Spoiled by decades of affordable housing and studio options in a major city that was still pretty sleepy, local artists are already feeling the pinch of rising rents after former mayor Julian Castro’s “Decade of Downtown” battle cry and subsequent initiatives shot the city to the top of trend listicles.
Warehouses that were once rented or sold for pennies per square foot are being snapped up for the next new housing development or office space, featuring residential and retail amenities for the urban professional that can afford it. But where does that leave the arts community – the people who are the creative pioneers adding value and making these often derelict properties once again viable?
Some call it displacement or gentrification. Either way, Minneapolis-based Artspace calls it avoidable.
Artspace was founded in 1979 as an advocate for artists’ space needs. In the following decade, it became clear that the continuing cycle of displacement faced by artists required a more proactive approach. That’s when the nonprofit organization made the leap from advocate to developer. Artspace maintains about 40 co-owned and operated projects – mostly converted industrial spaces or historically significant properties – across the U.S., managing them in perpetuity to ensure that they continue to remain affordable and accessible to artists.
With more projects in development and 263 consulting projects, Artspace’s $600 million portfolio provides millions of square feet of affordable space benefiting thousands of artists, their families and creative enterprises.
And last week, two Artspace representatives were in San Antonio.
Centro San Antonio, the downtown advocacy group that maintains a center city public improvement district, brought the consultants to town and directed their focus at Zona Cultural, 44 contiguous blocks in the downtown/near-Westside area that was officially designated as a cultural arts district by the Texas Commission on the Arts in September 2015.
Artspace, not to be confused with the Artpace gallery that is located within the Zona’s footprint, focuses on solutions that keep creative communities whole and thriving. Centro invited Artspace to conduct an initial feasibility survey of maintaining a downtown artist community.
“We don’t go anywhere that we are not invited,” said Wendy Holmes, Artspace senior vice president of Consulting and Strategic Partnerships.
“Our artistic and cultural heritage sets us apart from other cities. Preserving and promoting that heritage here in San Antonio will help to position San Antonio as a world-class city,” said Centro President and CEO Pat DiGiovanni as he introduced the Artspace team.
This is actually the second visit that Artspace and Anna Growcott –Director of Consulting & Strategic Partnerships — has made to the city in the past year. The first visit was at the behest of the National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures.
San Antonio is no stranger to the challenges of displacement. We have the cautionary tale of Blue Star Arts Complex, which still houses the Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum, several galleries and a variety of live/work spaces. Owner James Lifshutz has a deep, ongoing commitment to artists housed there and the arts in San Antonio in general, but it is no secret that rents had to go up a few years ago. Several long-time tenants such as Jump-Start Performance Co. and Cactus Bra Space, an artist-run alternative art gallery, moved out of the complex after 19 years and were unable to find affordable space in the Southtown neighborhood. This is the sort of situation that Artspace wants to help communities avoid.
There are a few visionaries that have operated ahead of the curve, like Andy Benavides, who established his 1906 S. Flores live/work space more than 25 years ago. Bill FitzGibbons is Benavides’ warehouse collective neighbor just around the corner in the Lone Star Arts District. This cluster of art galleries and studios is home to a thriving arts hub that springs to life every Second Saturday. This is an event that brings more people to the area every month, making it ever more attractive to developers.
The key here is that these artist entrepreneurs own their nests and got in while the square footage was affordable. Both Benavides and FitzGibbons attended the public meeting. Also in attendance was Diana Lopez of the Southwest Workers Union; Maria de León, executive director of NALAC; and Willy Shives, artistic director of Ballet San Antonio.
“The artistic cultural industry is huge in terms of the impact that it has on jobs and economic vitality,” DiGiovanni said.
That economic vitality, however, comes with the concerns of gentrification. What happens when market forces begin to squeeze out the very people who are responsible for diversity and creative vitality?
“Our work on the Zona Cultural District and the Arts and Culture Study (an ongoing study due to be released sometime in the next 60-75 days) both highlight the necessity for providing affordable space for our creative community of artists and entrepreneurs to practice their craft,” DiGiovanni said. “A lot of cities have thought about this challenge after the fact. Here in San Antonio, on the cusp of revitalizing our downtown, we are thinking about it on the front end. This is something that is really exciting and something that we can build off of.”
One of the building blocks in place is Zona Cultural, only the second TCA-designated arts district in San Antonio – the first was the King William Arts District. This is a feather in the cap of Centro San Antonio, which led the stakeholders group and made the submission of the application to the TCA. Its boundaries include Main Plaza on the east to the railroad tracks just past the UTSA Downtown Campus on the west, and from Nueva Street north to Houston Street. This is the cultural gateway to the city’s Westside and more than 300 years of history.
There are several buildings that are vacant or underutilized in and around the Zona, most notably the historic Continental Hotel building at 332 W. Commerce. The historic, city-owned building is currently home to the City’s Metropolitan Health District. It was recently declared as a surplus property and will likely be sold. The nearby San Pedro Creek Improvements Project and Weston Urban’s new Frost Tower will only increase area property values.
Tony Piazzi, senior vice president of Business Development for Centro San Antonio, came away very encouraged from the community meetings with Artspace.
“The participants in the four focus groups were very engaged, asking a lot of questions and we value that input,” Piazzi said.
Participants in the focus groups represented a range of interested individuals and organizations including artists, educators, funders and financing entities, civic leaders, elected officials, arts nonprofits and creative business owners.
This is just the beginning of a long-term process, Piazzi said. “The outreach will continue. Now, there is the digesting, evaluation and summation that Artspace must conduct.”
It is expected that the organization will come back to present its findings in about 6-8 weeks. At that time, they will make recommendations for how San Antonio might move forward.
There is a lot of opportunity for artists downtown, Holmes said, and the investment of time, energy and finance for any given project could take anywhere from 3-7 years to develop.
Find out more about Artspace’s past and future projects here.
Top image: (From left) Centro CEO Pat DiGiovanni welcomes questions and comments during the public meeting with Artspace representatives Wendy Holmes and Anna Growcott. held at Plaza De Armas. Photo by Page Graham.