Where ART Thou?


Talking about artists, Erica Jong once said, “Everyone has talent. What is rare is the courage to follow that talent to the dark place where it leads.” Though she was probably referring to “the dark place” in a personal, figurative sense, one could argue that many artists literally take their talents to dark places when they establish studios and living spaces in the seedy underbellies of society.

Artists—by virtue of imagination and talent or skill—create work that adds value to society. But these aesthetic entrepreneurs have also, for decades, contributed significantly to the socio-economic vitality of our communities: They move into low-rent areas to live and/or work, establish themselves and build community, and over time, transform the once unsavory sectors into hip and thriving neighborhoods. It’s a boon for communities, but often a bust for artists, since increased property values inevitably attract developers who raise rents and displace those most responsible for the revitalization.

Wouldn’t it be great if greed didn’t trump gratitude? If landlords weren’t solely motivated by money, but could instead appreciate the contributions of the creative? Thankfully there are some in the Twin Cities who do just that.

Artspace is a Minneapolis-based nonprofit real estate developer for the arts. Originally established as an advocacy group in the 1970s, Artspace’s mission is to “create, foster and preserve affordable space for artists and arts organizations.”

Wendy Holmes is vice president of resource development. She explained that Artspace was founded by the city of Minneapolis in 1978, and then became its own nonprofit organization a year later. “Originally it was set up as a clearinghouse for individual artists to come and find space in downtown Minneapolis, specifically then in the warehouse district,” she said.

Holmes said that over time, Artspace recognized that it was dealing with many of the same displaced artists. “In the early ’80s, the same artists were coming back and saying, ‘Now I need to find another space, can you help me?’ Many were living and working in spaces that were zoned for commercial and not residential use. In about 1985 the [Artspace] board of directors decided that the organization needed to get into the real estate business to best serve the artists.”

Today Artspace owns 18 properties, and is the only organization of its kind to own and manage properties across the country. Its three buildings in St. Paul (Northern Warehouse Artists Cooperative, Tilsner Artists’ Cooperative and Frogtown Family Lofts) are live/work spaces. Its four in Minneapolis (the Grain Belt Studios, Traffic Zone Center for Visual Arts, Hennepin Center for the Arts and Minnesota Shubert Performing Arts & Education Center) are studios. The organization also has properties in Duluth, Fergus Falls, La Crosse, Wis., Seattle and Houston.

“The important thing is to create affordable space where artists are allowed to remain, so that market conditions don’t displace them from their neighborhood, which is what has happened in every city in the United States,” said Holmes. “That’s in part why we’re working in so many cities across the U.S., because this phenomenon has continued. Artists will make an area hip and cool, then others want to be there and pretty soon the artists can’t afford to be there. We try to arrest that cycle by creating long-term affordability in these buildings. It takes a lot of creative financing and fundraising.”

To keep things affordable, Artspace subsidizes its properties with public and private financing: low income tax credits (from the federal government), historic housing tax credits (from the City of Minneapolis) and private giving. “The first project Artspace did was the Northern Warehouse [in 1990], where Black Dog Café is, in Lowertown [St. Paul],” said Holmes. “Artspace used low-income housing tax credits, historic housing tax credits, other funds that came out of the city specifically for housing and some private sector philanthropy to put together the funding for the building.”

“There is a compliance period for the tax credit so that rents are guaranteed to be low, at minimum, through the term of the compliance period, which is typically 30 to 50 years,” she said. “It’s within our mission to create and preserve space for artists to live, work, exhibit and perform. We want to hold on to these buildings and keep them affordable if at all possible.”

In St. Paul, a one-bedroom space rents for about $500 per month; a three-bedroom for about $900 per month. A 550-square-foot studio space at the Grain Belt buildings in Minneapolis cost, on average, about $400 per month.

During the last year, Artspace has also begun implementing sustainable building practices. “More and more cities, like Portland and Seattle, are requiring that we have a certain threshold of sustainability in our new projects. We did our first green roof on our building in Houston, Texas, which opened last fall. And now our project in Seattle will probably have the highest, most comprehensive level of sustainability.”

Artspace isn’t the only artist-friendly game in town. The California Building and Northrup King Building, both for-profit developments in Northeast Minneapolis, cater primarily to artists.

John Kramer and Jennifer Young are artist-friendly developers who have owned the California Building for 15 years. About two-thirds of their tenants are artists. Rents are structured differently for artists and commercial businesses. “We’ve made it our mission to create affordable, sustainable space for artists in Northeast,” said Young.
Next spring Young and Kramer plan to build new condos near the California Building, which will be marketed strictly to artists and will be a mixture of work only and live/work space. Young also talked about incorporating sustainable building practices, and said they are considering a solar roof on the new construction.

Debbie Woodward is the property manager at Northrup King Building, a huge warehouse with about 150 art studios. Woodward’s rents are reasonable—generally $5.50 to $6 per square foot—and studio size varies, making it an attractive option for artists. She said she keeps costs low by foregoing amenities, such as in-studio sinks. “The tenant does his or her own finish,” she said. “Many don’t need a $3,000 sink in their space. There are certain amenities that people don’t want to pay for, so we don’t provide them. It’s kind of a combination of doing the sales part [leasing space] and downing the expenses to try and keep it affordable.”

Woodward said she likes having artists as tenants. “We happen to have a lot of good artists. We’re looking for a good, spiritually whole building, where people can get along and be respectful and professional. It works best for everybody when that’s the model.”

She added that it’s important for artists to be proactive in marketing their work. “It takes people, on average, five to seven times looking at art before they purchase it. Artists need to come up with ways to stay in the economic game,” she said. “As a developer, I recognize that they will never pay as much as a huge corporation to rent something, but they should be more involved in openly marketing their work.”

Many Northrup King artists participate in “First Thursdays”—open studios from 5 to 9 p.m. the first Thursday of each month. Art-A-Whirl, a three-day art festival in Northeast Minneapolis the third weekend in May, also draws thousands of people.

Asked whether she feels competition from developers like Northrup King and the California Building, Artspace’s Wendy Holmes said this: “The people who run the California Building and Northrup King are terrific. They are for-profit models, so they’re in a whole different realm … but the more affordable options there are for artists, the better.” ||