Artspace: Creating Sustainable Places for Artists

Linda Picone

The first project for Artspace, a nonprofit organization that develops affordable spaces for artists, was in an area of Saint Paul, Minnesota, that was, if not depressed, at least neglected. Starting in the late 1980s, Artspace redeveloped a six-story warehouse into fifty-two live/work units for artists, plus office, studio, and commercial space for nonprofit arts organizations and other tenants. At the time, the Lowertown area of Saint Paul was home to a number of empty or underused warehouses. The Northern Warehouse Artists’ Cooperative opened in 1990.

Today, more than twenty-five years later, the area is dramatically different in almost every way. The Green Line light-rail transit station terminus is yards from the building. Across the street is CHS Field, a splashy new home for the St. Paul Saints baseball team. The farmers’ market, a short block away, is a huge weekend draw for people from all over the city. Lowertown is booming, with new apartments, a refurbished Union Depot, and more to come. The number of residents in the area has grown by roughly 400 percent.

This economic boom has meant significant increases in rents in Saint Paul, from an average of $871 per month in August 2009 to $1,331 in June 2016 — an increase of nearly 53 percent. And yet, the Northern Warehouse still offers affordable housing for artists, and through creative refinancing, will continue to do so for at least the next thirty years. That not only ensures live/work space for artists, it means that the artistic energy those artists have brought to the community — the creative placemaking — will continue. Call it creative placekeeping.

Artists have long been seen as agents of positive change in slumping neighborhoods. With limited incomes and a strong desire for community, they find places to live and work where the cost of living is low and where other artists are present. The neighborhood becomes known for its arts culture, from tiny galleries to the offices of arts organizations to open studio events, and over time becomes a desired destination. It is great for the neighborhood but not necessarily the artists. As the area becomes more attractive to nonartists, prices go up, and the low-cost living and work spaces are replaced. It is the so-called SoHo effect, after the SoHo neighborhood in New York City, which went from a manufacturing district to abandoned buildings to artist enclave to an expensive residential and shopping area.

Artspace was started in 1979 as an advocate organization for artist spaces, including housing, work spaces, organization offices, and presentation spaces like galleries and theaters. In the late 1980s, the organization moved to become a developer. Kelley Lindquist became president in 1987 and has led the organization ever since. The organization has grown from one employee to sixty and has a budget of $12 million per year. It has completed forty major projects with more than 1,500 live/work spaces for artists.

A commitment to not only creating live/work spaces for artists but also maintaining them over time has been the Artspace goal from the moment it became a producer of housing, not simply an advocate. “Our spaces are built to be permanently for artists,” Lindquist said. “Our spaces are never to be sold.”

For the Northern Warehouse, refinancing has been the key to maintaining the building as affordable spaces for artists until at least 2042. The majority of funding for the Northern Warehouse was in the form of Low-Income Housing Tax Credits, which require that the project developed provide affordable housing for a specific number of years; after that, a building can be sold or turned into a market-rate operation. Instead of doing either, however, Artspace refinanced the project in 2011, again using Low-Income Housing Tax Credits, guaranteeing it will continue to be affordable housing for another thirty years.

“As these older projects come up [to the end of the affordable housing requirement], we refinance them with the types of financing that require that we keep them low-income,” said Lindquist. “So whether I’m still here, or whether the board is still here, the building will have to stay affordable housing.”

Creative Financing

Artspace has become adept at the complicated and time- and energy-consuming work of putting together funding from multiple partners for a project. For example, El Barrio’s Artspace PS109 in New York City was financed with $53.4 million from federal, state, city, and philanthropic sources. The largest share was provided by two programs: federal and state historic tax credit equity ($11.9 million) and the federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credit ($24.9 million). New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs, the council members’ office, and the borough president’s office together contributed $6.3 million. Philanthropic support amounted to $4.6 million from twelve organizations, including Artspace and ArtPlace, in itself a collaboration of a number of foundations. New York City’s Housing Preservation and Development provided a low-income rental program loan of just under $4.5 million, and a federal appropriation amounted to $1.2 million.

Artspace was the first organization to use Low-Income Housing Tax Credits for an arts-related project. It has continued to look for creative ways to finance its projects. After a program in which Artspace and the National Endowment for the Arts did a presentation, Lindquist reported that Annie Donovan, director of the Community Development Financial Institutions Fund at the US Department of the Treasury, and he are looking for “appropriate paths” the department may have for funding Artspace projects.

Empowering Others

Although Artspace owns and operates forty buildings, it also works with communities that are interested in creating their own artist spaces. “A neighborhood comes together and supports a vacant storefront to become artist live/work space that the neighborhood and community would operate, not Artspace, but we guide them,” said Lindquist. Artspace is developing programs to share its expertise “so others can, hopefully, copy the work we’re doing,” Lindquist said. “We want to make sure that we are more purposeful about creating best practices and teaching that, and those will always be changing because government programs and philanthropic giving patterns will change.” Artspace will create documentation that can be shared, as well as teach programs.

The organization is making special efforts to work with interested individuals from distinct cultural communities who are interested in learning about consulting and real estate development for artist housing, and is fundraising for those efforts. “We want to make sure that what has been a primarily white male European–dominated business culture can give the lead to women and people of color,” Lindquist said. The organization has done a good job with women, he feels — five of the seven real estate developers at Artspace are women — but “we will continue to work with communities of color to make sure they are better represented not just on our staff but also in a training program to learn real estate as far as artist housing goes, then take that back to their communities.” He continued, “We want to have a long-term impact on changing the face of affordable housing across the United States, not just artist housing.”


“Creative placemaking is a big thing,” says Lindquist. “It can be a frame of mind, it can be the impact of how people think about a neighborhood or even a street corner. We have moved a long way from the way the words ‘creative placemaking’ first came about. It used to be about bricks and mortar, but now it’s a lot more than that.” But creating affordable spaces for artists to live and work is the first — and the most important — step. “The broader world of creative placemaking is ever expanding, and it’s spectacular, but to build real community, you have to have permanent affordable space for artists.”

Communities frequently are inspired to capitalize on the success of bricks-and-mortar projects, sometimes with additional development, sometimes with programming and planning. After Artspace Loveland opened, Colorado governor John Hickenlooper pointed to it as the model for Space to Create, a $50 million statewide initiative to develop affordable spaces for artists in rural communities, including live/work spaces, galleries, and community spaces. Hickenlooper said the initiative will collaborate with local and federal agencies.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio added fifteen hundred new affordable live/work units specifically for artists to his affordable housing plan and pledged to create five hundred additional work spaces for the cultural community. Although there had been concern about El Barrio’s Artspace PS109, its success in converting an abandoned school into artist space — and the 53,000 applications for those eighty-nine units — demonstrated the need in an increasingly expensive city.


Recently, the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity issued a study that looked at “white-segregated subsidized housing,” which it said is frequently designated artist housing. At least in Minneapolis and Saint Paul, the study says, “an important subset of units are located in predominately white neighborhoods, in attractive, expensive buildings. These units, which frequently are subject to special screening requirements [such as artist portfolios or other evidence of commitment to artist work], are mostly occupied by white tenants.”

Lindquist points to Artspace projects in communities that are largely populated by people of color, including Washington Studios in Duluth, Minnesota, where twenty-one of the thirty-nine units were occupied by artists of color, mostly Ojibwe.

The Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity charged that the cost per unit for artist housing is higher than it is for other affordable housing. Do artists really need “luxury” housing? is the argument. There are several reasons for the higher cost, Lindquist said, “and every place we’ve done a project, we’ve been able to convince the government people that it makes sense.”

  • Historic preservation: Most of the higher-cost projects have a historic preservation aspect to them, Lindquist said, with a historic preservation tax credit. “If you do the project correctly and follow the guidelines, you get the tax credits,” he said. “If you were to take out the historic preservation aspect, then the cost per unit would go down.”
  • Nonliving spaces: Most projects include more than live/work spaces for individual artists and their families, such as community space, galleries, offices for nonprofit organizations, theaters, and so on. “Most housing finance agencies aren’t used to dealing with a nonprofit developer that feels it’s so important to have ample community meeting and cultural celebrating spaces, as well as affordable housing, within our buildings,” said Lindquist. “Artspace can do that because we have philanthropic partners that pay for that build-out and running all that community space. We lower the rent greatly for local community groups that we want to give a home.”
  • Larger spaces: Artspace units are 15 to 20 percent larger than typical affordable housing units because they are work spaces as well as living spaces. “That does create a slightly larger cost per unit — which we’re proud of,” said Lindquist.

The Need

Gianninna Gutierrez is an artist who has worked in a variety of media, including found objects, oils, and acrylics. She moved into El Barrio’s Artspace PS109 in December 2014 and says her life has shifted since then. “I now finally have the validation, support, and means of living that can afford me to take my work further,” she said. “I feel that my progression as an artist as of late is majorly due to my environment. It’s a great benefit to be surrounded by other creatives.”

There are thousands of artists like Gutierrez across the country, many of them scrambling for space to live and do their creative work. “All of our buildings are filled,” Lindquist said, “whether it’s in Council Bluffs or Elgin or Loveland or Houston or Seattle. There will always be a need for creative space in the United States.”