Day II: Arts, Culture, and Community Economic Development

On Monday, I attended an off-site session at chashama’s 126th Street artist studios, which provides workspace for 38 artists in a rapidly gentrifying area of Harlem. The subject of the meeting, appropriately, was the arts and economic development. Organized by GIA board member Janet Rodriguez, the session featured remarks from Scott Metzner, the owner of the building that chashama currently occupies; Heather Hitchens, the executive director of the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA); Anita Durst, the founder and artistic director of chashama, and Mary Puryear, program officer for the Prudential Foundation in economic development.

Durst spoke first and told the story of chashama. The organization was founded in 1995 when Durst, a theater artist whose family owns a large portfolio of Manhattan real estate, found her friends asking her more and more frequently for access to her personal rehearsal space. Durst had the idea of using her family’s real estate connections to convince landlords to lend space that would otherwise be temporarily vacant to artists in the interim. The model has proven quite successful, and chashama now has a long list of both landlords and artists who want to be matched with each other. While  stays in a given space can be as short as a month, the average tenure for a chashama space is 2-3 years. The organization has served more than 6,000 artists in the past 15 years, including nearly 100 at the present time.

From a developer’s perspective, like Metzner’s, the value proposition of chashama is compelling not only for the promise of filling otherwise vacant space (Metzner estimated that the financial benefit to his firm will be negligible), but also for the promise of a reliable tenant who actually will take care of the space. The fact that chashama carries its own insurance was seen as notable by both Durst and Metzner. Metzner specifically cited Durst herself in her role as champion as the main motivating factor for him in deciding to go ahead with the deal.

Though Puryear works in the economic development realm for Prudential, she and the Foundation see the arts as a means toward her program’s goals. She took care to note that, from her perspective, it doesn’t matter at all that it’s the arts that cause these effects–the point is that it works. Prudential, which is typically the #1 or #2 funder in the state of New Jersey with an annual investment in the city of Newark of $7-8 million, played a particularly major role in helping the New Jersey Performing Arts Center to happen. Puryear reported that the neighborhood has seen such enormous changes since the opening of the facility that there is no comparison.

Hitchens spoke about community economic development from a state funding standpoint. When Hitchens arrived at NYSCA, the agency was pretty much an island unto itself – interactions with other state entities, even those that also funded arts organizations (such as economic empowerment agencies), were rare and not at all systematized. Worse, NYSCA was seen by lawmakers as the “fun” agency, implying that it was not taken seriously. Despite this, Hitchens reported that legislators from both parties are largely on board with the notion of the arts being helpful to economic development; a common refrain is that the priorities for economic development are crime, schools, and culture. For that reason, Hitchens feels that the challenge has to do (at least in New York) less with making the pitch than with connecting the dots: convening people doing similar work in different areas and breaking down internal and external silos.

Though research has shown remarkable parallels between arts activity today and growth in real estate prices tomorrow, there seemed to be some disagreement and uncertainty among the attendees as to the exact nature of the arts’ impact on economic development and especially how one would measure that impact. Metzner remarked that the specific scale and mix of arts activity required to “move the needle” is unknown at this time.

Despite the extremely interesting content of the session, the highlight might have been the tour of the studios themselves. Many of the artists were present, working with a dizzying array of media and in some cases transforming their workspaces into elaborate creations in their own right. There is also a gallery of works in the main entrance.