Sunday, February 22, 2009

Art Space: How I learned to stop worrying and love the developers


So, yeah, I was at that Art Spaces meeting. And yeah, it took me a month to post this. I’ve become lazy in my writing, I know. I have a jealous toddler who wants ALL of mommy’s time, and I spent January and February working at a friend’s criminal law practice, who also wanted ALL of my time. Unlike certain Hindu deities, I do not have ten arms. So it goes.
Just to clarify, I did not attend the reception at the Community Foundation’s offices. I suspect that our building’s residents weren’t invited because we weren’t classy enough, or something. Instead, we were invited to the Public Meeting held at the Philanthropy Theatre. So what happened at this meeting? Well, myself and about 20 other people (some were artists, some were local bureaucrats, some were investors) listened to a presentation made by two very capable, successful, and well intentioned non-profit employees from Minnesota (Stacey Mickelson and Wendy Holmes) described how their non-profit, Art Spaces, was considering El Paso for artist live work space. That’s wonderful. I know many people who will be biting for first dibs at a residential application.

I have included a partial transcription of the meeting (excluding the detailed descriptions of some of their properties and Q & A), for you to pour over. If you are an artist, you will find it informative, but dry…okay horribly boring. If you work for a non-profit, you’ll find it…okay, you’ll still find it informative but dry. I also have included an audio track of the complete meeting, excluding the part where I had to excuse myself because my kids were absolutely bored to tears, and my two-year old daughter was on the verge of storming the podium.

You can read the basics of the plan here.

I’m just going to pick at a few things that I found questionable. After all, I don’t want to scare these people off. You’re welcome, Chris.

Will this building be marketed to the craftsmen already living in the neighborhood? Wendy mentioned "art hobbyists" in her presentation, so I would hope that seamstresses, carpenters, shoemakers, muralists and other crafts people from Segundo, Magoffin, and Rio Grande Heights would get the same memo that the painters and sculptors are getting.

Artists interested in applying for the building will be selected based on a body of work submitted to a committee of local artists and arts professionals. Wow, I don't see personal politics and matters of taste being a problem! Not. At. All. If Hal Marcus is put on this committee, I'm going to puke. But seriously, putting certain people on these kinds of committees is just ASKING for trouble. The art community here is so deeply plagued by personal intrigues, conceptual spats, and because it is a small community, everyone knows everyone else's business and there will be judgements based more on people's petty bullshit than the applicant's desire to create in an inexpensive space. All I'm saying is, be careful who you put on this committee.

Another consideration- the argument for a space like this is that it helps boost the rest of the commerce in the neighborhood. Per Stacey:

"We know anecdotally that when we put a project in- other development happens around us within five to ten years you can see complete changes and overhauls to neighborhoods. I witnessed it in Portland, Oregon- a place that I hadn’t been for five years. I was out there in 2002. We had a project out there- nothing was really going on around it- near the train station- if you’re familiar with Portland- near the train station and adjacent to the Pearl District. I went back just now this last April and there were no less than six twenty-five storey high-end condominiums buildings that kind of popped up all around the building that we had created with a lot of salons and spas and galleries and wine bars and restaurants and those kinds of things happening on the street level pedestrian level around our projects. We know that we can take some credit for that and not all the credit, but certainly some credit for providing that."

That's great, but A) El Paso doesn't have a large buyers market that would support all of those galleries. B) Let's say, hypothetically, that a bunch of people from LA and NYC move here because of the hard recession there and our cost of living and start opening up small businesses, or patronizing the arts, or opening up ad agencies, thereby supporting more professional artists, and things go as planned...will the City do their part to maintain a certain percentage of essential services (grocery stores not including Whole Foods [=Whole Paycheck], laundromat, shoe repair, etc.). I say this because in certain cities, their art districts have nothing BUT galleries, expensive restaurants and wine bars. And, in a way, that becomes another economic factor that drives artists out of the city center once it has been gentrified.

Another consideration: My husband and I rent about 3000 sqft (including his upstairs studio) for about $925 per month. Utilites included. I am assuming that your resident's will have to pay for their own electric and gas. The Merrick Building's two bedroom HUD subsidized apartments (1200 sqft) run at about $450 per month. The Oregon Place Apartments, which are Section 8 housing run $450 for a two bedroom. Two bedroom houses in Central and Sunset Heights average $550 a month (1200 sqft living space on 1/4 acre lot). My friend's 15 year fixed rate mortgage in Sunset is $700 per month, which includes homeowner's insurance and property taxes. You are proposing about $550 per month for a two bedroom, which is very reasonable, but still more expensive than the two HUD properties. I don't know if your rent is projected two years in the future and adjusted for inflation, but if you're basing your rental averages on the total of the City rather than Central (where artists tend to live) as prices range today, the rate is a little high for subsidized housing.

Oh, and to Stacey- yes, finished concrete floors are beautiful and utilitarian, but in this city, they are impossible to keep clean. The dust after a windstorm seeps deep into the pores of the concrete, and even after a serious mopping one can walk on the floors and their feet will still turn black. It is also nearly impossible to remove plastisol and paint from concrete without muriatic acid. I say this from personal experience. Opt for wood. They clean up well and when they get stained, you can sand them down. Just a suggestion.

Per Wendy: “if you’re trying to qualify to be a resident in the building then there are three different things that we look at: the credit check, previous rental history, and then obviously your typical criminal background check. “

Ha ha…ha ha ha ha ha! You’re kidding me, right? Show me an artist with good credit and I’ll call you a liar. Okay, we have decent credit, but most of the artists I know have horrible credit, which would explain why they would turn to HUD housing, instead of buying a house in Sunset Heights, right? In regards to the criminal background check, I completely understand the need to exclude sex offenders and violent offenders from the pool, but what about drug and alcohol related offenses? That takes about 90% of the potential artist pool out of consideration. I’m not sure what their standard of proof is, but consider this: Mister Grammy Winning husband o’ mine has had: two DUI’s, two paraphernalia offenses (one in NY, one from Austin), at least one PI, and I think a drunk and disorderly. Was he a stupid twenty year old? Definitely. Is he an upstanding citizen now? Yes. Are there a lot of artists in this town who have similar criminal records? Absolutely. Do I have a record? Damn straight. I can also think of a certain City Official who has a blemished record. Ahem. But I digress...

Now, some of the more upstanding members of our artist community may be appalled to hear these things (EPSO, Opera, EP Playhouse) but most of them have cushy teaching gigs and they’re not necessarily in this hypothetical building’s tax bracket. And then what about vandalism? What about our wanna-be Shepard Fairley’s and their wheat paste “public displays”? Will they be excluded because of vandalism charges? Just some food for thought.

I'm not trying to shit on the flowerbed. These were just some of my thoughts I had during the meeting and as I was typing the transcription. I think it's a great idea, and there would be tons of interest. One more thing I'd like to point out, though...

What I found especially amusing and enlightening was the moaning reported at the Community Foundation offices. Per Keith Spencer’s Blog :

“Reactions from the focus group were generally positive, although, some criticism was directed towards who would want to live in low-income housing. One artist stated he had no need to live in such a space for he far exceeds the income qualifications and already owns property. Others agreed, adding the tight buyers market for art in El Paso would make it difficult to adequately survive without working elsewhere. One attendee rebutted, acknowledging the living arrangements as a great incentive to keep local art graduates in town instead of fleeing off searching for similar arrangements.”

So, if I’m reading this correctly…someone at the reception got uppity because they felt that this project had nothing to do with them as they were doing just fine financially and didn’t need subsidized loft space. Dude, this isn’t about YOU. Great. You make a good living, own property, but you want to hang downtown? Go rent a loft in the former Union Fashion building. Rents start at a dollar per square foot. You’d like it there. This is about artists who work in the service industry who wouldn’t otherwise be able to remain in the “Arts District” once it’s gentrified and rents skyrocket. This is about students who want a space to create in. This is about low-income craftsmen. And it’s for those who do have an art degree but who are financially suffering. In case you haven’t noticed, there’s not much one can do with an art degree. There are two options for gainful employment- teaching or ad agency work, and maybe the occasional public works project. I’ve already said this before, but to reiterate, freelance work is a fucking joke in this city, and since every advertising agency on the face of the planet is in dire straits thanks to the economic crisis, there’s a good chance that these hypothetical artists who will need hypothetical housing will not be able to get good gigs (salary OR freelance) at ad agencies because of a virtual hiring freeze.

I don’t need an Art Space’s building either. I have rent control, a building where I already have space to create and a landlord and neighbors who I love like family, but there are plenty of people who need this, and any opportunity to salvage one of our Tony properties while creating low-income housing is a good idea. Now, if only something like this could be done for the rest of the enormous low-income community here- you know actually renovating an abandoned property instead of tearing down the whole fucking neighborhood- we’d have some real progress.

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