The 100 block of Gay Street was a sewer about 15 years ago, the way Liza Zenni tells it. Zenni, the director of the Arts and Culture Alliance, says the 100 Block, like much of downtown, was run down and empty. But after the Sterchi Building was renovated and turned into apartments, the Emporium Center for Arts and Culture (now the Alliance’s headquarters) opened as a space for artists.
The building provides a gallery and workspace for artists to rent at cheap rates—something all artists seem to appreciate—and that’s what started the 100 Block’s art renaissance, Zenni says. Eight more galleries opened nearby after the Emporium. And more people began trekking to the area when First Friday began.
“It is very common that the development of an area starts with an arts center,” she says. “Artists always need cheap space. And they’re not afraid of going to rough places.”
Thanks to Knoxville’s relatively cheap cost of living, many artists around here can thrive, Zenni says. But the Emporium has 10 visual artists who rent space to work there—in addition to the residential apartments, offices for various groups like the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, an art gallery on the main floor, and performance spaces—and the building is now “maxed out,” Zenni says.
“What we heard from our individual artists is [they] wanted studio space,” she says. But there’s also another need: a performance space smaller than the Bijou Theatre that can seat about 300 people.
Enter the national non-profit property developer Artspace, whose specialty is creating affordable housing and work space for artists; representatives from the group will visit Knoxville on April 23 to study the feasibility of establishing such a space here.
But Artspace doesn’t just build new, square structures to give artists places to work. The company, says Knox Heritage director Kim Trent, specializes in revamping historic buildings in need of a new purpose.
Artspace started out in St. Paul, Minn., where it served as an advocate for artists’ space needs throughout the 1980s. By the end of that decade, Artspace became a developer. Its first three projects were live/work spaces in St. Paul, but by the mid-1990s, its projects included non-residential buildings (its first solely studio-space project turned a historic bakery into 24 studios for artists). Artspace now has offices in New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, New Orleans, and Washington, D.C., and has projects in operation or development in 21 states.
Artspace’s website lays out the differences in its approach to building development compared to traditional property developers. Artspace chooses older, historic buildings, and doesn’t necessarily focus on areas that are in the middle of gentrification; it goes to the more challenging areas. It’s also willing to create non-revenue-generating spaces (i.e. community rooms and artist work spaces). As a non-profit developer, though, it depends on bank financing and private donations, and accesses public funding for its building projects. A lot of the projects Artspace takes on are eligible for public housing, historic preservation, economic development, and cultural facility development funds. Once a project is complete, Artspace retains ownership of the building, which would continue to generate revenue through tenant rents.
In a press release sent out last week, Artspace announced it will conduct meetings here “as part of preparing a feasibility study for potential artist live/work/exhibit/performance space, utilizing historic buildings near downtown.” The visit is being sponsored by the Cornerstone Foundation. During the visit, Artspace will meet with city and county representatives, local developers, and members of the arts community. That evening, there will be a public meeting at the Emporium to discuss the visit, the buildings, and locals artists’ needs.
Trent hooked up with Artspace through a mutual contact at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and learned that Artspace was particularly good at repurposing historic buildings for artists’ use. Since that’s right up Knox Heritage’s alley, Trent put the visit in motion in an effort to get the ball rolling on the preservation of at least one of her group’s Fragile Fifteen buildings. Trent says that while Artspace may or may not decide to start a project here, the information they come up with during the feasibility study could be used by other local developers.
“We’re hoping it sparks some ideas of how to use these buildings,” she says.
Among the buildings Artspace representatives will visit are the McClung Warehouse, the Standard Knitting Mills building, Old Knoxville High School, and the Candoro Marble Company.
Zenni says that creating visual art can be an isolated process, and putting artists together fosters a more creative environment. Plus, their money goes directly to the local economy. But putting artists together in a community also has aesthetic effects on an area.
“Artists are contributing to the beautification of an area just by working there,” Zenni says.
And she says parts of downtown could use that beautification effect.
“The entire city would reap the benefits,” she says, especially if the empty McClung Warehouse is renovated. “That’s our front yard, and it looks like hell.”
Bill Lyons, the City of Knoxville’s chief policy officer and deputy to the mayor, says the city is always interested in the use of old buildings, and creating a new space for artists has been on the city’s radar recently.
“Art spaces bring in just the type of people we want,” he says—that is, people who will gentrify run-down areas.
As for the city’s role in the redevelopment of any buildings for art studios or a performance space, Lyons says, “We’ll just see what’s needed.”
Zenni takes an optimistic tone discussing the possibilities and opportunities that would come with a new space for artists downtown.
“This [space] wouldn’t be an island. You want it to be a catalyst for more growth.”