Beginning in 1979 as a nonprofit space-finding organization in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Artspace has evolved into a national real estate nonprofit committed to creating permanently affordable space for artists, arts organizations and creative businesses. They went from completing one project every couple of years to breaking ground on four projects in 2012. Of 31 completed projects in 14 states, 23 provide low-income housing for qualified artists. Artspace has developed four projects in the Pacific Northwest and an arts campus in Santa Cruz, CA. We wanted to learn more about their process from Regional Director Cathryn Vandenbrink.

All images: Tashiro Kaplan Building, First Thursday Art Walk, October 2012. Photos: Joe Iano.

Alan Maskin   What site selection criteria does Artspace use?

Cathryn Vandenbrink  Artspace is an unusual developer in that we only work by invitation. Once invited – by artists, arts organizations or public officials interested in cultural/economic development – we work with local artists and community leaders to identify a site. With existing buildings, we have specific criteria, such as ceiling height, open floor plans and unit size so that the artist housing we build can be easily adapted to a variety of activities. We look for wide doorways and halls, durable surfaces and community space for residents.

Our first projects were in older buildings; today, with little loft space available, many of our projects are new construction. Seattle’s Tashiro Kaplan Artist Lofts was our first new construction project; it was built over an existing historic structure. We wanted to preserve space for artists in a community where they had congregated for decades. This was an opportunity to stabilize Seattle’s creative community and Pioneer Square’s identity as an arts district.

AM   How are projects initiated?

CV   Initially, artists asked for help when they sensed they might be evicted, such as in Portland’s Pearl District. Increasingly, we receive calls from mayors and government agencies asking us to support existing artist congregations whose housing is threatened or encourage the creation of arts districts within communities where they don’t exist. Sometimes, cities donate land because our projects meet their affordable housing and transportation goals.

AM   What is your response to criticism that artist housing causes urban gentrification?

CV   I think it’s amazing that they’re talking about low-income housing projects causing gentrification. Frequently, our projects are created for between 30–60% of area median income. I think it’s terrific if these projects make neighborhoods safer and bring them cultural amenities. Our goal is to make Artspace neighbors feel as if they have a place to congregate, participate and engage with the creative community.

AM   Does Artspace have a strategy for leasing commercial spaces?

CV   There is as great a need for affordable creative business space – for galleries, design studios and digital-media small businesses, for instance – as there is for artists’ live/work space. We try to structure financing so that commercial space is affordable as well. Because we’re often located in emerging neighborhoods, we could not – nor would we want to – lease commercial space outside of a feasible cost range for a start-up business. Our goal is to create affordable creative space that serves the community.

AM   In terms of artists, who applies to lease Artspace projects?

CV   Although we give a preference to practicing artists, anyone can apply. Our tenants come from a range of disciplines that include visual arts, theater, dance, music, literature and film. Artspace makes no judgment on the style or quality of the work. A peer committee reviews applicants, who must show a body of work that illustrates how they are actively engaged with an art practice.

AM   Tell us about the new Artspace project in Mount Baker.

CV   In January 2013, construction will begin on 57 units of low-income artist housing (studio, one-bedroom and three-bedroom spaces), and 12 commercial spaces for creative businesses in Rainier Valley; it’s an attempt to jumpstart a walkable urban village, as this project will not have designated parking.

We were initially contacted by the Mayor’s Office to look at the site because of their transit-oriented development (TOD) goals. We then responded to Sound Transit’s request for proposals for the site at the Mount Baker Link Light Rail Station on Rainier Avenue South. We have been working with the City and Sound Transit for the past couple of years to bring this project to reality.

In the course of developing this project, we engaged with South Seattle’s large ethnically diverse community, including Mohamud Yussuf, editor of RUNTA, a Somali newspaper; Vu Le, director of the Vietnamese Friends Association; and Admassu Suessese, an artist who plans to open a gallery for African artists.

Every low-income housing project must conform to income thresholds determined by HUD based on area median income levels. Individuals and families leasing space at our Mount Baker project will pay approximately $500 to $1,300 a month in rent.

AM   Can artists get on the interest list now?

CV   We have a list of artists interested in leasing at Artspace Mt. Baker Station Lofts, but it is not a waiting list. Three months prior to the project opening, those on our interest list will be notified that ap- plications are available. If you are a Seattle artist in need of affordable live/work space and/or if you are interested in being part of the Mt. Baker Lofts commercial family, let us know!