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Artspace Meeting Draws Hundreds

Arkansas Arts Council - Wednesday, August 07, 2019


More than 200 people crowded into the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center on a hot July evening to hear plans to bring affordable living and work spaces to Central Arkansas artists.

“My gut (intuition) is that there’s something really special here that we can work with,” Wendy Holmes told the crowd.

Holmes is the senior vice president of Consulting & Strategic Partnerships for Artspace, a nonprofit organization that renovates, builds and manages real estate dedicated to long-term affordable spaces for low-income artists. Artspace staff held a public meeting July 24 to gage interest in providing affordable spaces in Little Rock and North Little Rock. About 25 percent of those attending self-identified as artists, who earned most of their incomes from the arts. Attending artists included musicians, dancers, visual artists, storytellers, writers, poets, sculptors, muralists and potters.

The public meeting was the first step toward getting a feel for Central Arkansas’s needs, Artspace staff said. This fall, Artspace will roll out an official survey and market study. Preparations to create development plans are expected to be revealed in early 2020.

“This is just the beginning,” Holmes said during the public meeting. “This is just the beginning.”

Nationwide, artists often struggle to find affordable studio, workshop and housing options, Holmes said. Rent rates and housing costs nationwide are increasing, making it harder for millions of working-class people, according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University.

Artists move into affordable places, then watch rental rates skyrocket as people move into the area for its creative vibe. In many communities, artists helped build or rejuvenate local economies but were then displaced. That’s where Artspace comes in, Holmes said.

Artspace has replicated building and sustaining affordable living and work spaces for artists in 52 locations across the country. The key is to have community, nonprofit, business and corporation partnerships, Holmes said. Projects often use a variety of sources to keep the housing affordable, including federal historic and low-income tax credits. Artspace is the steward of the projects, she said.

“We are curating space that is forever affordable,” said Teri Deaver, vice president of Consulting & Strategic Partnerships at Artspace.

These “spaces” are uniquely built to meet the needs of specific communities, Deaver said. Examples of previous projects have included renovated historical buildings, mixed-use commercial, nonprofit and residential buildings, workspace within living areas, public exhibition spaces and separate workshops and studios.

“I like what I hear,” said Joe Darr, a Little Rock musician who attended the public meeting and is interested in rehearsal spaces. But, Darr and other artists remain skeptical about whether Central Arkansas has enough overall support for the arts to pull off the proposed projects.

“There’s a ton of talent in this town, but there’s not much financial support,” Darr said.

Little Rock has already experienced setbacks in attempting to provide affordable living spaces for artists. For example, an experiment to provide space for artists failed in 2015 after owners were forced to accept all low-income residents without giving preference to artists, artists attending the meeting said. The federal tax code that created the problem has since been changed, Holmes said.

Still, Arkansas is moving forward. Holmes plans to speak about Arkansas projects during the Arts Council’s ArtLinks conference this October. Artspace has plans underway in the four largest Northwest Arkansas cities – Bentonville, Fayetteville, Rogers and Springdale. That project was initiated by the Walton Family Foundation in 2018. Artspace did a survey of local artists and feasibility study last year.

Now, the Windgate Foundation is looking to spearhead housing projects for Central Arkansas. If followed through, the move to bring Artspace to Central Arkansas and Northwest Arkansas could make the entire state a destination place for artists to want to live, advocates say.

The day before the public meeting, 25 local Little Rock and North Little Rock artists, business and civic leaders and Artspace staff met as a focus group to talk about Central Arkansas’s needs and obstacles. Those obstacles include maintaining diversity, avoiding gentrification and overcoming a competitive division between North Little Rock and Little Rock, focus group attendees said.

“We have to figure out how to make things work out in a way that’s unique for Little Rock and North Little Rock,” Holmes said.

The plan must include partnerships for sustainability, but attendees said there is potential for that kind of collaboration. “The cities are salivating to bring this to our region,” said Nathan Hamilton, director of the North Little Rock Communications Department and a member of the focus group. “The interest is strong.”

Having sustainable and affordable long-term space for artists will impact the greater community, not just artists, Hamilton said. The projects will boost the overall economy, he said, and will help Arkansas compete with other states, said Khadijah Pennington, an artist who drove from North Little Rock to attend. It also will mean much-needed support for Arkansas’s growing art communities, said Carmen Hamilton-Parks, special events coordinator at Philander Smith College and an avid arts supporter.

“I just think Arkansas is ready for it,” Hamilton-Parks said.