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Jessie Wright

A Summer in Artist-Led Community Revitalization

by Jessie Wright Monday, June 13, 2016

A few weekends ago, I spent the afternoon walking around Art-A-Whirl, the largest open studio event in the country. For three days in the Arts District of Northeast Minneapolis, artists fling open their studio doors and invite the public to come watch, ask, buy, and meet. I joined the thousands of people flooding through the neighborhood as the music of live bands in the backyards of brewpubs filled the air and the sun of the first real hot summer day beat down on us. I ducked into the first large studio building I came across and was met with three floors of vibrant exhibitions and eager chatter. Photographers, potters, clothing designers, painters, mixed media artists, jewelers, filmographers, glass blowers, paper makers… all exhibiting their work in the space where they created it. I marveled at the setting – an old beer bottling warehouse transformed into a neighborhood center, emitting a steady hum of creative energy. As I headed back towards the door, I noticed a pile of flyers sitting by the entrance. I smiled as I picked up a pamphlet that said “Welcome to the Neighborhood, from Artspace.” I hadn’t realized it, but I had been walking through a project built by the very people I had just spent a day at the office with. This was an Artspace building, and I am an Artspace summer intern.

As a nonprofit real estate developer, Artspace has been working with communities for almost 30 years to develop affordable artist live/work housing and arts facilities around the country. Their projects are community-centric, often serving as tools for urban revitalization and historic preservation. The project I had stumbled upon in Northeast Minneapolis was Grain Belt Studios, one of Artspace’s 37 completed developments in the country. But Artspace is more than just a traditional developer – the majority of their projects remain in their portfolio, managed by dedicated asset managers with a commitment to keeping rents affordable in perpetuity.

I am working in Artspace’s Consulting and Strategic Partnerships department this summer. With years of project development work with diverse communities and stakeholders, Artspace offers their expertise to cities, counties, local foundations, and councils who want to explore the possibility of an arts-centric solution to community building, revitalization or preservation. Some of these clients turn into future Artspace projects, while some simply utilize Artspace’s consultation and recommendations for their own work. Projects can range from creating a city plan for a designated arts district, to finding the best use for historic downtown buildings, to gathering data on a community’s market for artist housing or arts spaces. 

I am so lucky to be working at a place which operates at the crossroads of nonprofit mission, development strategy, market research and consulting practice. Already I have had the opportunity to research and hear from communities all over the country – from rural Colorado to small town New York, from Miami and Detroit to my own backyard in North Minneapolis. I have been able to analyze market research data from different communities, using the statistical analysis skills from my first year MBA to pull correlations and probabilities from varied client feedback. I am working on editing and streamlining the package of communications we use with our clients, to ensure clear messaging and a cohesive experience. I’ve had the opportunity to learn about different financing tools, from Federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits to Historic Preservation Tax Credits from state to state, providing research to our consulting team in the field. It is exciting to go to work each day and get a view into the many places across the country that are doing great work and seeking creative solutions to complicated challenges.

So much of Artspace’s consulting practice is potent preparation for our Bolz Capstone Consulting Project, during which the five second-year students will be working with the City of Kenosha to develop a cultural plan for the city. I am eager to learn as much as I can this summer about aligning stakeholders, conducting careful feasibility and market research, and discovering the best fit for a unique community. Seeing the work in action – whether at weekend events like Art-A-Whirl or every day when I go into the Artspace offices housed in the Traffic Zone Center for the Visual Arts – brings home the impact this type of work can have on neighborhoods and the artists within them.