Emily Free Wilson was renting space in an old Helena, Montana, brick building where other artists worked, when she began hosting community events and kids’ summer art camps.
“I remember my friend, a sculptor, telling me, ‘Emily, you’re running an art center!’ And I said, ‘No, I don’t want to!’ ” Free Wilson recalls.
Then she thought more about it: She did like sharing her space, organizing events and collaborating with other artists. So she and her husband, Matt Wilson, bought and renovated a former mortuary. In moved their company, Free Ceramics, which produces pottery notable for colorful, playful dots. Other artists — painters, a sculptor, a furniture refinisher and crafters — also moved in, lured by 90-cents-a-square-foot studio spaces.
Free Ceramics has rented its events and gallery space — with a vaulted ceiling and hardwood floors — for a square-dancing potluck fundraiser, a preschool graduation ceremony, a furniture refinishing class and more. The place is booming.
“It’s really important to have spaces like this in the world — places that encourage creativity and deepen that artistic spirit that people need to share,” says Free Wilson.
Unusual studio arrangements and community art centers exist nationwide to provide artists with free or reduced-cost space and a way to share their work with the public.
For example, the non-profit Ponyride has for several years provided space in a 30,000-square-foot Detroit warehouse to socially conscious artists and entrepreneurs at a mere 20 cents to 25 cents per square foot.
Now Ponyride is launching an artists-in-residency program: Vetted artists will receive a stipend, studio space and lodging at the warehouse. In return, they’ll need to document their work and provide a workshop or seminar for the community.
“We want them to leave their imprint on Detroit if they’re not from here,” says Ponyride Executive Director Karla Henderson.
In Denver, the non-profit PlatteForum hosts a single artist for two months four times a year. What the artist receives: free lodging, a stipend and ample studio space. In return, the artist provides open studio hours, and hosts an exhibit or workshop.
The program also links artists with Denver children who are struggling in school or don’t feel they fit in.
“They’re the kids at low-performing schools who need to re-engage in school and learning and in themselves,” says Judy Anderson, an artist and PlatteForum’s artistic director, who founded the non-profit in 2002. Collaborating with musicians, dancers, painters and poets, she hopes, will provide hope and direction for the children.
Multimedia artist Sarah Rockett of Denver said her recent PlatteForum residency allowed her to build larger-scale sculpture.
“I’ve never had the space to do so, and grew immensely from the experience,” says Rockett. “Working with the youth became the most important aspect for me. Their creative range anchored the playfulness of my work.”
A short drive from Denver, the town of Breckenridge, Colorado, provides artists with studio and living space in its BreckCreate program, which includes a new $10 million Breckenridge Arts District campus with studios for ceramic, glass, textile, and other local and guest artists to share their work. Artists from around the country are invited to work at this 1-acre arts campus for two to four weeks. Additionally, three small artists’ studios are available for $250 a month.
Artists from cities “love the idea of being in a mountain setting and being able to focus on their work,” says Robb Woulfe, BreckCreate’s president and CEO. “Everyone can be inspired in this environment.”
Painters, printmakers, and mixed-media and fiber artists from Indiana, California, Washington and Hawaii will work in Breckenridge this summer and early fall.
The payback for Breckenridge? Woulfe and town leaders hope an expanded arts culture will establish the ski town as a year-round arts destination.
Also providing artists with inexpensive work space: Grace Farms opens in October in New Canaan, Connecticut, in part to help artists pursue and share their artwork among 80 acres of woodlands, wetlands and meadows open to the public.