Lori Divine-Hudson and Vitek Kruta describe themselves as life partners as well as business partners. The pair started Gateway City Arts over a decade ago, buying the 19th-century mill building in Holyoke as a space to create art and teach classes. 

During the pandemic, Devine and Kruta were forced to temporarily shutter the center and lay off their entire 40-person staff. Gateway City Arts survived thanks to pandemic relief grants and private contributions.

With the venue open to the public again, the pair are re-imagining what the creative arts space can be. Producer Dave Fraser stopped by Race Street and brings us the story.

Meet recent Gateway City Arts performer Peter Blanchette in a digital exclusive clip.

Read the full transcript:

Dave Fraser, Connecting Point: On a recent Sunday afternoon, Peter Blanchette performed with his 11 string arch guitar in the Divine Theater at Gateway City Arts.

Simultaneously, vendors were set up in the large open space area, selling their wares to the public. Inside Judd’s Restaurant, folks were enjoying brunch with a Czechoslovakian-American flair.

This was the vibe that owners Laurie Divine Hudson and Vitek Kruta had envisioned when they opened Gateway City Arts in 2016.

Vitek Kruta, Gateway City Arts: I jokingly said, “We build this place so people don’t have any more excuses not to do anything.” And I think we accomplished that before — before the pandemic.

Dave Fraser: Ultimately, the pandemic put a halt on all the momentum the two had built and this cultural hub on Race Street in Holyoke almost closed forever.

Laurie Divine Hudson, Gateway City Arts: At that time, we had 40 people on our payroll, a lot of locals. But we closed and we stayed closed for 16 months.

We were faced with should we, shouldn’t we reopen? We had a huge outpouring when we said we were closing.

I mean, people were like, “No, you can’t do that! It’s our favorite place.” It was it was really heartwarming and it meant a lot to us.

So, we decided we would really try it again and try to make it work.

Dave Fraser: When the two first saw this old mill building back in 2012, it still had some glimmers of its past as the Judd Paper Company.

It has been a decade-long labor of love to transition this into what they call a Swiss Army knife of arts and culture, a place that inspires, educates, and animates those who want to explore their craft.

Laurie Divine Hudson: The vision has evolved a lot over the years, from art and community work to music. Music became a big part of it. And then, because we’re in Holyoke, we needed this to be a destination.

We got a liquor license. If we got the liquor license, it meant we had to have food.

So, then we started venturing into food and restaurants and it’s evolved over the ten years.

Vitek Kruta: This is some of my art work that…

Dave Fraser: Much of that evolution was done by Divine’s partner, Vitek Kruta, a professional artist, art restorer, set designer and teacher.

He was trained in the Old World techniques of fine and decorative arts in the Czech Republic and Germany. He says he was drawn to the architecture of Holyoke when he decided to move here.

Vitek Kruta: In Europe, where also every big city had factories and because it was the same time period, the buildings were actually the same architecture, they were the same esthetics.

And so, moving to Holyoke, for me, it was like, “I’m home again.” I just love it here.

Dave Fraser: The Divine Theater is dedicated to the memory of Laurie’s parents, Rita and Hal Divine. Both Laurie and Vitek have each been involved in the arts in different ways, and the Divine Theater is a culmination of many of their interests and skills.

Vitek Kruta: As you can see, this is a little bit of the skills that I could utilize that I brought with me from Europe, designing the stage and doing the faux finishes and murals.

So, the esthetic of this room is kind of hoping to — to — to get the feeling that when people come here, they would feel like it was always here.

Dave Fraser: On the other side of the complex past the art gallery and bistro, is the concert hall with a capacity of 500 people.

Somewhere in the future, the couple imagines the various components of this multifaceted operation as independent, employee-owned enterprises.

For now, though, it’s one step at a time after being one step away from giving up.

Laurie Divine Hudson: It’s a wonderful place and it’s changed and people need to give it a chance.