Carleton Artist Lofts: Artist’s resource or developer’s tool?

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The question was posed one morning on the radio: if the Carleton Lofts—rehabbed space on University Avenue between Hampden and Carleton in St. Paul—offer rent-controlled housing to artists, why not to nurses or to teachers? Resulting phoned-in responses circled around options in affordable housing but I continued to gnaw on the issue throughout the day.

For an excellent review of the early days in the Lowertown arts community see Matt Peiken’s “End of an Era: Artists and others likely to lose quirky, eclectic, bohemian downtown home,” St. Paul Pioneer Press; June 30, 2003. St. Paul Art Crawl: stpaulartcrawl.org. Carleton Lofts: carletonplacelofts.com.


Robyn Priestley, an artist and non-profit administrator who is currently the director of the St. Paul Art Crawl, just rolled her eyes when I relayed the radio script. Her take was that such discussions only contribute to the public impression that artists have it easy. She’s tired of the line that artists are inherently lazy, copping out of real work. Typically juggling several gigs at once, Robyn lived in a Lowertown loft for years before making the jump to equity-building homeowner.

In the wake of mid-20th century urban flight from St. Paul’s downtown, many artists found studio space in vacated Lowertown structures. In the legendary Rossmor Building, dozens of studios doubled as homes, though they were not zoned as such. By the 1980s some of the artists formed co-ops, carving out legit and affordable territory in which to live and work at the Tilsner and Northern buildings while more gentrified urban lofts were being developed around them. Taking advantage of this convergence of artists and potential patrons, they went on to establish the Art Crawl in 1991, an enterprise that today attracts up to 20,000 visitors to its twice-yearly open studio weekends. Carleton tenants have participated in recent rounds and, beginning with the spring event (April 25-27), neighboring artists affiliated with the 10-year-old Arts Off Raymond community will join forces as well, expanding the geographic region of the Crawl and, it is hoped, attendance and sales.

I knew little about the Carleton Loft project except that was that it was the right break at the right time for our friend Kevin Caufield, an established potter and instructor. In the process of divorce when the Lofts first opened in 2006, he was among the first to sign. In the midst of turmoil—the marriage involved a home with a studio and kiln as well as a start-up gallery space where he showed his work—Carleton offered a sane place to land, a cozy living space in which to parent and a beautiful hearth-lit lobby where he could periodically show and sell his pots. One of the Lowertown squatters years back, Kevin was energized by the creative community and raved about the place as he gave us the tour. Since then he has become kind of a Carleton poster boy in the press.

Should St. Paul’s artists be singled out for favor? Of course they shouldn’t: all the helping professions should be grandly compensated. But as things are, targeting artists in particular is an urban development strategy. Conventional wisdom holds that neighborhood improvement tends to follow artists and other creative types. Carleton’s neighborhood is in fact protected as a historic district designated by the St. Paul Heritage Preservation Commission. It is increasingly peppered with galleries, arts agencies and trendy food spots. No such phenomenon has been identified with regard to nurses and teachers.

The Carleton project—designed with artist-friendly light and open work spaces—is not a co-op but commercial rental property. To qualify for Carleton living one must hold a somewhat loosely defined job description—visual artist, performer, arts administrator, etc.—and must fall below established income limits. However, all that may be about to change. The buzz is that challenges to eligibility based on occupation are being made from quarters more weighty than talk radio. It is telling that the development, launched as Carleton Artist Lofts, has been recently billed, on the Web site and on the side of the building itself, as Carleton Place Lofts.

Susan Clayton is an independent art historian who focuses on Minnesota art and artists.

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