When Artists Get Together They Talk About Real Estate
Chased out of her longtime Seattle workspace by earthquake threats and the imminent Bertha tunnel dig, artist Jane Richlovsky saw a chance to be entrepreneurial.
She was evicted in 2011, alongside more than a hundred other artists living and working in the storied 619 Western Avenue building. The Alaskan Way Viaduct had to come down, the tunnel had to go in. 619 Western, a thriving creative space for 30 years, was in the way.
“There was a lot of outcry about it — ‘Oh, look, they’re displacing all these artists, this is terrible!'” Richlovsky recalls today. “But artists lose their spaces all the time, and it’s not always widely known.”
The project left the career painter with a Department of Transportation buyout. She used that money to seed the renovation of 110 Cherry Street in Pioneer Square into a suite of art studios called ’57 Biscayne. Now she once again works alongside a cadre of fellow artists in a vibrant central neighborhood.
The experience got Richlovsky thinking about artists, their spaces, and the market forces that dominate both. Her Humanities Washington Speakers Bureau presentation, “When Artists Get Together They Talk About Real Estate,” sets out to puncture the myth of artists as exotic wildlife — in her words, “charismatic megafauna” — who often fall prey to rapacious developers.
“As long as artists are smart —which they are — and get over feeling like victims, we can actually harness that intelligence and become active charismatic megafauna that sit at the table with everybody else,” she says. “Even though there’s more talk these days about artists being businesspeople, there’s still a lot of resistance to this idea.”
Humanities Washington: There seem to be two responses to artists moving into a neighborhood. First, they’re seen as agents of gentrification who will cause rents to rise, and then second, they’re tossed out when markets finally come to favor higher-income tenants.
Jane Richlovsky: What’s funny is that those two responses are exactly what the paradigms are, but they’re hardly ever talked about together. During hard economic times, or in a neighborhood that is not doing well, urban planners and mayors and politicians will be like, “This is great! Artists are moving in [to this neighborhood] and bringing up property values!” like that’s a good thing — and if you’re in Marfa, Texas, in the 1970s, it is. But when the second response happens, when you’re too successful at it, people love telling the displacement story. We all love that tragedy, but then that’s it — we don’t actually follow up on where the artists went, until the next time it happens. When the urban planners and politicians want artists to move in and fix up a neighborhood, there’s no plan to keep them in place.
Does the way the media portrays matters of urban renovation versus art space help or hamper the effort to find equilibrium?
Kind of both, at different times. The first time, when 130 artists were getting displaced from our building that was falling down, there were a lot of do-gooders running around trying to save the building — and they were mixing up saving the building with actually saving it as artists’ studios. We were supposed to get Department of Transportation money, but if they had actually saved the building and just displaced us temporarily, it would have jeopardized our funds. They didn’t know this, but it was a lot of noise that was not helping the situation at all. Most of the time, it’s neutral — we go around making solutions, while other people spout rhetoric about saving us.
I think I was partly able to get a microphone and get a word with those people because it was seen as unusual for an artist to take an active interest in these things.
I’m much more interested in [artists] recognizing our economic value, and actually cashing the check rather than asking for charity.
How much space does the average artist need?
I’m a painter, and I have a lot of stuff, and you also accumulate a lot of work. I have about 300 square feet, and I use it all up. I had 20 when I was first getting started, and I filled that all up. I have spaces I rent anywhere from 170 square feet to the biggest here, probably about 700 square feet. Photographers need a certain amount of space, so they can get far enough away from their subject. I had a street photographer who did analog photography, and he just needed a darkroom — his space was tiny. Any space that I have of any size, somebody will rent it, let’s just put it that way. Down at Equinox Studios in Georgetown, there’s a lot of metalworkers in there, so some of them have big shops that a bunch of people share. Anybody who’s really equipment-heavy, like printmakers, usually have a lot of space that a lot of people share.
Is there a subsidizing solution to arts space in urban centers? Or are there market-driven ways to keep artists in commercial centers?
Both exist, and kind of in-between that there’s the nonprofit world. There’s a nonprofit called Artspace that does that — creating live-work lofts for artists. That’s part of it, but I personally am much more interested in a market-based solution, partly because I think it does something to counteract the stereotype of an artist as someone who needs charity. The neighborhood I’m in is traditionally an arts community. There’s theaters here, studio artists, music, and that’s what gives it its identity — and that’s kind of in danger. I’m much more interested in recognizing our economic value, and actually cashing the check rather than asking for charity. That’s just me. You ask ten people who care about these things, they’ll give you ten different answers, but I know a lot of artists who have supported me in this.
We’ve talked about the romantic notion of the displaced artist. When you were forced out of 619 Western Avenue, you found solutions, but do you remember that space nostalgically?
I kind of do, but I’m not by nature sort of a nostalgic person — my work is actually about poking holes in nostalgia. But what I look back on fondly is the people that were there — being around artists more experienced than me who were mentors, and being able to pass that on. That’s the part that was really valuable, and that’s the part I try to recreate.
Jane Richlovksy is presenting her free Humanities Washington talk, “When Artists Get Together They Talk About Real Estate,” around the state. Find out where she’s appearing next.