MASS Collective is a nonprofit makerspace in Castleberry Hill. Photograph by Laura Stone.

Imagine this: you’re a trade student on the cusp of graduation. You’ve learned essential skills, mastered your tools, and you’ve even got some initial interest from potential clients. You’re ready to start your career! 

There’s only one problem, though. Where are you going to work now that you don’t have access to the tools and workspaces of your school? Finding a workshop and purchasing all the necessary gear could take years, and unless you have a generous benefactor willing to front you the funds and float you until your shop is complete, what do you do? How do you survive?

That’s where MASS Collective comes in. Designed to bridge the accessibility gap for fabricators, this nonprofit makerspace has been changing lives and launching careers since it was founded in 2012. 

Down a small side street in Atlanta’s Castleberry Hill neighborhood, a nondescript steel door is easily missed. But through that door and down a flight of stairs is another world. The 6,000- square foot space is filled with tools, supplies, and half-finished projects. Nearly every surface is covered with a fine covering of sawdust which serves as a reminder of the work that takes place here. 

“MASS Collective is a community-run and community-led organization,” explained Founder and Executive Director Gabriella Mooney. “We like to say that MASS is an ever-evolving problem that will never be solved.” 

MASS Collective’s Founder and Executive Director Gabriella Mooney, right, talks with makers in the workshop. Photograph by Laura Stone.

It all began when the organization was founded as an LLC back in 2012. It took three years to build out the space and get operations up and running, and in 2015 they officially opened their doors to the first community makers who would utilize the space. MASS Collective was officially declared a nonprofit in 2020.  

Operating with a four-pillared model, MASS Collective is able to make a difference in the lives of burgeoning tradespeople and artisans via education, membership, community partnerships, and a robust apprenticeship program. 

In 2022, MASS Collective supported 35 members, 20 apprentices, and promoted five apprentices to staff positions. They also supported an Artist in Residence for 2022, paid more than $15K to artists and makers who taught at MASS, and trained more than 220 students. 

One such fabricator who can speak firsthand to the ways in which MASS Collective can change lives is member and shop manager Ato Ribeiro. 

Ato Ribiero photographed by Chia Hsu.

“Mass Collective has been the primary home and creative community for my artistic practice here in Atlanta for several years now,” said Ribiero. “During times when I could not afford my own studio space or materials, the makerspace empowered me to continue exploring creative ideas and has been a crucial source of scrap materials for my current body of work.”

With tools and gear that can facilitate a variety of disciplines, the 2024 programming lists classes in machining, stained glass, leather working, welding, bookbinding, electronics, woodworking, metal casting, and blacksmithing. No-cost apprenticeship programs offer specialized training in welding and fabrication arts to teach basic skills and tool familiarity. 

“MASS is a makerspace, but what we really focus on is inclusion. Starting in 2016 we focused a lot on representation and ethical inclusion. We wanted to find ways to reach communities that are underrepresented and provide opportunities for them to feel safe and supported in the arts and trades communities,” said Mooney.

By providing access to a space like MASS Collective, beginner artisans and fabricators are able to try out trades before investing in further training, equipment, and building out their own individual shops. Many of those who utilize the MASS facility may still work a day job, so having 24/7 access to the shop allows members to explore their passions in off-hours. 

Beyond the logistical benefits of having a fully equipped workspace, their community slack channel provides opportunities to learn about contracted projects, promotion, and collaboration with fellow creatives.  

“One characteristic in particular that I enjoy about our space is the wealth of knowledge that each member brings on any given day,” continued Ribiero. “MASS serves as a watering hole for a wide range of artists and makers of various backgrounds and on the most random days, I have worked alongside incredible makers that have contributed invaluable feedback, ideation solutions, and warm conversations. I cherish how familial our community has become over the years.”

MASS Collective was formed to meet a need for the community, and Mooney reflected on her initial thoughts when launching the organization all those years ago. At the time, Freeside was the only existing makerspace in the city and it was just getting started. 

“What are we going to do that doesn’t already exist? If it already exists, why aren’t we helping those people with what they are doing? What can we do that is needed?”

“The first thing that came to mind for me was that I was at a table with six white men. I thought, well, I’m a queer woman, and there’s not a single other minority present at the time,” said Mooney. “There are a lot of places that exist where these individuals can feel comfortable walking into a room, and they aren’t going to be discriminated against. That’s how the shift happened.” 

Mooney began intentionally seeking out fabricators and instructors who were people of color, queer, or women, to come to MASS Collective and start teaching. She believes that arts organizations like hers should not only be accessible but also representational of the communities they serve. From those earliest days Mooney was determined to make MASS Collective an inclusive and supportive place to learn and develop careers in fabrication.

This concept has been a win for MASS Collective and its members. “Our community is one of the most tight-knit, wonderful, kind, and helpful groups of people,” explained Mooney. “For me the most amazing thing about who we are and what we do is the culture. The amount of support you can get from just being there… It feels like a family. We are all just living this life together. Some of us have been working together for like ten years now.”

For Mooney, one of the crowning achievements of the organization is the fact that in 2021 they were able to fully launch their apprenticeship program, training 20 apprentices over the course of six months. It was made possible via a grant from Arts & Entertainment Atlanta (A&E Atlanta) which funded the program. 

“That was a huge high for me,” said Mooney. “At our party to celebrate the apprentices completing their programs, we had several apprentices who said they would never have been able to do this without MASS Collective. This is what I wanted to do when I got started; to provide resources for people who had never seen it before in an environment that is welcoming and inviting and supportive.”

And yet, despite the overwhelming good that MASS Collective has done, they are facing their biggest challenge to date: funding. Despite operating in a facility that is owned by an incredibly supportive and understanding landlord, high rent prices threaten MASS Collective’s very existence. 

“Our rent is nearly $10,000 a month and that makes it so hard for an organization like ours,” said Mooney. In order to stay true to their core commitment of affordability, they can’t afford to outprice their community. For the past several years, Mooney has been looking for a new space, one that will remain accessible for low-income people who don’t have cars and can’t travel far from MARTA stations. So far, they’ve had no luck.

Currently, MASS Collective is funding their rent through grants, personal donations, and the sweat equity of board members who volunteer their time to keep the programs alive. During the pandemic, Mooney also stopped taking a salary in order to further support the mission.They launched a GoFundMe in March of this year with a goal of $75,000. As of today, the total donations sit at just over $4,000. 

Mooney and the crew must fight to not give into dejection about their current financial predicament. Their situation is emotionally taxing, and those who are behind the scenes of this arts nonprofit must contend with the very real fear that the organization will not be able to continue its mission much longer despite all their efforts to save it. 

It’s a frustrating conundrum. Those who rely on MASS Collective can agree that this organization is worth preserving. Past members who have gone on to launch successful careers in the trades might not have been able to do so without the support provided by MASS Collective. And, as a city, Atlanta seemingly supports organizations such as MASS Collective. But the reality is that operations costs are skyrocketing now, and for nonprofits going up against big commercial real estate investors the fight is certainly an uphill battle.

So, for now, the future for MASS Collective is yet to be determined. Will they survive to fight another year? Can they garner enough public support and private funding to continue their mission of supporting low income and minority fabricators? Will those with money deem MASS Collective as a worthy recipient of crucial financial support? Time will tell.

Today, Mooney and her dedicated crew at MASS Collective hold tight to their hopes and dreams for the organization despite the odds. 

“It can be really hard sometimes to look up from the dust,” Mooney told me. It’s a saying that has become one of the shop’s guiding principles: Look up from the dust. The phrase first came about when Mooney was sweeping and cleaning the shop alongside Board Advisor Delia Lopez before an event. As they talked– and griped– about their frustrations, Lopez reminded Mooney to look up from the dust and celebrate the accomplishments they had already achieved as well. 

It was an important reminder for Mooney that even in hard times there is value in appreciating where you’ve been and what you’ve achieved. “You should take a moment to sit down and celebrate the accomplishments, because if you don’t take those moments, it can be really soul sucking. Even when it is so rewarding, it can feel never-ending.”

Isadora Pennington is a freelance writer and photographer based in Atlanta. She is the editor of Sketchbook by Rough Draft, a weekly Arts newsletter.