Greater Cleveland artists raise concerns about affordable studio space
When close to 100 Cuyahoga County artists gathered at SPACES Gallery in Ohio City in March, it wasn’t for a new exhibit. It was to discuss space itself: Many artists are finding it difficult to afford a place to create in Cleveland, and some studio buildings are being sold or converted for other uses.
“I think it was really critically important to highlight this as an issue,” said Cleveland Planning Director Joyce Pan Huang, who was at the event. “There’s a very practical issue at hand, which is that artists often have studio space, they can find it an affordable rate, and then the neighborhood begins to change and grow, rents rise and then artists have to find a new space.”
That may be happening to Robin VanLear. The Cleveland Arts Prize recipient has had a decades-long career in the region, and she currently runs artist spaces and community programming out of a former elementary school in Cleveland Heights. She said their rents are increasing under new management. One-time donations are helping them get by, but they’re also seeking grants, which can be challenging to navigate for new non-profits.
Her husband, Jesse Rhinehart, is facing a similar issue. He was previously in Cleveland’s ArtCraft Building, but he had to move last year.
“He does large murals and really large-scale paintings,” she said. “He needed a really big space and those are really hard to come by. And his rent went up by 50 percent.”
Change ahead at ArtCraft and the Screw
The century-old ArtCraft building has been an artists’ colony since the 1990s - but it’s being repurposed as the new Cleveland Police headquarters. A similar structure, the Screw Factory, is up for sale in Lakewood. One of its tenants, woodworker and guitar maker Freddy Hill, is not looking forward to potentially moving.
“If I were to take a random guess at how many individual sticks of lumber, drill bits, tools, jigs, clamps, machines - there's over 100,000 different pieces in this shop, I'm sure,” he said. “It's almost 15 years of building a shop and collecting tools, and it's 3,000 square feet and you're still stepping over things."
Hill has explored how a group of artists and investors might attain financing to buy the building. And as VanLear found out, it’s incredibly challenging.
“Way over my pay grade,” said Hill. “I recognize this is a moon shot, for sure: Why anybody would give me $14 million to buy a building when I, essentially, bring nothing to the table other than the dream of keeping this place as it is?”
Back to school
One group of artists can rely on studio access for at least part of the year: students. At Cleveland State University’s recent student art show, Renee Evans showed off several mixed-media pieces created as part of her art therapy studies. With the end of the semester, however, she’ll be back to working in her poorly lit, one-room apartment.
“I have to get the TV tray and situate it so I can work on one section of my paper or artwork, and then I have to move it to work on another section,” she said. “I don't have a table, I don't have chairs, I don't have couches, so my place actually looks like a dorm for painters. It looks very cluttered, but it really is organized. I have paints all over, I have papers and my folders…and off to the side I just have things I put up with clips. It's like a chess game: You have to move two things up and one thing over to get to the piece - the piece that you really need.”
Evans’ classmate, Jurnee Weeams, said even working on campus can be a challenge.
“The art buildings are separated by 10 blocks, so it's hard to get involved with each other and transport things,” she said. “A space for artists is really needed because we have nothing else. If we get united more - as a city, with the arts scene - I feel like we can do really great things.”
She likes the idea of the city doing something which has worked in San Francisco and Seattle: Buying abandoned buildings and turning them into artist lofts. The region has plenty of those, about 4,000 in Cleveland alone.
“We simply don’t have the capacity to maintain a portfolio of real estate properties beyond our rec centers and our city hall,” said Huang. “At this time, we are not going to be owning buildings and renting them out and managing them and things like that.”
Huang said the city is investing in arts in other ways, including personnel. Later this summer, Cleveland will announce its first senior strategist for the arts, culture and the creative economy.