For much of the past decade, the Northwest Austin art scene has been a desert for studio and gallery spaces, local artists say.

A 2016 map of cultural assets published by the city of Austin showed there was not a single visual arts studio open to the public in Northwest Austin, and Austin’s Cultural Funding Program is currently on hold over questions of equity and sustainability.

But that is beginning to change in North Austin. Two new galleries have opened to the public in the past 24 months, and a third gallery—a pop-up organized by some Northwest Austin artists—has been open throughout November.

“There are a lot of quality artists that are basically unseen,” said Andrea Loomis, an abstract glass artist and photographer. “The North and Northwest community—we’re hoping—is about to take off.”

Earlier in November, all three of those galleries were featured in the Austin Studio Tour, a self-guided art event produced by nonprofit art organization Big Medium.

Previously divided into two separate events—the West Austin Studio Tour and East Austin Studio Tour—the Austin Studio Tour annually draws thousands of visitors to galleries and art studios across the city.

Now, Northwest Austin’s artists are hoping to take momentum from the Austin Studio Tour to establish a new community of local creatives. This moment is also an opportunity, they said, to establish a hyperlocal relationship with neighbors who may have previously driven downtown or to East Austin to interact with and purchase art.

“We are working together to make this a destination for all the people in North Austin. There is a huge amount of people here, and they don’t know about us. East Austin is far. We are not; we are neighbors,” Loomis said.

New Northwest Austin art spaces

Loomis is at the forefront of a push to organize and elevate the Northwest Austin art community. The artist opened her Northwest Austin home studio to visitors for the first time this year as part of the Austin Studio Tour. Loomis said she has participated in Big Medium’s events since 2012 but has never had the chance to include her own studio on the tour until now.

“I was traveling with my stuff, showing in carports, in a pedicab garage, showing in an old Austin home—all of these different places,” Loomis said.

A total of six stops—three home studios and three galleries—across Northwest Austin were featured on the tour, with more than 100 local artists on display among them.

ArtUs Co—a shop, gallery and studio space in The Arboretum—itself has featured more than 100 Austin artists at its space, ArtUs Co Executive Director Joshua Green said. Green said he opened the gallery as a holiday pop-up market. The initial idea behind the pop-up space was to generate funds to open up another large studio and gallery facility.

Two years after the space first opened, ArtUs Co has expanded to include a second suite in The Arboretum with a small number of studio spaces for artists, Green said.

Now, Green said ArtUs Co is looking to launch an incubator project in the near future that will connect artists to workshops and provide more than just space to work but equipment, such as inkjet printers and canvases, that can help reduce costs.

“I’ve been observing what artists need over the years, and we’re trying to see if we can kind of fill a niche,” Green said. “Studios are kind of basement level, but there are other things they need. We’d like to get ... stuff to basically reduce costs, and then have workshops on how to be tax smart, increase your income and best business practices.”

In North Austin, another gallery is providing workshops and art classes to students in a small, hands-on space. The Paper Plate Gallery, an almost-hidden house gallery tucked away under groves of trees just off MoPac south of Howard Lane, opened in late 2020.

Gallery operator and curator Stern Hatcher transformed the small, once-rural house space into an art gallery that now features several local artists, including a 14-year-old Austinite. Since opening with the first gallery at The Paper Plate in late 2020, Hatcher—who previously worked at camera shops in Austin and Dallas—said he pivoted to include art and photography classes for interested students in the area.

“Up here in North Austin, in this neighborhood, there’s really not a place [for the arts], and I’m hoping to help create that, where people can go take art classes and learn photography,” Hatcher said.

Disappearing creative spaces

Northwest Austin’s newest gallery, a pop-up space in the Gateway Shopping Centers, may only exist for a fleeting moment before it closes. Deb Otto, a Northwest Austin-based painter and abstract ceramics artist, opened the Modern Living Art gallery alongside eight other Austin women artists for November.

“We want to fill that gap for a little more large-format [art pieces],” Otto said. “This isn’t crafts. These are, you know, big pieces.”

If Modern Living Art is well received throughout November, Otto said it is possible the collection of artists will be able to extend its lifespan.

“We’ve been told we can go ahead and keep going there if we get some kind of response,” Otto said. “This is definitely a test run.”

This is the second gallery in Northwest Austin for Otto, who ran the Mill and Leaf in The Arboretum area before the furniture and art gallery closed its doors a few years ago.

Modern Living Art Gallery came about as Otto and the other artists featured in the gallery scrambled to find a space to host their work for the Austin Studio Tour. Otto said it was easier to find a space for the pop-up gallery because malls are more willing to fill retail spaces left vacant by the coronavirus pandemic.

“If there is a shop sitting empty for even a couple months ... they are willing to run a pop-up, and you get a much better lease contract,” Otto said.But the artist and gallery operator said finding a permanent home in the city has proven elusive.

Artist studios require diverse utilities to serve the needs of artists across different mediums. Painters may need an abundance of natural light or silence. Artists who work in ceramics require access to a kiln, and blacksmiths and metal workers need spaces with excellent ventilation.

Even if Otto could find space to fit all requirements, she said prices have become unattainable in the past several years.

“Rents have gone through the roof from the time I looked pre-COVID[-19] until now. Some of them have even doubled,” she said.

The city of Austin Economic Development Department in July surveyed local artists about access to affordable creative spaces. According to the results of that survey, only 30% of artists citywide report having access to affordable studio space. That is down from 39% in 2020. Nearly half of the survey respondents said rent on their studio space has increased in the past year.

ArtUs Co has stepped in to partially fill that gap. The arts organization operates nine studios out of a space adjacent to its gallery and shop in The Arboretum. But those spots are currently full.

To address the continuing demand for affordable studio space, both in Northwest Austin and citywide, local artists say dedicated funding or monetary loans will need to come from the city’s coffers.

A difficult ask considering it comes at a time when the city of Austin is expected to reduce funding of its cultural arts division by about $3.5 million next year, about one-third of 2020’s total. This also comes as hotel occupancy taxes, which support the city’s cultural funding, have fallen amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think at the heart of the matter, there are too many people asking [for funding] from too little of a pot. Expanding the pool of money would be really good,” Green said.

Ben Thompson contributed to this report.