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How affordable artist housing can help cultural communities "celebrate themselves"

Dancers from PA’I Arts & Culture Center

Kelley Lindquist (center), El Barrio Grand Opening

Vicky Holt Takamine

Carla Hamilton in the gallery at Washington Lofts

Rolling Rez

Red Cloud Indian School, Pine Ridge Reservation

Grand Opening of El Barrio

Community at Cooley Reuse Project

Rendering of Ola Ka ’Ilima Artspace Lofts

For decades, Vicky Holt Takamine—a Kumu Hula (teacher of hula), social activist, community leader and executive director of the PA’I Foundation in Honolulu—has sought creative solutions that would rectify the many wrongs her people, and Native artists in particular, have labored under.

“We have a lot of challenges in the native Hawaiian community,” she explains, citing hotels built in sacred locations and her people’s overall invisibility in their homeland. “For artists, those challenges also include getting their work seen, being included in exhibitions, experiencing critiques,” she continues. “We’ve found we have to raise our own profile in order to get noticed.”
 
In 2008, in another effort to find a profile-raising strategy, Takamine visited the artist live/work projects in Seattle developed by Artspace, a nonprofit real-estate developer based in Minneapolis. The evening she stopped at the Tashiro Kaplan Artist Lofts/Tashiro Arts Building, her life changed. “The artists in the building had put together an exhibition on the homeless people in the community and had used diverse media—video, sculpture, paintings—to tell their stories,” Takamine recalls. “These artists had engaged with the homeless, and their compassion and passion for social justice, and wanting to make a difference, was palpable.”
 
She also realized that “what I love about Artspace’s buildings is they’re always engaging, warm and inviting. They’re living entities with character because of the artists living and working there. And they speak to you the minute you walk in.” Takamine turned to her host, Kelley Lindquist, Artspace’s president, and declared: “Okay. I want one of these. How do I get one of these?”
 
In January, Takamine gets her wish when Ola Ka ’Ilima Artspace Lofts in Honolulu breaks ground. The new, mixed-use arts development—created with support from the Ford Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts and ArtPlace, and with local developer Hui Kauhale, Inc.—is located in the Kaka‘ako neighborhood of Honolulu, a transitional area between downtown and Waikiki Beach.
 
In addition to 84 units of affordable live/work space for low-income artists and their families, Ola Ka ’Ilima will include 10,000 square feet of green space and more than 7,000 square feet of community and commercial space for arts-oriented businesses. Takamine’s PA’I Arts & Culture Center, which serves Native Hawaiian dancers, musicians, visual artists, cultural practitioners and others interested in experiencing Native Hawaiian cultural traditions, will occupy the first floor.
 
Moreover, the project is in a strategic location near the Honolulu Museum of Art, Blaisdell Concert Hall, Hawaii Opera Theatre and Hawaii Children's Discovery Center. Ola Ka ’Ilima’s presence in the arts corridor, Takamine says, will provide tremendous opportunities and exposure for its resident artists. “This space will be the poster child for how to do construction in Hawaii and how to provide affordable housing for artists and others,” she says. “There’s nothing like it in Hawaii.”
 
A history of working with culturally specific communities
 
Ola Ka ’Ilima was also designed to reflect and support the lives and work of Hawaii’s Native artists. After visiting the Artspace projects in Seattle, Takamine invited Lindquist to Honolulu. “I told him, ‘You need to know my people and the kind of buildings I don’t want’,” she says.
 
Takamine took Lindquist, his staff and funders to a hotel built on temple grounds, to the home of a Native artist who grows all of her materials in her yard, to a volcano that’s been erupting for 30 years and camping in the forest. As a result, Ola Ka ’Ilima will include green space for community gardens, plentiful light and air, and views to the mountains and sea for inspiration. “Whether music, dance, painting, sculpture, lei making or jewelry, our traditional and contemporary art is inspired by the nature around us,” she says. “Kelley and his staff had a feeling for this.”
 
Artspace’s work with distinct cultural communities isn’t limited to Hawaii. Nor is it something new for the nonprofit organization. In the early 1990s, the City of Duluth in northern Minnesota asked Artspace to explore the potential of Washington Junior High, a 1911 brick structure vacant since 1992. The surrounding neighborhood was home to a community of Native Ojibwe, as well as a vocal contingent of residents opposed to their presence.
 
After spending time with the Ojibwe residents, learning about their definitions of art and creativity, Artspace staff designed the school’s spaces to accommodate multigenerational households. Artspace encouraged Ojibwe artists, and other artists of color in the city, to apply for residency. In turn, members of the Native community spoke in favor of Artspace’s vision of a culturally sensitive artist-housing project.
 
But during City Hall meetings, Artspace staff faced a barrage of invective, including racist and homophobic comments (the latter of which was directed at Lindquist, who is gay)—and worse. Nonetheless, Duluth’s City Council voted to fund the project. When Washington Studios opened in 1996, artists of color occupied 21 of its 39 units.
 
Since Artspace developed its first project, the Northern Warehouse Artists Cooperative in 1990 in the Lowertown area of downtown St. Paul, the organization has created 40 additional art spaces across the country. “In virtually every case, we’ve run up against people who have opposed the idea of artist housing, perhaps because they don’t believe artists add value to communities, or in some cases because they don’t accept that many artists—of all backgrounds—are genuinely poor and facing extreme hardship,” Lindquist recently wrote in the Star Tribune. “In many cases, we also have had to overcome the opposition to people who have been upset by the diversity of artists we embrace.”
 
Over coffee one afternoon, Lindquist elaborates on a vision for Artspace he says actually began during his childhood. “One of my earliest memories is of my Dad emphasizing to me that everyone deserved a job, that the color of their skin didn’t matter,” he says. “I’ll also never forget my Mom’s anger one day, after a neighbor mentioned how upset she’d be if a black family moved to our neighborhood. My Mom was just furious!”
 
“So when I started Artspace more than 30 years ago, I just naturally hired whoever was qualified—no matter their sexual orientation or racial background,” he continues. “And we reached out to marginalized communities, including communities of color, when developing projects, to ensure we followed their wishes in space development so they could culturally celebrate themselves.”
 
By 2009, Artspace had completed more than 20 buildings in which artists could afford to live and work. Then the Ford Foundation approached Lindquist with a proposition he couldn’t refuse: Time and funding to work long-term with distinct cultural communities in order to bring their singular visions for affordable artist live/work housing and community spaces to fruition.
 
“The Ford Foundation,” Lindquist says, “had such tremendous vision in offering us this opportunity to take the extra years we need to develop trust and understanding with communities that have been marginalized.” (At about the same time, the Kresge Foundation began making significant organizational investments in Artspace, including in Artspace’s capacity to work with and reflect diverse communities.)
 
Not only did Artspace staff spend time in prospective residents’ homes, learning about their cultures, values and artistic practices; the funding also brought the artists to existing Artspace projects where they could see firsthand other artists of color at work and play.
 
Custom-designed resources for culturally distinct communities
 
When Ford’s funding for culturally specific programming was put in place, Artspace had already started the conversations that would result in El Barrio’s Artspace PS109 in East Harlem, New York. The project opened last year. Artspace teamed with local housing-rights advocacy group, El Barrio’s Operation Fightback on the project.
 
Ford’s funding (with support also from Bloomberg Philanthropies, ArtPlace America and other groups) helped transform the abandoned public school building into an arts facility with 89 units of affordable live/work housing for artists and their families—87 percent of which are occupied by Dominican, Puerto Rican or African-American families. El Barrio also includes 10,000 square feet of space for local arts organizations, including El Taller Latino Americano (a cultural language and art educational group).
 
“Our live/work projects for artists can’t only be about creating affordable housing for culturally specific families,” Lindquist says. “The projects also need to have a lot of community space in which local cultural organizations can find a home and that invite the immediate neighborhood into the refurbished building, so people feel the building is part of their community.”
 
In South Dakota, the foundation’s funding propelled the development Oglala Lakota Artspace—a partnership between Artspace, First Peoples Fund (a Native American nonprofit) and Lakota Funds (a Native CDFI organization)—on the Pine Ridge Reservation. A study conducted by Artspace, First Peoples Fund and Colorado State University, which examined the American Indian creative economy, found that artists on the reservation not only need a place to learn, create and exhibit their work; they also need resources brought to them, as the reservation covers a vast geographic area.
 
The findings resulted in the first phase of Oglala Lakota Artspace: The Rolling Rez, a first-of-its-kind mobile arts classroom and extension of Lakota Funds services. Because of the Rolling Rez, instructors can bring to artists in all of the reservation’s nine districts a plethora of resources—from art instruction to expertise in pricing, business planning, branding, packaging and marketing.
 
Artspace’s work in the Northern Plains also extends to North Dakota, where collaboration with the Turtle Mountain Tribal Arts Association resulted in the creation of Minot Artspace Lofts. The project includes a gallery operated by Turtle Mountain Tribal Arts Association, which exhibits and sells work by Chippewa, Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara and Sioux artists.
 
Meanwhile, Artspace was also working in New Orleans, partnering with the nonprofit Providence Community Housing to develop an affordable artist live/work project in the Treme neighborhood. “Ford and Kresge appreciated that we were already working with the African-American community there,” Lindquist says. The Bell Artspace Campus, scheduled to open next year in three school buildings abandoned after Hurricane Katrina, will include live/work housing for artists, and office and community space for the civil rights theater group Junebug Productions and the music school Make Music NOLA.
 
“Once again we’ve met with a lot of resistance, just as in Duluth, on these projects,” Lindquist says. “But by consulting with local cultural groups on what they need to nurture creativity, stability and prosperity in their communities, we can create affordable space for culturally specific organizations that last forever.”
 
Minds opened and changed
 
Artspace also consults with nascent cultural organizations seeking to develop their own projects. “We help culturally specific groups learn how to do the hard real-estate pieces of the process so the building is permanent,” Lindquist says. On the northeast side of Detroit, for instance, Nicole Pitts and her husband LaMar Williams are hoping to transform a 322,000-square-foot Spanish-Renaissance style school (which closed in 2010) into the Cooley High Reuse Project.
 
The project is currently in the predevelopment stage, Pitts says, so “we’re reaching out to the community to make sure we’re not top down about decision making.” As a member of Artspace Immersion Detroit—a capacity-building cohort of 11 organizations working together to support artists and creating affordable space for the arts in Detroit, supported in part by Kresge—Pitts has reveled in “this amazing think tank. The immersion program brings together people from our community with the same ethos to help each other. And we’ve also benefited from Artspace’s expertise with development and construction documents.”
 
Moreover, City Hall Artspace Lofts in Dearborn is close by. “I recently toured the project and it was so inspiring to view firsthand what the possibilities can be for the project we’re working on,” Pitts says. “What Artspace has also done for Cooley Reuse Project, which has been pivotal for us as leaders of the project, is help us tailor Cooley's low-income housing to the needs of a culturally specific group in Detroit.” While many socio-economic groups exist in northwest Detroit, Pitts adds, she wants Cooley to become a hub for education, startups, and arts and cultural groups serving the African-American community, while ensuring everyone feels welcome.
 
Lindquist is quick to clarify that Artspace’s work is “not about empowering culturally distinct groups. Their traditions are already integral and powerful. But through Artspace’s work, I want to make sure I’m part of a nation-wide effort to celebrate these cultures.”
 
Now more than ever, Lindquist continues, “We need to give cultural groups ways to showcase their unique identities in our buildings, and invite everyone in so they can walk out with their minds opened and changed.” Whenever he’s experienced conflicts in Artspace buildings between residents with different cultural backgrounds, Lindquist recalls, “it’s amazing how, as soon as they all start working together on an art project, the conflicts go away.”
 
“Nationally, it’s been forgotten, or never learned, that arts and culture is a way of healing and a way of overcoming differences, and finding a warmth and love in an expression of culture rather than focusing on what may be perception of differences,” he adds. “Often, I’ll start a conversation with new stakeholders by talking about my Swedish grandmother. Everyone has a laugh, and then starts sharing their cultural traditions. It’s the right way to communicate with each other.”
 

Camille LeFevre is the editor of The Line
 
This story is part of a national series—supported by Artspace—about the arts, housing and community transformation. You can read previous articles in the series herehere, here and here.  
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