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Twin Town High (vol. 8)
Where ART Thou?
Wednesday 29 March @ 17:24:58
by Nancy Sartor
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.
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
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
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.”
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.
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,”
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
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.” ||
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