A survey of soapboxes: An artist coming to terms with the workspace/housing market

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Conduct an informal poll. Ask any artist what they consider to be the major piece missing from the Twin Cities arts community—the one overriding issue, which—if rectified—would greatly improve our productive, creative lives. Chances are you will encounter a wide range of passionate opinions.

Some lament the lack of critical writing and the dearth of publications dedicated to this purpose (although this seems to be changing). Others complain about the problematic nature of the various grant and fellowship programs, which are perceived to consistently reward a select few while many never seem to get a break. Still others are concerned with the problems associated with earning a living teaching art: observing the steady decline of full-time, tenure track faculty positions as they are replaced by part-time positions with little job security and no benefits.

I also know a number of people who will readily get up on their own personal soapbox to rail against the market, or more specifically, the lack thereof. They lament the absence of gutsy collectors unafraid to purchase regional work that hasn’t already been given the stamp of approval by some major institution or foundation. They’ll argue the interesting and relevant work being made here simply isn’t being collected and preserved for posterity by our major museums. As a result, they’d say, important regional history is languishing in damp garages, basements, and storage spaces. This becomes exacerbated as our area’s influential and prolific artists age and experience health, housing, and/or financial difficulties.

While these grievances are valid, I personally gave up on the market years ago, and no longer have any expectations of locally produced, quality work being sufficiently valued, recognized, or collected. Other things occupy me, like our ability to stay alive and continue to make art. I’m no economist, but it strikes me that worrying about the retail outlet when you don’t have a functioning factory seems a little like putting the cart before the horse. What I mean is: if we as a community don’t have affordable, secure studio space to make the work in the first place, what good are venues for exhibiting, selling, or reviewing it?

This, you may have guessed, is my pet issue: the availability of studio space in a condo-crazed real estate market.

Size matters

When I was in art school during the early to mid 80s, Minneapolis and St. Paul were full of huge warehouses with relatively cheap, raw space available for rent. Two or three people could rent a floor the size of Rhode Island, and it’s probably no coincidence that this was the era of Really Big Painting. Why not work on huge canvases? You had the room, and doors big enough to get things in and out. Corporate collectors like First Bank and General Mills were buying, and could easily accommodate large pieces. These days, I see fewer artists working on that grandiose scale, and though it’s probably a combination of various factors (general trends towards smaller, more modestly scaled work, perhaps a decreased market for large objects), I suspect decreased availability of large workspace plays a part.

It’s certainly a factor in other cities. Countless friends in New York have ecstatically bragged about their “great new studio space,” which, upon examination, seemed barely larger than a walk-in closet. And yes, their work had become smaller. But then, New York is a city where everyone is fighting for space. If you want to sell in New York, it had better fit on the average apartment dweller’s wall. Or onto the average gallery wall. Or even into the cab for that matter, as few people can afford the luxury of maintaining a car.

The downside

The biggest problem in the glory days of warehouse living was access to a bathroom (generally communal, filthy, and two floors down) and hiding your bed, clothes, and evidence of food preparation. In other words, keeping ahead of the inspectors and the whole illegal living issue. Even if the landlords turned a blind eye to artists living in their spaces, the city inspectors did not.

Hiding evidence of your domestic life and living in perpetual fear of eviction is no walk in the park—ask anyone who’s been through it. Inspectors like to arrive around 5:00 a.m., banging down doors in hopes of finding people sleeping. If illegal living was found in conjunction with not-up-to-code home plumbing jobs or makeshift walls, a big red tag and lock on the studio door was almost inevitable. Entire buildings could become homeless in one sweep.

Still, I reminisce about the ‘good old days’ where big warehouses full of big studios did not cost a fortune, and artists formed large, vibrant communities in a neighborhood populated by painters, sculptors, writers, performance artists, musicians, dancers, and theater folk. It created a sense of excitement, connectivity, and collaboration. You knew what people were working on—even those outside of your own specific discipline—and it was very stimulating. Not to mention all those great parties…

The era of “loft style” living or, need vs. desire

We are not the first city to experience the cycle of gentrification that displaces artists from neighborhoods they helped pioneer due to what are generally considered to be “unavoidable economic pressures.” It’s a sad old story unlikely to disappear anytime soon. Artists are expected to accept escalating real estate costs will drive them from their studios, and they will need to relocate. But where? The abandoned suburban neighborhoods the new condo dwellers have themselves evacuated?

Having acknowledged this cycle of “urban renewal” with a certain degree of grim acceptance, I’d like to point out something often overlooked in the warehouse vs. luxury condos discussion: the distinction between those who need and those who simply desire.

Let’s face it: artists need big, open spaces in proximity to the industrial business selling materials and services necessary to their careers (i.e. lumber yards, scrap yards, photo labs, foundries, canvas wholesalers, etc.). Most others do not. While they may appreciate the convenience of downtown living, and enjoy the fabulous decorating opportunities afforded by raw, open warehouse space, it is not a matter of professional necessity.

We need to remember that artists have traditionally migrated towards warehouse and industrial districts for a reason, and it ain’t just fashion.

I, for one, would never choose to make art in a regular house. Too cut-up, too many small rooms, not enough wall space, doors too small, low ceilings, the list goes on. And besides, where are my fellow artists, my neighbors, my community of like-minded creatives? The businesses and vendors I rely on for goods and services? Certainly not down the hall, or even the street, anymore.

Live vs. work

I have focused on artists who live in their studios. Not everyone chooses this route, or even feasibly can. Living in one’s workspace may not be an option for individuals working with toxic materials or messy manufacturing processes. Some people also feel more productive if they work away from home. The studio can be perceived as a place to temporarily escape from the demands of one’s roommate, significant other, family, or pet hair.

However, the economic demands of paying for both a residence and a separate studio can be challenging, especially for singles without the benefit of a two-income household. When you add up the cost of rent or mortgage, and an outside studio, things get pricey fast.

Housing marketed specifically to artists: Is it really the solution?

Properties developed specifically for use by artists are often presented as an alternative to the process of gentrification. Sometimes these projects are undertaken by organizations such as Artspace, who specialize in renovating industrial buildings into live/work spaces. In some circumstances, privately held companies with no specific arts-related funding recognize this niche and simply market their properties towards an arts audience.

Whether or not these artist buildings really offer a viable solution to formerly cheap warehouse space is largely dependent on the particular building in question (rental or buy-in), as well as the workspace needs and income bracket of the person you happen to ask. Opinions vary.

Consider that, for every five or six warehouses emptied of artists to make room for luxury condos, maybe one new building specifically for artist housing rises in its place. Not very good odds we’re all gonna fit in there.

Although I recently moved to an artists’ cooperative (launched through Artspace), I have for years been rather loudly skeptical about the affordability of such projects for those living on the outer edges of financial stability. For example, in my old neighborhood, there was a workspace only building we jokingly referred to as “The Studio Building for Artists Whose Spouse is a Cardiologist.” The implication? Way out of our price range. Not only was the monthly rent quite spendy, you had to lay down a sizable chunk of cash in order to “buy-in” and own your studio. And since you couldn’t live there, that’s basically financing a residence and a workspace. Thus the necessity of a significant other engaged in a profession that brought in some serious cash, i.e. the phantom cardiologist.

And then there were the floors: glimmeringly beautiful, refurbished, wooden floors. Whenever I see a beautiful floor in a building marketing itself to artists, I am immediately skeptical of what type of “artist” they are trying to attract. Those floors scream lifestyler dilettante. What kind of floor do artists want? One you are not afraid to drip, drop, or drag things on, or one that makes you feel like you’ve entered your mother’s living room? Precious, beautiful floors are an impediment to artists working in messy mediums, as a protective solution needs to be implemented or there goes the damage deposit. Dancers are the only artists I can think of to which a smooth, beautiful hardwood floor is an absolute professional necessity.

Maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on these upper-end spaces. Maybe the spendier studios should be viewed as a viable alternative for mid-career artists in a better financial position, artists with a good job or a spouse with one, the kind of people who would probably also qualify to buy a house. Okay, so that takes care of about 1/5 of the artists I know…what about the rest of us? The students, the just graduated, the perpetually broke and single who are waiting on tables into their mid-forties or people making interesting but unmarketable work? What kind of workspace opportunities exist for them?

Some of the artist buildings do fall within the upper end of the working poor’s price range, but compromises must be made—like adequate square footage. If you need a safe, secure, legal live/work space with a functioning kitchen and bathroom, chances are you’ll have to accept a smaller workspace than you’d find in the warehouses of yore.

Other structural problems exist. Some buildings marketed to artists show design oversights which indicate the architect didn’t pay attention to the unique needs of artists: narrow residential doors too small to accommodate large equipment or artwork, no slop sinks, track lighting positioned perpendicular rather than parallel to the walls, insufficient electrical options, and, yes, fancy rather than functional floors.

So, is the trade-off worth it? Assuming the artist who can’t afford a condo, or is reluctant to live in a house, really has options other than these artists’ housing projects…

For the time being, I am relatively happy with my new studio in the artists’ cooperative. For the first time in my adult life I enjoy fabulous modern amenities such as a kitchen with actual cupboards, shiny new appliances manufactured sometime this century, hot water that is always on, heat before December 15th, and—gasp—a sink in my bathroom. Perhaps best of all, someone will come and fix the toilet if it breaks, and not complain about how repairs and upkeep are not the landlord’s responsibility. I can sleep easy knowing I have breakers, not a rusty, frayed, and scary-looking 100 year-old screw-in fuse box. No one is going to bang on my door at 5:00 am to slap on a big, orange notice of illegal occupancy.

Also, I’m in a community again, surrounded by an array of like-minded neighbors. I have a garden, and I can see grass, trees, and flowers. There are birds.

All things considered, I’ll just have to deal with less space and try not to screw up the floors too much. I’ll let you know how the work comes along…

Melissa Stang is an artist who used to write criticism for publications such as Artpaper, Vinyl, New North Artscape, The New Art Examiner, and Artscribe during the 80s and early 90s. She’s considering coming out of retirement now that there are great new forums like ARP!

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