Artspace for struggling artists

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Artists often struggle to find affordable housing. Then they are shoved out of the picture by the gentrification and rising rents their presence creates.

Artspace was founded to advocate for and to develop rental units where artists could live and work without fear of being priced out of the market.

Roy Close and Wendy Holmes, director and vice president of resource development for the Minneapolis-based non-profit organization, were in Columbus Aug. 6 and 7 to conduct a feasibility study funded by City Council.

The consultants are here to learn if Columbus provides fertile ground for an Artspace project, Holmes explained to about 100 people at Columbus College of Art and Design Aug. 6.

She described the organization as the country’s leading non-profit developer of space for the arts, with 20 projects completed and three others soon to be opened.

The consultants, guided by Bryan Knicely, director of the Greater Columbus Arts Council, visited buildings downtown, in German Village and Merion Village on the south side on their first day.

Holmes noted that the cycle that has displaced artists in other communities has begun in Columbus’ Short North.

That trend led to the establishment of Artspace in St. Paul, Minn., in 1979, first as an advocate for living and working space for artists, and 10 years later as real estate developers.

Artspace often renovates dilapidated buildings in run-down neighborhoods, sparking a transformation in both.

"The joke is that it’s not an Artspace project if you can’t put your foot through the floor," Holmes said. Some of those buildings are purchased for as little as $1 as rehab projects.

Their first development project created 52 apartments and 40,000 square feet of commercial space in an abandoned warehouse, including a photographer’s studio, an after-school program and a Zen studio.

A neighborhood renaissance took place, with $1 million condominiums across the street.

Most importantly, the artists weren’t displaced, fulfilling Artspace’s mission of sustainability, Holmes noted.

In addition to developing the projects, Artspace manages the properties, with long-term leases of 30 to 99 years, according to Close.

But the residents determine what goes on inside.

"We’re creating the raw materials. The artists in the building make it come alive," Holmes said.

Tenants are screened by a selection committee and are chosen based on their "passion and commitment" to their art, and not on content or quality. They encompass all the arts, from painters and sculptors to dancers, musicians and writers.

The units are larger than the typical apartment, to provide studio space, and typically have high ceilings, few partitions and natural light.

The Frogtown project in St. Paul provided space for families with children.

Many of the projects involve renovating historic buildings, such as the last standing divorce hotel in Reno, Nev.

School buildings are "almost ideal" for re-use as arts spaces, Holmes said. Their recently completed Buffalo project refurbished an electric car factory.

Artspace has branched off into creating studio and performance spaces, including the Hennepin Center for the Arts in Minneapolis, which includes nine dance studios and a theater.

Its first new construction project was the Tashiro Kaplan artists lofts in Seattle, with 50 apartments, and 17 visual arts studios and galleries.

It usually takes three to five years to get a project from conception to grand opening, Close said.

The $8.5 million Reno project was financed by borrowing $1 million, employing federal tax credits and securing another $1 million in private donations.

Once a project is completed, Artspace doesn’t have to come back to the community for money because their investments stay in the black, Holmes assured the audience.

"Strong leadership" is the number-one criteria in attracting Artspace, Holmes said, which she has seen from the city, the arts council and CCAD. "That is three legs. Obviously there has to be more."

After the feasibility study, with a report to the arts council, the next step would be a  market survey of the arts community.

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