Mpls.-based Artspace carves broad niche as developer of artists’ spaces

  • Article by: ROHAN PRESTON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 26, 2013 - 6:19 AM

The nonprofit organization began with St. Paul’s Lowertown in the 1980s. Now arts organizations nationwide seek it out.

For artist Rachel Vitko, getting keys to Jackson Flats was like landing a dream job and the perfect apartment on the same day.

Vitko, 30, has lived with her father and in a series of shared rentals while she worked as a waitress to support her painting and ceramics. Recently, she was one of the first to move into the lofts in northeast Minneapolis, which include 35 live-work apartments for artists. The building is expected to be fully occupied by the end of January.

Vitko said she felt like she “won the lottery” when she qualified for her own affordable live-work space and was able to quit her restaurant job.

If she succeeds as a full-time artist, Vitko, and thousands like her, can thank Artspace, the Minneapolis-based outfit that has become the nation’s largest nonprofit arts developer.

Jackson Flats, a $10 million project in a traditionally working-class neighborhood, is Artspace’s first new construction in its home state, where it launched the rebirth of St. Paul’s Lowertown 28 years ago. In that time it has developed more than $1 billion worth of housing, studio and office space. About 2,000 artists live and work in Artspace buildings nationwide. Artspace properties also house 300 arts organizations, including the Cowles Center and the Traffic Zone Center in downtown Minneapolis.

But the developer’s impact goes beyond its field-leading numbers. Artspace projects often bring artistic and cultural energy to blighted or up-and-coming urban areas.

Artspace’s dozen other Minnesota projects have been renovations, from a former envelope factory that became Tils­ner Artists’ Coop in St. Paul in 1992 to a former middle school in Duluth that became the Washington Studios in 1996.

“They have been leaders in this movement of showing how artists can change places, neighborhoods, cities,” said Rocco Landesman, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and head of Art Place, a consortium concerned with revitalizing urban cores. “Now every mayor in the country wants Artspace in their city. They’re drinking the Kool-Aid, and it’s very intoxicating.”

Big national profile

One of those imbibers is Jack O’Reilly, mayor of Dearborn, Mich. This satellite of Detroit is turning over its city hall to Artspace as part of a revitalization project.

“They weren’t going to come to us, so we went to them,” O’Reilly said. “I visited their properties in Chicago and in the Twin Cities. I’ve talked to mayors in Minneapolis and St. Paul. There are seven steps you have to go through to get them, from fundraising to identifying artists and community surveys. We worked through all of that.”

The $16 million Dearborn project would result in live-and-work lofts for 45 artists. Construction is due to begin next summer. Artspace recently found out that it had secured funding.

“Our urban community is transforming, and this would be a catalyst in that transformation,” said O’Reilly.

In New Orleans, Artspace plans to renovate a middle school in the Tremé neighborhood. The $40 million project is part of a $1.6 billion, post-Katrina development of a 300-square-block area.

In New York, Artspace is doing a $52 million conversion of P.S. 109 in Spanish Harlem. The five-story school building will have 90 units of artist housing and 10,000 square feet of office space.

A matrix of requirements

Artspace projects require tenacity, patience, financial acumen and political finesse to navigate layers of federal, state and local bureaucracy.

Before Artspace and its municipal hosts identify a site, they conduct feasibility studies. Artspace applies for low-income tax credits from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

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