could have set it up as a 501(c)(3), but I’m not comfortable getting money from the government because that can disappear. In my mind, doing this as for-profit will actually be more sustainable.”

David Menconi: 919-829-4759, @NCDavidMenconi


Where: IMURJ is at 300 S. McDowell St., downstairs from the Whiskey Kitchen restaurant in downtown Raleigh.

Cost: Memberships for patrons are $1 a year, and artist memberships range from $25 to $195. All events during the “Grand Opening” weekend from Thursday, May 4, to Sunday, May 7, are free.

More info: imurj.com