Our good friends at LINC (Leveraging Investments in Creativity) have partnered with the extraordinary researcher (and also friend to this site) Maria Rosario Jackson (formerly with Urban Institute) to publish a new monograph called “Developing Artists-Driven Spaces in Marginalized Communities: Reflections and Implications for the Field.”

I received a hard copy last week and was excited to read about some ideas that I have believed in and advocated for most of my life. The clarity with which Maria Rosario Jackson expresses concepts that in lesser hands can seem otherwise convoluted and highfaluting is refreshing; she picks up a thread that has not been adequately discussed in the many cycles of “building- mania” that have assaulted the artworld in the last several decades: the crafting of art spaces in ethnic, low-income and marginalized communities (as such out-of-the-mainstream spaces are conceived, fought for, made and run by artists and grassroots cultural advocates).

 

Ashe Cultural Arts Center, New Orleans, Louisiana

 

The topic of “art space” is big nowadays -with major philanthropic efforts like ArtPlace throwing huge support behind actual acquisition and rehabilitation of buildings, launching of capital campaigns and a lot of other  “real estate” projects that (partly on account of moneys for this purpose becoming available -the iron law of charity, I suppose) have popped up all over the land.

 

I confess I was  skeptic of these efforts, for a short while. I have seen too many art buildings built that had nothing at all to do with the needs/wishes/wants of the neighborhoods or communities they claimed to represent; “build it and they will come” seems to me was one of the most shallow and potentially disastrous ideas to gain traction in the artworld of the 1990s and the first decade of this century (for an interesting contrarian opinion to the building-craze, see this post by Sunil Iyengar, Director, NEA Office of Research and Analysis).

 

Musical performance at Dance Place, Washington D.C.

But in this report, short and concisely, Jackson reminds us why space (its acquisition, development, control, and deployment) is in fact at the heart of any agenda of social justice and cultural equity. “Spaces in which arts and cultural activity happen,” she says in the report’s first sentence, “are often the pulse points of community.”  The kinds of things that happen in these art spaces in often forgotten (or given up) neighborhoods are nothing short of magic. I speak as someone who has seen ordinary neighborhood folks (immigrant Latina women pushing strollers, daylaborers sending money at the Western Union post next door, for instance) have their whole perspective in life changed by coming into contact with ART inside a gallery or theater-turned storefront). “People gather; curiosity is piqued; world views are challenged or affirmed; intellect, critical thinking, and compassion are expanded….” states Jackson in her introduction.

The report is not a technical how-to manual, but it does seek to offer a bird’s eye view of some of the key issues involved in making these kinds of spaces possible and most significantly, feasible and financially sound  (interesting note to all who dream of a building:a 2007 Urban Institute and LINC study on artist space development financing reported that 95% of the artist space development process is the same as that for ANY OTHER real estate development!). Word to the wise: you gotta do your homework.

Project Row Houses, Houston, TX

Jackson offers a basic definition of what she means by “artist-driven or artist-initiated spaces:” artistic venues that are integrated into residential, mixed-use, commercial, industrial, and some rural areas. The report  highlights the leading non-profit arts developer in the country, Artspace. (Visit their website and you’ll see that these are the must-go-to people in this field). But it also makes ample references to some of the most iconic examples of this type of work; namely, the highly regarded Project Row Houses in Houston, Texas; Dance Place in Washington D.C.; AS220 in Providence, Rhode Island; Watts House Project in Los Angeles, California; and Ashe Cultural Arts Center in New Orleans, Louisiana.

While mainstream museum and performing art center planning of the highest order have their challenges, artist-driven spaces in marginalized communities confront developers with additional considerations. Jackson names three: these neighborhood sites often need spaces that can accommodate multiple disciplines at once; they also require modular spaces to accommodate art and non-art activities together; they are often built or renovated with the intent of affirming (in physical form) specific cultural identities and aesthetic choices.

Some of the reasons why marginalized neighborhoods or other neglected areas are preferred for these types of art spaces, Jackson affirms, are purely pragmatic: real estate tends to be more affordable in these communities. But the real beauty and power of this idea is mainly philosophical. Jackson says:

“where many people see only blight and deficiency, artists can see assets, opportunity, possibility, and potential for transformation.”

AS220 in Providence, Rhode Island

This operating principle is supported in place by another, even bigger, idea (one that I have called “the infrastructure that culture builds” in a recent post in this site). In Jackson’s words: “the creation of art spaces and the work that takes place in them is not only about ‘art.’ It is not primarily about the creation of an object, a performance, or something else for an audience.” Hallelujah! This basic but fundamental concept still eludes many so-called art experts who offer advise on “outreach” programs of a multi-culti variety, still after so many years of un-learning that these approaches don’t really work with ‘the folks’: culture builds the networks first, then comes the art that expresses that community view, aesthetic, dream of invention.

Jackson cites one of the wisest and fiercest cultural workers in the country in this regards: Carol Bebelle of Ashe Cultura Arts Center in New Orleans. The space and the work that happens in it (get this straight) are about the culture that makes art possible —”the culture that gives artists roots and inspiration.” As Bebelle has put it: “Art is the favored daughter, but CULTURE IS THE BIG MAMA.”

Thank you LINC and Maria Rosario for this great contribution to our collective thinking about “space.”