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Artist Space Guide

Getting Started

Making the Case for Artist Space

Making a strong case for having an artist space in a community is integral to any successful project.  Before jumping in, it is useful to determine a few things:

  • Is there a history of artist spaces in your community?  Do local artists, developers, funders, and public agencies have experience with artist space?  Has this experience been positive or negative?
  • Are there advocates for artist space?  Organizations like neighborhood groups, art associations, and city or town employees often advocate for the development of an artist space.  Which of these organizations exist in your area and how might they support your project?
  • Is there an artist space intermediary?  Is there an experienced agency or individual who can bring all parties together and communicate effectively between them?
  • What is the political climate?  Is the city or town trying to attract artists as residents and/or business owners?  Does the municipality grant financial or other incentives to artists?
  • Are there intersecting policy priorities or programs?  Is there a stated policy or program that artist space can enhance?  Examples might include an interest in the creative economy, creative clusters, artist districts, or historic preservation.

Sometimes learning who has tried to accomplish similar goals can yield valuable lessons and advice. At the Mass Cultural Council we are always willing to share our experience and insights.  Please feel free to contact Jay Paget, Cultural Facilities Fund Director, for more information.

Suggestions to Help You Make the Case
People who are developing artist space repeatedly find themselves advocating for their projects to funders, municipal officials, individual investors, other artists, and the community in general.  Use the following points to educate and influence the people whose support might be key to the success your project.  Consider them as the case-making (or advocacy) process evolves.

  • Project proposals must address the need for a particular space that is suitable for the corresponding creative practice, whether it’s sculpture, music, dance, robotics, cooking, etc.
  • Take a positive approach. You can make a powerful case for the cultural, social, and economic contributions artists make to a community.  Avoid painting yourself (or the artists you are representing) as different and needy.  Think of artists as beneficial to the vitality of communities and find ways to integrate their work with the community.  Giving back through public events like open studios, potlucks, lectures, and courses can generate a lot of goodwill.
  • Knowing the history of a building or neighborhood might be beneficial as you make your case in the civic halls and town offices you will visit. Often artist spaces repurpose and improve vacant property, renovate abandoned buildings, and preserve the historic fabric of cities and towns.  Situating your space in the history of a neighborhood demonstrates your dedication to the project and respect for the neighborhood, making your project more compelling.
  • All real estate development, including artist space, generates an economic ripple effect. Your project might need private investors, commercial lenders, architects, construction workers, building inspectors, electricians, and other contracted laborers.  If the project succeeds, economic benefits will follow for the artists and groups who work in the building.  Carefully think though the potential benefits and present them as clearly possible.
  • Once you have researched the feasibility of a potential space, put together a clear and comprehensive presentation that covers:
    1. Evidence of a market demand for this kind of space,
    2. Evidence that the space you have chosen can physically meet the proposed use
    3. A breakdown or estimate of the costs and skills required to operate the proposed artist space
    4. The funding and financing scenario for the project, and proof that the cost estimates are realistic.

Remember that development project artist space are often strong tools for garnering community interest, support, and participation.

Is this Building Right for Artists?

Find a building that is “easy” to convert to your artistic needs, meaning one that does not require major remedial work before being retrofitted for your creative practice.

If you are looking at potential buildings without professional advice, follow this checklist to avoid unwelcome surprises later on.

  • Layout for Your Use: Would the floor plan work for creating studio and/or living spaces? Does each floor have two legal means of egress and paths for hallways?
  • Sprinklers: Check building code in your town or ask a code consultant to learn if sprinklers are required? If they are and there are preexisting ones, do they work? If they need to be installed, can that be done easily? Do the current ones need to be replaced?
  • Mechanical Systems: Will the heating and electrical systems meet your needs? Can you control the heating system efficiently?
  • Environmental: 21-E is the  section in Mass Law governing environmental clean-up. A Phase One 21-E Test involves an environmental engineer walk through and a public records audit for reports of underground tanks or spills in the building and within a radius of the building. Most projects also require a Phase Two examination, which involves testing samples from a site.  Without at least a Phase One test, it is risky to spend much, if any, money on professional design or legal services. In other words, do not proceed to the design or legal phase of project development until the prospective space has passed Phase One of the 21-E Test conducted by a certified environmental engineer.
  • Structural: Though you need an expert for the final word on structural problems, keep an eye out for signs of larger problems, like sagging or bouncing floors, major masonry cracks, puddles on wood floors, or obvious foundation settlement.
  • Roof: How old is the roof? Has it been maintained or is it leaking badly? Replacing a roof membrane is routine but replacing a rotted roof structure is a major construction project.
  • Windows: Do the windows need to be replaced? Are there enough for your needs? Cutting new window openings can be simple or complicated and might be prohibited on lot-lines.
  • Freight Elevators: Do they work? If the elevator does not meet code and have a current use certificate (usually posted in the elevator cab), it might be prohibitively expensive to upgrade.
  • Basement: Look for a water-level line (like the ring around a bathtub) that indicates basement flooding.
  • Parking: Is there enough parking for your purposes? Does it meet zoning code?
  • Historic Districts: In every district, building rehabilitation must pass various design reviews. These reviews are for the good of the building and district but might exceed the budget of an arts project. Ask a public planning official about these reviews if the seller does not know them thoroughly.
  • Zoning: It is foolish to proceed beyond a simple walk through without knowing what uses for the space the zoning code permits. Review the permitted uses as outlined by the official documents and proceed accordingly.

Purchasing a Property

The Letter of Intent: One of the first steps in the development process is preparing an offer to the seller, often called a “Letter of Intent to Purchase.”

First off, set a maximum price you and your group are willing pay. Before making an offer, consult with an experienced real estate lawyer to understand the implications of making an offer and develop a negotiating strategy. Cost is not the only consideration. Other important key factors to consider early on are:

  • time to inspect the site,
  • amount of a deposit necessary take the property off the market,
  • expected closing date, and
  • changes in zoning that must be obtained before you buy the property.

Making an offer is like a poker game: you and the seller don’t know each other’s hands, and you don’t know who’s bluffing. You can increase your bargaining position by having a general understanding of the market for similar properties. Find out how long the property has been on the market. Ask the broker about the timing and amount of offers that have already been made.

If the broker replies with a counteroffer, you know there’s maneuvering room. If your offer is flatly refused on the basis of price, decide whether to offer more. Sometimes the actual cash price is less critical to the seller than his/her assessment of your ability to close the deal.

Purchase and Sale Agreements (P&S): Closely following the Letter of Intent, the P&S is a formal agreement between you and the seller about how all parties will complete the transaction. The P&S details important conditions affecting the sale. Is there still an environmental investigation or clean-up needed? Under what conditions would the seller return your deposit? Important language governs these issues; get it right to protect your interests. The P&S also includes a timeline leading up to the purchase, which might look something like this:

  • Structural analysis: 1 month
  • Environmental analysis: 3 months
  • Zoning variance applications: 2 months
  • Zoning variance: 6 months
  • Preliminary financing commitment: 3 months
  • Firm financing commitment: 7 months
  • Closing: 10 months

Each step will require that you have cash on hand. The deeper you get into the process the more money you will spend in the pre-development/feasibility phase. Focus your cash on the steps that are most crucial to project feasibility. For example, hold off on getting detailed architectural drawings done until your variance (request to deviate from current zoning requirements) and financing have been approved. The same goes for detailed legal work. If you are planning to purchase the building from a private owner, you will need a cash deposit. Try to minimize the amount of the deposit in order to maximize the cash you will have for other pre-development costs.

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