Nonprofit developer could bring affordable spaces, housing to Charleston artists

The Northern Warehouse Artists’ Cooperative in St. Paul, Minn., is one of 40 projects Artspace has developed to provide affordable live/work spaces to artists around the country.

A nonprofit real estate developer with a focus on the arts is exploring whether the Charleston area could use one of its projects.

Over the past four decades, Minneapolis-based Artspace has built 40 facilities across the country that typically combine low-income housing units with studio and rehearsal spaces, and sometimes venues, designed for artists of all types. One of their missions is to prevent professional artists and arts organizations from being displaced by rising rents in cities like New York, Seattle and Charleston.

Representatives of the organization were in town this week to meet with arts and civic and business leaders and to tour potential development sites in Charleston and North Charleston. They held a public meeting Wednesday night at the Charleston Museum to give an overview of their work and gather ideas from the community on how the concept could be implemented here.

Officials from both cities, including Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg, voiced their support for an arts development at the meeting.

“We need to look at a lot of spaces and neighborhoods, but we also need to ... hear from a lot of people to understand how this might work in Charleston or North Charleston,” Wendy Holmes, a senior vice president of the nonprofit, said to a crowd of about 100 people, mostly artists, who turned up for the presentation.

Art Gilliard, founder of Art Forms and Theatre Concepts, mounts productions during the Piccolo Spoleto and MOJA festivals but wants to do more. One of the challenges he faces is access to affordable rehearsal and performance venues.

“How can you be an African-American company and not have something during Black History Month? Space. So that’s going to be one of the biggest concerns that we have,” he said.

Many other artists in the crowd echoed Gilliard’s concern, emphasizing that visual and performance artists need a variety of spaces that are centrally located, have access to mass transit and, above all, allow them to focus on their crafts rather than worrying about paying rent.

Artspace’s facilities in other cities meet those needs, the representatives said. The Northern Warehouse Artists’ Cooperative in St. Paul, Minn., for instance, includes retail spaces on the bottom floor for small businesses that serve the arts community. The second floor has office spaces where local arts organizations are headquartered. The other levels include community exhibition spaces, rehearsal units, studios and affordable apartments. The rent prices are significantly lower than they would be if determined by market prices, they said, because it was paid for with alternative public and private funds, including low income housing tax credits.

Ultimately, all the projects are self-sustaining, they said.

The meetings with Artspace officials this week were part of a feasibility study commissioned by the Chicago-based Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, a grant-making organization with a Charleston office that’s focused on land conservation and the arts.

A written report of the findings will be released in April. Officials said Artspace either leads or advises developments in about half of the cities they visit to do feasibility studies.

Reach Abigail Darlington at 843-937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail