The Artspace odyssey: a new artist community comes to South Main

Through collaborative fundraising efforts, engaging pre-vitalization events and a good bit of patience, the Artspace vision for a unique and affordable artist community on South Main will become reality.

Recent visitors to South Main Street may have noticed the flurry of activity and sounds of construction in the district, the hallmarks of development. Several projects are in the works along the downtown corridor. From the recent renovation of the National Civil Rights Museum and the coming rejuvenation of the Hotel Chisca, to the future Blues Hall of Fame and a slew of new restaurants and boutiques, the historic district is undergoing palpable change.

In the predevelopment stage stands the hulking 87,625-square-foot brick South Main Artspace Lofts building at 138 S. Paul Ave. National nonprofit developer Artspace aims to turn the former home to United Warehouse into affordable artist studios and living space. They are working in partnership with the Downtown Memphis Commission, the City of Memphis and the Hyde Family Foundation.

For two years the project has been denied low-income housing tax credit, something that was to make up the majority of the financing for the estimated $12.9 million project, according to Artspace Vice President of Development Heidi Kurtze. The Tennessee Housing Development Authority is responsible for issuing tax credits from the federal program. Going forward the organization and partners plan to pursue bonds for financing and add at least 10 units to the originally proposed 44 live/work spaces.

Kurtze said the credits are competitive; the group has made as many as three attempts before receiving approval in other cities where they've launched similar projects.

Headquartered in Minneapolis and with offices in Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York, Seattle and Washington, D.C., Artspace has 35 projects in operation across the country and 12 more in development. Cities with operating Artspace projects include Washington, D.C., Chicago, Buffalo, Reno, Portland and Pittsburgh. Other cities with Artspace projects in development include Honolulu, New Orleans, El Paso, Hamilton, Ohio and Kyle, S.D.

The organization was established in 1979 with the mission "to create, foster, and preserve affordable space for artists and arts organizations."

"Our housing stays affordable for a minimum of 30 years, so as the neighborhood changes, and hopefully we have a positive influence on that happening, the artists aren't then forced out of the neighborhood," Kurtze said. "Artspace provides stable, affordable housing for artists long-term."

In advance of the construction, local consultant and Memphis-based artist Arnold Thompson has been hosting a series of previtalization events to both connect artists with the space and whet the community's appetite for what's to come. Thompson is not only an artist, but also a former South Main art gallery owner.

Thompson is hoping the previtalization events will have a similar impact as the art events occuring in Crosstown. "We've seen that with Crosstown, programming for four years while the (former Sears) building is in pre-development," said Lauren Boyer, New Media and Marketing Manager of ArtsMemphis. "I think it's a really smart model. It gets people excited."

Since March, the Art Lounge on the Dock events have been held in conjunction with the monthly South Main Trolley Tour nights. The free series of events aims for artistic engagement through collaboration with artists, creative entrepreneurs and local art organizations. The events take place on the warehouse's loading dock and parking area.

"We are enjoying the addition, and hopefully it will activate the space (on South Main) between what is active and where the warehouse is," said South Main Association President Brian Douglas.

The UrbanArt Commission is one of the local organizations that has worked to help curate the event series. Their March event featured activity stations such as bookmaking, a Memphis College of Art fellow special guest and a lounge environment with sofas.

UrbanArt Commission Director Christina Lanzl noted the proximity of the Memphis College of Art and Central Station in the neighborhood and talked about the importance of the Artspace development to bring locals, tourists and artists together in one place.

"From our perspective, we have a very large creative force of artists in Memphis but very few opportunities where artists can have a kind of community within a series of studios where they can communicate with each other and don't have to be isolated from each other," Lanzl said. "One of the things about the new building is that there will be public space for the community to come in to visit. So there is much opportunity to have artists also to be visible to the public and have an address where people know where to find artists and to see their work or to see their work exhibited."

The relationship between the city and Artspace began in 2009 with feasibility work, something that Kurtze described as a "mutual interview." Kurtze said that the organization comes to a city by invitation and looks for support from all levels of government, the philanthropic community and the artistic community, as well as support in general. After conducting a market study, Artspace entered into a predevelopment contract.

ArtsMemphis worked with the organization and the city's Division of Housing and Community Development to conduct a survey of needs and preferences of Memphis artists.

"Artspace has to this point spent two years inserting themselves in the community--focus groups, surveys--before they even hired me," Thompson said. "They really want to be as local as possible."

While the project is in the fundraising stage, Thompson is tasked with community engagement and awareness for the space. "That's one of the reasons we're hoping the Art Lounge series continues," Kurtze said. "We're hoping to not only show what is possible with the site, but to also start connecting with the community that will be interested in the affordable live/work space that will eventually be there. We're hoping to attract artists from all different backgrounds and mediums. If you look at our portfolio of who our residents are in our spaces across the country, they're in all age ranges. All family sizes. Any type of art you can imagine, from performance art to visual art to graphic design and spoken word . . . photographers, metalworkers, dancers, illustrators, writers. It really includes the entire creative class."

When visitors stumble in on Trolley Night, Thompson said that they are usually unaware of what Artspace is doing with the building. A person is lured in by an art activity, music or live art performance, which can lead to a small area inside of the building that has renderings, floor plans and additional information on the project.

"People have loved it," Thompson said. "It's been really eclectic in terms of people. They're really happy to see what the building is purposed for."

The stakeholders will be observing the next ArtLounge on the Dock on July 25. In September a "special event" in the series is slated. Additionally, organizers plan to be involved in River Arts Fest on Oct. 24-26.

"To me there's not an option of the deal just dying and walking away," Kurtze said. "Artspace is extremely committed to this project and to Memphis."

Read more articles by Elle Perry.

A native of Memphis, Elle Perry serves as coordinator of the Teen Appeal, the Scripps Howard city-wide high school newspaper program. 
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