From the ground up: Can Northwest Austin be the city’s next home for artists?

Local artists and art supports are working to secure studio space for artists of all disciplines in Northwest Austin, an area that has long been considered an art desert.

Local artists and art supports are working to secure studio space for artists of all disciplines in Northwest Austin, an area that has long been considered an art desert.

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Living in an art desert
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By the numbers
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Paint by numbers
Local artist Daniel Arredondo has lived in the area surrounding The Arboretum for more than three decades, but in that time the painter has never worked in a studio near his house. According to Arredondo, he has worked out of studios all across the city—currently residing at Cement Loop in East Austin—despite his efforts to find a studio closer to home.

“Even if there was [a studio, the price] is too high—even compared to East Austin—and I looked. It’s just outrageous,” Arredondo said.

In a city teeming with artistic talent and demand for workspaces, Northwest Austin has been and remains an art desert.

According to the city of Austin’s Cultural Asset Mapping Project, a crowdsourced tool launched in 2016 to identify locations of cultural significance, there are 21 creative workspaces in Northwest Austin. Only two are visual art studios, both of which are nested in private residencies. There are no studio spaces for visual artists open to the public in Northwest Austin, according to CAMP.

For the first time in decades, however, there is opportunity to add artistic spaces to the area. The city of Austin has $12 million of voter-approved bond funds dedicated to supplementing the arts and is currently in the early stages of calculating how to divvy it up.

At the same time, there are efforts underway to locate and secure space for artists in North and Northwest Austin, facilitated by a collection of experienced, local artists.

ARTISTIC EFFORTS


Martha Ward, a local art enthusiast, began convening local artists and nonprofit leaders for monthly luncheons at the beginning of this year. The group’s goal, Ward says, is to identify and secure spaces for Austin artists to create and exhibit their work.

“We have to figure out how to get [to Northwest Austin],” Ward said at the group’s most recent luncheon. “The big-box stores, a lot of them are going closed, and I think they present a tremendous opportunity ... for the arts.”

Ward maintains that if a space ever takes shape in Northwest Austin, it needs to be inclusive for all of the arts. That means performance space for theater and dance groups as well as exhibition space for visual artists, kilns for sculptors and sound rooms for musicians.

So far, Ward says she has personally looked at spaces ranging from an old church to closed stores in strip malls. The group was in serious discussions to acquire a 60,000-square-foot space that would serve all disciplines of art, but the negotiations fell through due to a lack of capital and a financial guarantor.

There is opportunity now for Austin’s art community to leverage public funds to secure workspace, however. As previously reported by Community Impact Newspaper, representatives from the city’s creative community told the Austin Music Commission on March 4 that the full $12 million needs to be released soon in order to protect venues from closing.

Shea Little, executive director of contemporary art nonprofit Big Medium, said Austin’s art groups need to cooperatively strategize with the city in order to divvy up the bond funds.

“I want to see bond dollars going to larger, more impactful things—more visible—so that if the same voters are here next cycle that voted last cycle, they’re seeing the best use of their dollars being spent,” Little said. “Twelve million dollars is not that much anymore. It will be gone instantly, and if you break that up ... it seems like it’s going to be spread real thin.”



DEMAND FOR SPACE


Big Medium helps to operate and manage Canopy, an arts community with studio and exhibition space in East Austin. According to Little, the wait list for Canopy regularly stretches into the hundreds, and demand has only grown as more studio spaces close down. By his own count, Little said that four studio spaces have shuttered in East Austin alone in the past three years.

In 2016, the Austin Cultural Arts Division—an arm of the city’s economic development department—published the results of a survey that reached Austin’s artist community. A total of 528 Austin-area creatives fully completed the survey—likely a fraction of the city’s total creative community. Survey respondents said access to work space was the third-highest expected need for those who responded, especially for those in performance art.

Demand has likely grown since the time of that survey as multiple studio spaces and theaters have closed.

According to the cultural arts division’s 2016 survey, more than 14 percent of creatives live in the six ZIP codes that make up Northwest Austin.

“Currently there is nothing that is responding to the demand. I do believe there is demand in Northwest Austin,” Little said. “[Artists] will travel from wherever they live to come work in [Canopy]. Likewise, if it is in Northwest Austin, it doesn’t necessarily have to serve the immediate neighbors—they’ll come from anywhere to take advantage of a facility.”

An arts facility has potential to add economic input to an area because of that foot traffic, as Little says gallery guests and friends of artists are likely to support small businesses in the surrounding neighborhood. And there are examples to support that.

A 2010 economic impact report published by the cultural arts division showed the creative sector in Austin accounted for $4.35 billion in annual economic activity at the time.

Cement Loop, the studio collection where Arredondo currently works, was opened in Northeast Austin in 2014 by Stafford Gunning and Cedric Douglas, two lifetime Austin residents. The space sits at the end of a strip mall center that, prior to opening, sat vacant for three years, according to Gunning.

“We saw the vacant space and took a chance that it would serve the community and the neighborhood,” Gunning said. “We want to bring in people who live nearby.”

The studio space currently houses a record label, a studio for sculptors and practice space for musicians. Cement Loop’s side yard has hosted the nearby community’s block party, bringing in residents from the community, and the studio’s exhibitions regularly attract visitors to spend money at local storefronts. On the business end, Gunning reports that he has no shortage of demand for space and fields calls for space inquiries on a weekly basis.

“Artists of all types ... are spread out throughout the city,” Gunning said. “We know pretty well that people who are working part-time to be an artist that are looking for space are having difficulty finding it.”

The Downtown Austin Alliance in April released its inaugural “State of Downtown” report, which identified key economic development, housing and cultural data. The report found the downtown area has lost approximately 1,800 arts, entertainment and recreation jobs since 2010.

It is unclear where those jobs went. Looking at CAMP data, East Austin and South Central Austin hold the largest concentration of  workspaces by a large margin.

The cultural arts division’s CAMP report, published in 2018, found that creatives in Austin City Council’s District 6, which comprises most of Northwest Austin, identified the lack of workspace as the area’s primary need.

“[Creatives] mentioned they feel many artists live in their district, but lack the space for them to work, perform, or exhibit locally and expressed their desire for more local facilities,” the report reads.

The bond package represents an opportunity for many arts groups throughout the city, Northwest Austin notwithstanding. But that bond money in of itself won’t build an art community, local artists contend.

“Maybe we can find some additional ways, whether it is private funds, additional public funds—even grants of some sort—to make that $12 million go as far as it can,” Gunning said. “In the Northwest area, I still hold hope that there are potential built spaces ... with an owner that takes a chance, that gives the arts an opportunity.”
By Iain Oldman
Iain Oldman joined Community Impact Newspaper in 2017 after spending two years in Pittsburgh, Pa., where he covered Pittsburgh City Council. His byline has appeared in PublicSource, WESA-FM and Scranton-Times Tribune. Iain worked as the reporter for Community Impact Newspaper's flagship Round Rock/Pflugerville/Hutto edition and is now working as the editor for the Northwest Austin edition.


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