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Arts reimagine the Rust Belt

Marc Lefkowitz  |  09/18/09 @ 9:56am

If the point of a second Rust Belt to Artist Belt conference is to illustrate where development attractive to artists is happening, then the first day showed it happens in Cleveland by dint of risk-takers like James Levin, Cleveland Public Theater founder and co-founder of Gordon Square Arts District and Ingenuity Fest, and Alenka Banco who turned a deconsecrated church at E. 33rd Street into Josaphat Arts Hall and lofts.

In other parts of the country, where development happens at rapid-fire pace, it takes creative deal-making like that performed by nonprofit Artspace, which has redeveloped big old buildings in low income parts of hot real estate markets of Seattle, New York, Los Angeles and Minneapolis into co-operative live/work artist lofts where the artists earn real equity through sweat equity (what a model!). Listening to Greg Handberg, vice president of Artspace, detail how deals for arts lofts come together even in the most blighted areas of these coastal places made me realize how parochial is the perspective of a lifelong Clevelander ? it's been generations since we could even imagine deals with a 40/60 equity split between developer and artist/residents let alone where and how it happens all the time every day in other parts of the world.

The day started out with Ralf Ebert extolling the virtue of Germany's welfare state which provides real incomes and free rent in some cases to artists not to mention marshals billions of Euros in industrial heritage development. The state-supported conversion of the Ruhr Valley from Rust Belt to Artist Belt may have little consequence in our capitalist system, but it does show us the strengths and weaknesses of that system for fostering a sense of permanency for the arts in this country. I had a conversation after Ebert's keynote with a few attendees about the U.S. model ? with our temporary mechanisms like the Cuyahoga County cigarette tax for the arts, and corporate support. We wondered, is it more or less resilient than Europe's welfare state?

It seems non-profit developers like Artspace and visionaries like Levin and Banco fill in the blanks on the coolest redevelopments in the U.S. (the complicated mixed-use artist loft conversions will continue to rely on at least 20% philanthropic dollars for a while since the loss of financial institutions like Lehman Bros., Handberg said). In his session with Liz Grimaldi, director of Philadelphia Village Arts and Humanities, Levin explained how $50,000 and a big vision led to the renovation of the Cleveland Public Theater in the early 80s. It had water damage, no electric or heat, but that didn't deter the LaMama Theater vet who returned home looking to form a theater with a similar focus on spurring redevelopment outside its walls and pushing the boundaries within.

"What I thought was going to take five years took twenty five for this area to be seen as somewhere to go," Levin said. Levin credits his persistence. "My best attribute is not taking 'no' for an answer. 'No' is part of the dialogue, you go around and figure out how to melt that (no)."

He also begged and burrowed and recommends sometimes stealing time from friends who have skills you need. "Carefully catalogue your resources and use them to the maximum.You may know a lawyer who will help you get your 501c3 status or you may know a photographer. Play to them and maneuver to get what you need."

It sounds opportunistic, but scrappy is the name of the game when you're pulling together an arts endeavor on a shoestring.

"I moved back in 1981 and I didn't have a cadre of artists behind me. I surveyed areas in Cleveland looking for something close to downtown with distinctive architecture. We looked at a theater at Broadway and 55th but it wasn't available, and in Collinwood at the Commodore but neighborhood issues were inhospitable to doing this. In 1983 we did free Shakespeare fest at the Zoo and someone told me about the Capitol movie theatre.

I had never been in this neighborhood before but when I first came here I was shown this space that was Loughlin's Dance Hall. It had 6,000 unobstructed square feet and space next door was also a big warehouse. I had no idea these kinds of spaces existed. Then I found this is only intersection in Cleveland that still has its prewar buildings on all four corners. I would (walk Detroit Avenue and W. 65th) and say this is going to be like Coventry in five years. It took 20, but I thought the spaces were magic. I knew something could happen. It was space and architecture that proceeded the artists."

What slowed his plans was actually the quickness of youth. Levin and Co. would roar around on motorcycles and had an attitude that they would save the neighborhood.

"In the early days we wanted to help the neighborhood but it was through osmosis. We showed up and took over the theater with flatbed trucks filled with seats from the old Vogue theater in Shaker Square. I should have spent more energy in outreach to this community. In those days I was brash."

The turning point for CPT was in 1996 when Levin started to pull together the resources to refurbish the Cleveland Public Theater which led to a series of acquisitions such as the Gordon Square Theater next door and the Orthodox Church just east on Detroit Avenue. It happened because of luck and timing, he said.

"I was at a very dull board meeting of Detroit-Shoreway (Community Development Organization) and then director of Gund Foundation David Berkholz got up to leave, so I left and grabbed him and said 'I know you want to go home but take five minutes and look at (the Gordon Square Theater) with me.' He walked in and he completely got it. He said you're still out of your mind, but he viscerally understood what the building meant to (CPT) and the community. It was a huge moment and it happened just because we both got bored at this meeting at the same time."

Grinding it out for twenty years eventually helped Levin become the known commodity that paved the way for the Gordon Square Arts District and helped when it came time for executive director Joy Roland to raise philanthropic and state funds for the $10 million dollar renovation of the W. 65th and Detroit district including the Capitol into a long-coveted West side arthouse movie theater (Grand Opening on Oct. 1).

It also showed what's possible to entrepreneurs like Alenka Banco, who was holding down a day job in commercial development when purchased and rehabbed her first building in Tremont in the 90s. Naturally curious, not easily daunted and someone who likes junk sales, Banco came across St. Josaphat's having a yard sale and struck up a conversation. The church needed a roof and it didn't have electric or heating but the Catholic Diocese was willing to deal to someone who could put together a proforma and who had renovation experience. The key to renovating Josaphat Arts Hall was figuring out how to tap financial resources like the city's storefront renovation program, which has strong guidelines for historic preservation, but poured $25,000 back which Banko used to renovate what would become the apartment rentals. A lot of sweat equity also went into making it financially possible. Artists are handy, but you have to make that sweat equity count for real equity with the bank, Banco advises.

"We did so much on our own that the bank almost didn't acknowledge it in the loan," she said. "If you have an estimate you can include those in your package and show (the bank) what you put in. If I were going to take on another project, I would bid it all out and get an idea on cost and do the work and apply the credit to myself . If you want to act as your own general contractor, be prepared to manage people even you don't necessarily get paid for that job."

Levin and Banco are like the godparents for a new generation of artists-as-entrepreneurs attending the Rust Belt to Artist Belt II. In each session's Q&A invariably a panelist was asked by a younger protégé who's looking to convert an old warehouse into an artist loft or to split a loft space for multi-tenant use. Twenty five years after Levin struggled to bring his arts district into reality, the dream still lives. Handberg of Artspace tried to ground the dream in some financial reality. Bury your arts related studios inside a bankable commercial venture, he advises. Early on, still rely on sweat equity. Multi-user shared facilities are still attractive to banks.

"Bankers will accept up to a project that's at least 20% credit worthy (i.e. commercial), so we've had to hide the rest. You have to massively explode the definition of value to include community and social value. How you do that might be with a park or community gallery space. It's not uncommon for an arts center to do it's own operating grant to reduce the costs of building, but be clear if they can."

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