May 24, 2016

Race and housing in the Twin Cities: Don't underestimate the value of building spaces for artists

Artspace, the nation’s leading nonprofit developer of affordable housing for artists, was recently included in a study by the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity titled “The Rise of White-Segregated Subsidized Housing” (“Study finds racial bias in housing for artists,” May 21). The underlying thesis of this study is so far removed from the reality of the work we do at Artspace that I feel compelled to refute it. Since developing our first project in Lowertown St. Paul, the Northern Warehouse Artists Cooperative in 1990, we’ve gone on to create 40 other “art spaces” across the country, in places as diverse as Minot, N.D., and New York City.

In virtually every case, we’ve run up against people who have opposed the idea of artist housing, perhaps because they don’t believe artists add value to communities, or in some cases because they don’t accept that many artists — of all backgrounds — are genuinely poor and facing extreme hardship.

In many cases, we also have had to overcome the opposition to people who have been upset by the diversity of artists we embrace. Here is a perfect example, from just up Interstate 35.

When Artspace was asked by the city of Duluth to explore the potential redevelopment of a vacated school, Washington Junior High, it was immediately apparent that the Central Hillside neighborhood included a strong Ojibwe community. There was also a small but vocal segment that strongly resisted the presence of these Native Americans.

Spending time with Ojibwe residents, many of whom lived in substandard housing, we were exposed to a more expansive definition of what “art” or “creativity” mean in a non-Western tradition. We also learned about a culture that values multigenerational households and, at their request, we worked to design spaces that could accommodate larger families.

Sadly, a small segment of the non-Native community started a very ugly campaign against our plans once they realized that we were encouraging the Native, Hispanic and other communities of color to apply for residency. This negative segment of the community attended City Hall meetings and campaigned to have this vacated school building torn down rather than house the diversity that we at Artspace were working toward. This campaign to stop the project also included a fair amount of homophobia, directed at me, the president of Artspace.

At one Duluth City Council meeting, while members of the Native community spoke in favor of the Artspace vision of a culturally based artist housing project, a man sitting next to me whispered loudly to his friend, “Why are those damn foreigners here to support Artspace?” I was so shocked that it took me a few minutes to realize that he meant the Native Americans.

The Native leadership definitely carried the day, and the City Council voted to supply the last piece of funding that we needed for this project. When it opened, 21 of the 39 units in this project were occupied by artists of color.

I share this story because this is the norm for Artspace. As more entities develop affordable artist housing, it’s entirely appropriate to examine how the work is practiced — and to challenge the field to be as equitable as possible. But while the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity study asks important questions, it fails to recognize that artist housing can be practiced in different ways and that it can be a force for inclusion and opportunity. Based on a few examples rather than a broader look, it condemns the entire field. This is a lost opportunity for a more serious, productive conversation.

Artspace will continue to do the important work of providing affordable homes to low-income artists and their families. As a nonprofit organization driven by a mission, rather than profit, we believe strongly in what we do and how we work. Based on our record and the relationships with thousands of artists to whom we provide homes and hundreds of mayors, City Council members, social-justice advocates and other nonprofits who support Artspace, we welcome the opportunity to model and share best practices that can make artist housing a core element of diverse, thriving neighborhoods.

Kelley Lindquist is president of Artspace, a nonprofit organization based in Minneapolis.

Read the original commentary in the Star Tribune here

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