Audacious Ideas: Housing Artists

Audacity defines the best and worst within us. It is boldness or daring, accompanied by confident or arrogant disregard for personal safety, conventional thought or other restrictions. It is also effrontery, insolence or shamelessness. The “Audacious Ideas” essay series celebrates this theme, which serves as the basis of our Summer 2012 print issue.

Reginald Gray set design La Boheme

Set design for Act 1 of La bohème, Reginald Gray, 2010

Housing artists in decrepit garrets is all well and good when you’re, say, designing sets for La bohème. But I’m here to tell you that there’s nothing romantic about a place that gives you pneumonia merely because you decide to gain more living space by situating your mattress directly on the freezing floor of what had heretofore been an enclosed second-story porch or where you find your resident rat has gnawed on each of a basketful of root vegetables right before you’re ready to make some sweet potato pie.

I was, therefore, delighted to learn that a local group had not only had the audacity to imagine that artists might be more creative and productive if they had pleasant places to live but also to do whatever it took to implement that vision. “We shamelessly stole the idea from a group called Artspace in Minneapolis,” Charlie Duff, president of Jubilee Baltimore, told Urbanite in 2010 just prior to the opening of City Arts Apartments in Baltimore’s Station North Arts and Entertainment District.

Decidedly intrigued, I contacted Talya Constable, Director of Resource Development at Jubilee Baltimore, to learn more. Here’s what Talya sent me:

Baltimore’s first building designed specifically for artists began with a collaboration between a local foundation, Baltimore Neighborhood Collaborative, and a national nonprofit specializing in artist housing, Artspace. BNC asked Artspace to assess whether Baltimore could support the creation of such a building and, if so, where the building should be located. Artspace determined that the vacant city-owned lot at the corner of Oliver Street and Greenmount Avenue in Station North would be ideal because more than 300 artists already lived or worked within a two-block radius. The downside was that Oliver Street contained several vacant lots, a row of vacant houses and a factory building that had been vacant for more than 25 years.

For years, Station North struggled from disinvestment and an alarming number of vacancies. Prior to the recession, many artists there had lived in two large buildings on Greenmount West, the residential portion of Station North, that were now slated for redevelopment. Knowing that they were at risk of displacement, Jubilee set out to ensure that affordable housing opportunities for artists would be preserved. Jubilee and partners TRF Development Partners Baltimore and Homes for America were selected by Baltimore City through a competitive bid process to develop the vacant lot that had been identified by Artspace as the future site of City Arts Apartments.

The City Arts team was awarded approximately $13.5 million in low-income housing tax credits to develop the building, which contained 69 residential units situated above a ground-floor gallery where residents could display their own work and that of other local artists. It incorporated the findings of a market study where over 700 self-described artists were interviewed and included sustainable design elements such as low-VOC  paints, urea-formaldehyde-free composite woods and Green-Label-certified floor coverings. The result was a building designed with artists in mind that was also healthy and had minimal impact on the surroundings.

City Arts was the first new residential building of any kind to be built in this neighborhood since the 19th Century. Once completed, it was fully leased within four months–seven months ahead of the anticipated leasing schedule–and now has a long waiting list. By creating affordable housing for artists, City Arts strengthened the Station North Arts and Entertainment District and served as a catalyst for additional neighborhood investment such as the following:

      • Adjacent to City Arts, TRF Development Partners recently purchased an entire row of vacant houses and renovated them fully.
      • TRF plans to build eight new row houses next to City Arts, which should be under construction within months and offered for sale by the end of the year.
      • A block from City Arts, a former clothing factory vacant for more than 25 years is now being redeveloped and will be the home of the Baltimore Design School.
      • The Maryland Institute College of Art–MICA–completed the first phase of a $19 million renovation of Studio Center on North Avenue.
      • North Avenue Market owners are about to begin a $1 million restoration of the historic façade that stretches more than 200 feet along North Avenue.
      • The former Chesapeake Restaurant at the gateway to Station North, vacant for more than 20 years, is under construction. By year’s end, it will house two restaurants and a second Milk & Honey market.
      • In February, Jubilee Baltimore purchased the largest vacant building in Station North, 10 E North Avenue, for a multi-tenant arts facility containing artist studios, galleries, theaters and arts-related venues.

All this sounded far better than I’d anticipated, so–just to make sure–I contacted an artist actually living there to get her take. Conveniently, Ashby Foote also happened to be the marketing coordinator at City Arts and had recently completed a piece on what it was like to live there. Here’s some of what she sent me, together with a photo of her in her apartment with her mother Suzie Foote assembling jewelry to sell at a local event:

What artists want is a connection to other dedicated, creative people. When they live in close proximity to each other, a contagious creative energy can grow and multiply. Here, residents represent all fields of creative endeavor. They are producers, performers, play- and screenwriters, poets, dancers, musicians and visual artists.

My role is to build a sense of community, since it is challenging enough to succeed as an individual artist. Buildings and communities like this one bridge the gap between people, allowing individuals to form the connections that open up new opportunities. The opportunities here bring people out of their comfort zones to try something new in a way that may not have occurred outside this unique beehive of creative activity.

Our gallery expands our role beyond merely providing affordable housing for select artists. With storefront windows and high visibility, it invites the public in to experience art and get involved. Initially conceived as an area where residents alone could exhibit their work and perform, residents and managers decided to open it up to anyone from the area once they started working together to establish the gallery.

Baltimore needs places like this because artists help create a strong local economy. One reason why Baltimore is so successful in attracting people is the arts and creative scene. We see many people coming in from surrounding cities because it is possible to lease larger amounts of space here. When artists spend less money on living, they can spend more on producing creative work.

As a former urbanite now living in the burbs, all this made me somewhat envious. Which brought me back to Artspace. Artspace, you see, has a site in suburban Maryland.

In the late 1990s, four DC suburbs–Mount Rainier, Brentwood, North Brentwood and Hyattsville–joined forces to form the Gateway Arts District, revitalizing a two-mile stretch of the historic US 1 Corridor through an infusion of art and artists. The first project, the $11.7 Mount Rainier Artist Lofts, created 44 affordable units in a newly constructed four-story building one block from the DC border. This represented the first Artspace live-work environment established in an entirely new facility.

Residents have the best of both worlds. They enjoy the high ceilings and large windows of historic warehouse lofts while living in a modern, energy-efficient building. Low rents, proximity to public transportation and Mount Rainier’s small-town charm make it even more appealing. So does the ground floor with its 7000 square feet of commercial space.

So perhaps there’s hope out here as well. Perhaps someone will have the audacity to steal City Arts’ idea the same way that Charlie Duff and his colleagues once appropriated a wonderful one from Artspace. Here’s a slideshow for inspiration:

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2 thoughts on “Audacious Ideas: Housing Artists

  1. Rod Espinosa

    Dear Ms. Munro,
    Thank you for posting this information on your site. I am intrigued and I am wondering if the program is still active? I have struggled for many years to make ends meet in my chosen profession. Sometimes, I want to stop and work at fast food for a while. My city does not foster the arts when they don’t see an immediate benefit. Are there still people to contact in this regard? Thank you.



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