Slightly Modified

Kimber Lanning and Leslie Barton restore the original vision of downtown's best art space/music venue

Kimber Lanning likes to keep lists of tasks she has to complete.

For Lanning, the owner of Stinkweeds Records and a self-described type-A personality, it's a way of assuring herself that she's in control of the numerous roles she juggles on a daily basis: record-store owner, college student (majoring in psychology), volunteer social worker and dogged champion of the underground arts scene.

Lately, Lanning's lists have gotten a bit longer than usual. For the last few weeks, Lanning and artist/musician Leslie Barton have worked at revamping the three-year-old art space/music venue Modified, for its November 2 relaunch under the new but familiar name Modified Arts.

From left, Leslie Barton, Kimber Lanning and Erin Antrim.
From left, Leslie Barton, Kimber Lanning and Erin Antrim.
Slumber Party helps launch Modified Arts on Saturday, November 3.
Slumber Party helps launch Modified Arts on Saturday, November 3.

Barton will assume the responsibilities of booking bands at the venue, taking over for Scott Tennant, a former Stinkweeds employee who ran the nightspot for the last year and a half.

A downtown mainstay for the last three years, Modified had emerged from Lanning's ambitious attempts to make Stinkweeds more than a record store. She'd long hung local artwork on the walls of the Tempe store, and when she grew frustrated over the fact that many indie bands skipped the Valley as a tour stop, she began hosting shows in the shop.

Realizing that she was working her Stinkweeds employees ragged, she invested in Modified in 1998, as a way of keeping her dual interests separate.

"I got a group of people together, and it was supposed to be a cooperative effort, a bunch of artists and volunteers," she says. "I would put up the money and organization. We all agreed we wanted to try it.

"I was able to pay myself back some of the money in the initial six months, but it never got to where I was out of the red. And I got overwhelmed quickly with running Stinkweeds and Modified. And Scott worked for me at Stinkweeds, so I hit him up to work at Modified. And I couldn't really say, 'Do all the bands for me for free, I just want to run the gallery.' So I told him if he bought the equipment -- tables, chairs, PA -- he'd be able to keep any money that was left at the end of the month."

Modified was never a profitable business enterprise, but it was never really intended to be. More important to Lanning was the fact that she created a haven for some of the Valley's most adventurous artists, and a stage that could encompass everything from free jazz to emo rock. Under Tennant, the music began to fall more predictably into the indie-rock realm, but Lanning continued to handle the art exhibits and maintained her commitment to showcasing a wide range of work.

A couple of months ago, Tennant decided he wanted out of Modified, and approached Barton about selling the club's equipment to him. Barton got together with Lanning and offered to buy the equipment at what they describe as a considerable profit for Tennant, despite the fact that the PA system had a blown horn, the refrigerator worked only sporadically and the tables and chairs were falling apart.

Tennant -- who plans to move to New York in early December -- balked at the offer, which he describes as "not enough to pay off a credit-card bill," and decided to close the venue at the end of October when his lease ran out, and find another buyer for his equipment. As a result, Lanning and Barton bought new equipment for the space, and worked to get it ready for the first week of November.

The resulting friction has been hard to fathom for Lanning and Barton, who've been surprised to find that Tennant spent his final weeks at Modified telling promoters and customers that the venue was shutting down, with no mention of the fact that it was set to reopen almost immediately. He also reportedly left a bitter note on Modified's Web site message board, only to be met with numerous angry rejoinders from club patrons.

Lanning and Barton, however, prefer to focus on the venue's future, and how they can fulfill the site's original promise as a multimedia art space.

"I started with 40 people hoping I'd get six volunteers, and that's about the ratio," Lanning says. "And there's a lot of wonderful kids down there that have put in good hours helping that place stay afloat, and I just don't want to see it sink because one person doesn't want to be involved anymore."

Lanning adds: "It's going to revert more back to the way I originally envisioned it. . . . When I had that first meeting, I had painters as well as dancers as well as film students. I wanted to have all kinds of artists. And in the last year it's really slid over to an almost exclusively indie-rock, punk-rock venue. And there's a place for indie rock and punk rock at Modified, and there always will be, but there's a lot of other things out there that have been overlooked."

Already, Barton -- a veteran of such bands as Breakfast of Champions and Uber Alice -- has booked two modern-dance performances that will feature Arizona State University students. She's also expanding the venue's musical scope, lining up the avant-garde Knitting Factory band, birth, for a November 7 show.

She and Lanning also plan to host musicians workshops and independent-film nights, where local filmmakers can present five- to 20-minute shorts. "By putting them all together on one night, they can share in each other's support," Lanning says.

"Personally, I think what makes a downtown space special is that a variety of people can go there," Barton adds. "And it's not just for an 18-year-old or a 25-year-old, where you have the 40-year-old thinking, 'I don't want to go down there, that's for the kids.'"

"I love having an outlet for the 16-year-olds who are just starting out to have a place to play, and Modified will always be their home," Lanning says. "But there are a lot of other people who need an outlet."

Lanning has always gone out of her way to put the artists' interests ahead of her own business interests. When she booked bands at Stinkweeds, she paid them 100 percent of the receipts, simply happy to bring them to town. And she won't hesitate to help another local venue snag a show that's simply too big for Modified. Along those lines, don't expect Modified Arts to allow for the kind of overcrowding that happened at last year's sold-out Le Tigre gig, when it was clear that Modified simply couldn't accommodate the band's fan base.

"You have to think of the bands first, and the kids second," Lanning says. "You can't just cram 150 kids in there; it's not fair to the band or the kids."

But even as Lanning's list of must-do items expands this month, there's one hat that she chooses not to wear: that of club owner.

"I've never called myself the owner, and I won't ever call Leslie the owner," Lanning says. "I always say, 'I run the place, I'm the coordinator.' When you have that many volunteers, I don't think there's any place for an owner."

Modified Arts presents the work of Jerry Jacobson and Chad Godt on Friday, November 2. Slumber Party is scheduled to perform on Saturday, November 3, with Anti-Organic, and Thee Apologies.

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