why aren't we all developers by now?

One of the most common narratives in the discussion around artists and the places in which they live and work is the availability of affordable space. This article primarily discusses the discrete issue of space in its physical form, its relation to the functional needs of various artist practices, and real estate. The focus is primarily on projects based in America from the past 30 years, with a quick survey of earlier local historical precedents that hint at a long history of the relationship between artists and real estate.

One of those earlier precedents is Tree Studios, the collection of historic buildings at State and Ohio that was at the center of a discussion around affordable artist space in 2005, when the buildings were preserved and redeveloped after nearly being torn down for a high-rise development. The problem was that the building, originally built in 1894 with the idea of attracting artists from all over the world as a way to keep the momentum of international cultural exchange that had begun with the recent World’s Columbian Exhibition, was intended to be used by artists who could not afford market rate spaces. The building’s original owners, art patron Judge Lambert Tree and his wife Anna, established bylaws that required its owners to “support working artists.” These bylaws were obviously overwritten or unenforced when the city agreed to the new owner’s redevelopment plan, as most of the existing occupants were unable to return when the building renovation was completed.

The Three Arts Club at Goethe and Dearborn has followed a similar trajectory. Founded in 1912 by Jane Addams, who raised the funds to build a four-story building that had 100 dorm-style rooms, it was meant to provide affordable live/work space for women in the arts, which it successfully did until 2003. Located in the now-tony Gold Coast neighborhood, development speculation seemed to be at the root of an organizational implosion that resulted in the closing of the building. While Design Within Reach moved into the newly renovated ground floor of Tree Studios (and has since consolidated with their Lincoln Park megastore), Restoration Hardware is currently building out the ground floor space of Three Arts Club into a showroom of their own.

There are other similarly dated buildings, such as the Fine Arts Building on Michigan Avenue, that still manage to carve out space for artists that is in some way subsidized through bylaws or by commercial tenants, but the value of their locations tends to make their existence difficult to sustain, let alone thrive and grow with the community around it.


Quietly emerging over the past 30 years as one of the national leaders of affordable space development primarily for artists, Artspace has established more than 1,300 affordable live/work units across the United States. This represents approximately $582 million of investment. Artspace began as an artist-led advocate for artists’ space needs, but, like many projects in this discussion, transformed in the late 1980’s into a development agency as part of an attempt to preserve and revitalize a historic building that was vacant or underutilized. In this case, it was the Northern Pacific Railway building in Saint Paul, Minnesota that was transformed into 52 units of live/work housing along with commercial and studio spaces. By utilizing Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC), the spaces were guaranteed to remain affordable for people with qualifying financial status.

Artspace implements a screening process for its residences that allows the property managers to choose residents based on both financial need and artistic merit while still complying with the Fair Housing Act. A survey of cities and neighborhoods in which Artspace has developed properties will quickly reveal that they are not necessarily in areas typically thought of as being under threat of overdevelopment – in the Chicago region, their projects are in Waukegan, Elgin, Garfield Park, and Michigan City, with an upcoming space in Pullman – yet they are nonetheless effective at seeking out local partners that have deep constituencies in the ambient cultural community. These partnerships help to establish a credibility and trust within a wide range of communities, as well as help to ensure that the buildings will sustain a high occupancy rate that will make financing feasible.

While many arguments can be made about the quality of the community and culture that is created around the spaces that have been developed by Artspace, their long-term commitment to preserving affordable space is real. In 2011, their original Northern Pacific Railway project was refinanced, again using LIHTC that guarantee the building remains affordable for at least another 30 years.


Not long after Artspace started with their first real estate development projects, a similar one was being established in Providence, Rhode Island by a very different organization called AS220. Beginning in 1985 as a small artist-run space that quickly outgrew its original location, in 1992 they forged ahead by acquiring a large 21,000 sq ft distressed property that they transformed into collection of spaces for arts organizations and apartment units/studios. From their website:

“AS220 is an artist-run organization committed to providing an unjuried and uncensored forum for the arts. AS220 offers artists opportunities to live, work, exhibit and/or perform in its facilities, which include several rotating gallery spaces, a performance stage, a black-box theater, a print shop, a darkroom and media arts lab, a fabrication and electronics lab, a dance studio, a youth program focusing on youth under state care and in the juvenile detention facilities, four dozen affordable live/work studios for artists, and a bar and restaurant.”

One of the main differences between Artspace and AS220 is the latter’s commitment to being an “unjuried and uncensored forum,” having a far more nuanced and community-driven approach to deciding who lives, works, and exhibits in their spaces than with Artspace’s screening process. Though AS220’s programs are supported in part through traditional arts funding models, their overall approach to financial and cultural sustainability is a unique one that can subsist and thrive somewhat independently of those models. An explanation from their website:

AS220 works within a unique sustainability model that leverages earned income as part of a diverse funding base. A number of our programs, the AS220 Industries: The Community Print Shop, AS220 Labs, and AS220 Media Arts strive to partly or fully fund their daily operations through individual memberships to the facilities, classes, contracted work, the sale of original artworks, and the innovative initiatives of dedicated program leaders and members. Similarly, AS220’s Performance Space at 115 Empire St is partially sustained through income from our restaurant, Foo(d), and The Bar at AS220.

AS220 has grown and expanded at a pace reflective of the needs of the surrounding arts community in Providence, and has brought in a myriad of other operations – small businesses, property management, etc. – into a community arts organization that stemmed from an ambitious artist-run space.


On the heels of AS220 slowly developing its downtown Providence arts enclave, a different version was beginning in the 3rd Ward neighborhood of Houston, Texas. Artist Rick Lowe, along with James Bettison, Bert Long, Jesse Lott, Floyd Newsum, Bert Samples, and George Smith, established what they hoped would be a “positive, creative and transformative presence in this historic community” with “a unique experiment in activating the intersections between art, historic preservation, affordable and innovative housing, community relations and development, neighborhood revitalization, and human empowerment.”

What sets apart a living space for an artist versus a non-artist? “Intention,” the loaded word we find in terms like “intentional community,” is sometimes the only legible difference. Lowe cites intent as the key difference between the way his nonprofit and a developer approaches housing. “The intention of a housing developer is generally two-pronged: a housing developer builds a house for someone to live in, that’s the first, and the second is that they want to make money,” Lowe explains. “Those things are valuable and important to us as well. However, what’s more important is that our housing somehow speaks symbolically within the context that it’s embedded.”

The unspoken implication in Lowe’s assessment is that, while a traditional housing developer wants to make money in this arrangement, a non-traditional developer still needs to make money in order for it to work within the somewhat traditional parameters of financing. Thus, Project Row House spun off a Community Development Corporation called Row House CDC that completed its first affordable housing project in 2004. What is a CDC, and how is it different from a traditional arts nonprofit?

“CDCs are nonprofit, community-based organizations focused on revitalizing the areas in which they are located, typically low-income, underserved neighborhoods that have experienced significant disinvestment. While they are most commonly celebrated for developing affordable housing, they are usually involved in a range of initiatives critical to community health such as economic development, sanitation, streetscaping, and neighborhood planning projects, and oftentimes even provide education and social services to neighborhood residents.”

The idea of establishing a CDC to work alongside an arts organization can help to distinguish between the different projects and programs each organization takes on. This clarification is especially helpful in seeking funding, whether for financing capital projects or for running arts programming. Since its inception, Row House CDC has established over 50 units of low-income/affordable housing units, all while Project Row Houses has continued its artist residency, exhibition, and arts education programming.


The real estate crash of 2008 and the recession that followed resulted in an abundance of vacant space, both commercial and residential. While devastating for some communities, the experience of economic fallout and institutional disinvestment was not a new one for many parts of what are known as “legacy cities” – cities, usually former industrial powerhouses, which have experienced a significant loss of population since their earlier 20th century peaks. Chicago, while not generally included in discussions of legacy cities, experienced a drop in population of 7% from the 2000 to 2010 census. This population decline, as has been well documented, occurred primarily among African Americans. Since Chicago is a city generally segregated by race, these population losses have had a significant, concentrated negative impact in historically African-American community areas.

The real estate crash of 2008 made this phenomenon a reality to many other people outside of these areas, including ones generally considered to be affluent and in high demand, like the Loop in downtown Chicago. Efforts to improve the ailing commercial real estate conditions downtown quickly drew upon the apparently endless creative resources of Chicago’s art community in the form of Pop-Up Art Loop™, a program of the Loop Alliance:

“The program, which establishes partnerships between artists and property owners, creates temporary gallery, exhibition and interactive space at no cost to the artist in prime Loop locations…Despite the improving retail economy, which has led to fewer available spaces in the Loop, the program has still proven successful in driving traffic downtown and generating buzz for properties. In 2013, it welcomed international arts partnerships, distinguished artists and record-breaking attendance at its summer gallery walks.”

The above statement by Pop-Up Art Loop™ emphasizes the irreverence with which artists and cultural producers are viewed in these scenarios, where the resource of artist labor is exploited under the auspices of receiving temporary rent-free studio/exhibition space. The devaluation of artist labor has been well documented elsewhere, but it is generally considered to be expended in the studios of well-known artists, arts institutions, and the overall “industrialization” of creative fields, not in the direct marketing and brokerage of underutilized commercial space.


The notion of property owners, developers, and chambers of commerce keeping their vacant commercial spaces “warm” with artists until the market heats up enough to demand more profitable rents extends to universities as well. In 2008, The University of Chicago was intent on tearing down the Harper Theater buildings on 53rd Street that it had bought in 2002. Prior to 2008, it began emptying the storefront of their tenants, terminated a contract with Brinshore Development on an adaptive reuse plan, and scaffolding went up around the building.

As this coincided with the 2008 real estate crash, nothing happened until 2010, when the vacant storefronts became the site of Art Here Art Now, a series of pop up galleries that were created in partnership with the Hyde Park Arts Alliance. “We have been looking for ways to attract new audiences to Hyde Park and add to the vitality of the streetscape…We took inspiration from other Chicago neighborhoods like Wicker Park, the Loop, and Pilsen, which have successfully shown how art can function in empty storefronts, adding to neighborhood vitality by activating unused spaces and connecting community to the art-making process,” said Michelle Olson, then Director of External and Government Affairs in the Office of Civic Engagementat at the University.

Art Here Art Now existed on a streetscape that included a similar, community-based alternative cultural space called Op-Shop, which was then occupying a recently closed Blockbuster Video store, also property owned by the University. When Op-Shop’s time was up, the Blockbuster building came down and now a high-rise of University offices with national commercial chains on the ground floors stands in its place. In the Harper Theater building, the spaces occupied by Art Here Art Now are filled with a new movie theater, an upscale restaurant and bar, and a national restaurant chain.

Art Here Art Now morphed into Arts and Public Life, an initiative of UChicago Arts that is currently housed in the Arts Incubator in Washington Park, a building that has been restored next to a series of commercial spaces formerly occupied by small businesses and vacant storefronts. All these buildings were purchased by the University, presumably in an effort to make the area around the CTA Green Line stop more appealing to U of C students and faculty, as well as land-banking for future real estate expansion projects – perhaps, you know, a big library of some sort.

Meanwhile, Op-Shop morphed into the Southside Hub of Production, or SHoP, which was located in Hyde Park’s Fenn House, yet another building available for temporary use until the real estate market came back (Fenn House sold in June 2015 for $1.05M). SHoP closed after a little over a year, but not before building an impressive array of programming and participation. Unfortunately, without millions of dollars in institutional backing, it wasn’t able to buy the building it was in or simply relocate to the next available abandoned building.


The Harper Theater, the Arts Incubator, and countless other artist-oriented developments are huge wins for architectural preservation, one of the most widely acknowledged indicators of neighborhood vitality and stability. The fact that artist-oriented developments and under-utilized real estate are often so intrinsically tied to one another would lead one to believe that the arts community would have a greater fluency with the nuances of preservation, real estate development, and capital project financing. Or at least that there would be better advocacy for artists and arts organizations having a greater stake in the communities in which they otherwise play a stabilizing and improving role. The projects presented here notwithstanding, this is usually not the case.

While many artist-run spaces thrive on the ephemerality inherent in an informal operation or organization, others have the goal of longer-term presence or institutionalization. In the case of the latter, these organizations can utilize the same tools traditional developers and businesses use to accomplish their own capital-based projects. Perhaps this is something that will result from the current trend of placemaking, with greater funding and visibility for projects that center on artist-oriented developments.

If we see artist spaces as contemporaneous of their economies, we see a model that has moved from traditional arts patronage to self-organized and entrepreneurial, with many iterations in between. Proving the value of these spaces outside of their direct economic impact on a community is key to maintaining control of the conversation that primarily only values things like dollars being spent and bodies crossing a threshold. The more that artists can control this conversation, the more they will find themselves at the helm of shaping the communities in which they live, work, and thrive.

This article appeared in issue #125 of Lumpen, Summer 2015

This article appeared in issue #125 of Lumpen, Summer 2015