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Art vs. Mediocrity

Artists need studios – will they fight to keep their spaces and communities?

A serious space to work.
A last look at what was a serious space to work.

As an emerging artist, my studio is the core of my creative development. In August of 2007 the “Chocolate Factory” building where my studio was located, and another building belonging to Central Services, LLC, were sold. I could not afford to pay a 30% increase in rent or find another space and so I must give up my studio of the past 3 years. My studio space had been below market value ($8-10/sq. foot) under its former landlord allowing it to become an incubator space for artists, tech industry and nonprofit groups. The establishment of a higher market value ($15 -17/sq. foot) is relative to the perceived desirability of the area and monopoly interest and capacity of one real estate holder, not to any physical changes or improvements to the building at 4541 N. Ravenswood.

Here lies the other side to the development of Ravenswood Corridor (and development of any mixed-use area). Artists have long been an indicator species: settling in rough, raw spaces and generating speculative interest by their presence. Ravenswood, once an industrial hub of Chicago, has quietly become a hub of culture. This evolution has happened in the periphery of everyday business and life. Virtually unknown to local business councils and chambers whose priority has always been industrial retention and business services, the large community of professional artists has no advocate or unified voice in the meetings that will decide the fate of Ravenswood Corridor. Current zoning and amenable landlords have kept rents affordable but it is clear that is changing. The artists who have settled here over the past twenty years, and who have accumulated 20 years worth of work-in-progress and inventory, will likely “choose” to leave their studios over the next 2 years as rents increase and leases expire.

The Ravenswood area is beginning to show its prosperity and white-collar businesses and restaurants are starting up. Developers are making applications for zoning changes and rents will continue to increase. Artists are also businesses. Artists spend and make money, locally. We make areas desirable places to work and live for white collar professionals. Some critics might apply the same Darwinian standards to the survival of a fine-art business as to a restaurant or design firm, arguing that artists don’t “give back” to their community. It is a distinct over-sight to disregard artists who are not “profitable”. Many of the professional artists in Ravenswood are teachers, or work with public art groups, or mentor youth in after-school programs – and we create art.  The knowledge and appreciation of art is enabled by an experience of it. Without artists in Ravenswood, there will be no more open studio tours – a unique opportunity for visitors and neighbors to interact with professional artists and to learn about the process of art-making.

It is increasingly important for communities of artists and arts advocates to foster the development of working and emerging professional artists. Show art in your place of business, sponsor a mural, or maintain affordable rent for artists who would otherwise be dislocated by rising property values. All of these actions sustain the larger community and keep urban spaces interesting and alive.

The problem of zoning (artists are not legally allowed to “manufacture” art with the intention of showing and selling in a area zoned as residential) and the issue of affordable space for artists is real. Business groups and interests are making decisions for the benefit of the community they understand and can quantify, mainly based on household income and revenue generated for the city. They are not specifically aware of how their decisions will result in changes to the cultural landscape.

Artists need to recognize themselves as businesses with an interest and stake in what is happening right now. For artists in Ravenswood, we need to work with other groups who share these concerns, such as the Jane Addams Resource Corporation and Cornelia’s Friends of the Arts to establish a broader dialogue that isn’t fueled by misconceptions such as: “Artists have no business sense.” or, conversely, “Developers want to kick-out all of the artists.”

Artists have an interest and a responsibility to take the lead in this discussion. If we are passive, the outcome is 100% certain that we will be displaced entirely.

What can we do that is pro-active to raise awareness for our concerns as stake-holders?

Do we see ourselves as part of a community that can work together, that must work together, to make our needs and interests real to a broader audience?

Can we make businesses understand what might be lost, not just for us personally, but to the cultural vitality of the area?

Can developers make money and save room for artists with lower incomes to continue to work and develop their businesses (provide incubator spaces)?

Think about it and, if you are an artist in Ravenswood, consider doing something about it.