ArtsXchange: St. Pete creates affordable artist work spaces

Big picture problem: Artists and the arts they create often serve as a catalyst for economic and urban development. Yet a cyclical phenomenon occurs in cities nationwide whereby rents soar and artists can no longer afford the very neighborhoods they helped develop.  

One solution: St. Petersburg, a Florida city with an international reputation as a cultural hub, is teaming up with a nonprofit arts organization to break the cycle and ensure that St. Pete artists have a place to continue to create in the heart of the city at sustainable rents. 

The Warehouse Arts District Association, a consortium of “artists, galleries, art suppliers and supporters,” purchased 50,000 square feet of warehouse space in February of this year on 2.7 acres at the corner of 22nd Street South and 5th Avenue South. The space, formerly the Ace Recycling Compound, will become the “ArtsXchange,” providing affordable studio and performing arts space for the district’s artists of all disciplines. 

“As a working artist, I’ve watched this happen all over the country,” says Mark Aeling, a founder of the Warehouse Arts District Association and president of the board for the ArtsXchange. “Artists come into a run-down area because they can get inexpensive rents, then creative energy spawns redevelopment, then pushes them out. What we are doing is breaking that mold.”  

“We wanted to purchase something where we can have control over pricing,” says ArtsXchange executive director Tracy Kennard. “There is already a waiting list of 195 artists.” 

Aeling says the ArtsXchange will not just cater to visual artists, but performing and literary artists as well, and will include educational programming and perhaps an artist-in-residence or incubator model “so we can add depth to the arts community.”  He sees the compound as creating a “very communal feeling” inviting to artists, of course, but also open to the public to visit and experience art and the artists. In that spirit, they also envision the possibility of a restaurant or micro-brew being included in the space. 

The initial capital campaign raised $350,000, including $75,000 from the City of St. Pete, which covered the down payment for the property, closing costs and some architectural concepting. Aeling says 40 percent of the space is currently under lease and generating revenues, so they are already covering operational costs. (Eight-thousand square feet are utilized by Aelings’s company, MGA Sculpture, which creates commissioned large-scale public art for developers and designers.) 

The first phase of the project will bring 11,000 square feet “online” including 28 air-conditioned artist studios ranging in size from 150- to 750- square feet as well as 1,500 square feet of gallery space on premise. Kennard says eligibility for the space is not based on quality of art, but the size the artist is looking for. Those renovations are estimated to cost about $500,000 and an additional $200,000 is needed for the next phase, which contemplates much larger studios.

Kennard and Aeling are continuing to raise funds necessary for the renovations. Both are confident the first phase will be available to artists by year’s end. 

Hayes Cumming Architects based in St. Pete will design the project. The Warehouse District Association will set rent prices, but will hire a property management firm to handle transactions and maintenance. 

Read more articles by Kendra Langlie.

Kendra Langlie is a feature writer at 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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