Lighting a Fire for Entrepreneurs: Artisan Forge Studios gets economic development award

Tom Giffey

Artisan Forge Studios is home to 43 small businesses, most of them artisans, including glassblowers, metalworkers, painters, and more
Artisan Forge Studios is home to 43 small businesses, most of them artisans, including glassblowers, metalworkers, painters, and more

Artisan Forge is more than a collection of artists’ studios: It’s a small-business hub, an ever-changing gallery, a hive of creative activity, and an entrepreneur’s dream come true. In less than three years, founder and metal artist Greg Johnson has transformed a former trucking company garage at 1106 Mondovi Road into a fast-growing facility that houses 43 entrepreneurs (most of them artists) and employs 76 people. Now, Artisan Forge is the latest winner of the Paragon Award, which is given annually by the Eau Claire Area Economic Development Corp. to recognize entrepreneurial excellence.

"What it means to me is the community is recognizing the importance of our creatives, our artists, our entrepreneurs." – Greg Johnson, owner of Artisan Forge, on winning the Paragon Award from the Eau Claire Area Economic Development Corp.

“We’ve stumbled onto something remarkable here,” Johnson said as he accepted the award. The initial idea behind Artisan Forge was to create a sphere for creative people to come together, sharing resources and drawing inspiration from each other, he said. After remodeling the original 20,000-square-foot building, Johnson and his partners built a 13,000-square-foot, $1.7 million addition last year. They intend to add 18,000 square feet consisting of large-scale industrial shop space, to the building in the near future. Johnson’s own business, Artisan Forge Metalworks, specializes in custom metal art and furnishings.

Upon entering Artisan Forge, visitors are greeted by a gallery filled with prints, paintings, jewelry, ceramics, sculptures, and furniture. Venture further down the hallways or up the stairs and you’ll find studio after studio housing artists of all kinds as well as a few complementary businesses, including a salon, a chocolatier, and – coming soon – a coffee shop. The proprietors of these businesses and their customers rub shoulders at Artisan Forge, creating new opportunities, attracting customers, and increasing investment in the creative economy.

Artisan Forge Studios
Artisan Forge Studios

Johnson said Artisan Forge has emerged just as traditional art galleries are faltering nationwide, in part because of online sales. What does the Internet offer that traditional galleries don’t? “It’s a connection to the artist,” he says. That’s something that Artisan Forge can offer as well, but it does the digital realm one better by offering customers a connection to artists in real life.

While most of the artists housed at Artisan Forge have moved their artistic endeavors out of their local homes, six or eight have relocated from other cities or states to be part of Eau Claire’s artistic renaissance, Johnson said. “There’s opportunities on opportunities,” he enthused. “They just build on each other.” Among those opportunities: Moving creative entrepreneurs from the stereotypical “starving artist” category toward self-sufficiency through their art.

The Paragon Award has been given to Eau Claire-area businesses since 2001, when Royal Credit Union became the first recipient. RCU is now the award’s sponsor, and CEO Brandon Riechers announced this year’s award winner on Feb. 13. Artisan Forge was chosen “because of the economic impact on our community due to their recent capital improvements, support of small local businesses and entrepreneurs, and their commitment to strengthening the Eau Claire area,” Riechers said.

artisan forge founder greg johnson and his wife, krista, pose with the paragon award.
Artisan Forge founder Greg Johnson and his wife, Krista, pose with the Paragon Award.

According to Christina Wasson of the Eau Claire Area Economic Development Corp., nominations for the award are judged on a series of criteria:

• Creating new, quality jobs;
• Expansion of an existing facility;
• Increasing tax base;
• Commitment to educating and training its workforce;
• Supporting community economic development activities;
• Being innovating in developing new technologies of products.

Past Paragon winners include Jamf, Action City, Menards, CURT Manufacturing, Bush Brothers, Dove Healthcare, Indianhead Foodservice Distribution, and Dynamic Fitness and Strength.

Johnson said he’s honored and humbled that Artisan Forge was chosen as the winner of such a prominent economic development award. “What it means to me is the community is recognizing the importance of our creatives, our artists, our entrepreneurs,” Johnson said.

Learn more about Artisan Forge Studios at artisanforgestudios.com or by searching for it on Facebook and Instagram. Find out about the Paragon Award and how you can nominate a local business for next year’s award at eauclaire-wi.com/services/paragon-award.

Chippewa Valley Start-Up is sponsored by:

Royal Credit Union
200 Riverfront Terrace
Eau Claire, WI