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The Ford Foundation will be making a gift of $3.75 million to Artspace, a nonprofit real-estate developer dedicated to providing affordable housing and work spaces for low- and moderate-income artists.

The organization focuses on “developing affordable space that meets the needs of artists through the adaptive reuse of historic buildings and new construction.” Once it has found an adequate building or lot, Artspace works over a series of years to build a space for artists in collaboration with the local community and philanthropic partners. The organization established its first three projects in Saint Paul, Minnesota, but has since grown to 40 nationwide.

The majority of its buildings are used to provide an affordable live/work space for artists. The typical live/work space includes living quarters and 100 to 150 extra square feet for the artist to use as a studio. The majority of its 1,300 live/work spaces qualify as “affordable housing,” meaning that they are affordable to someone earning 60% of the local Area Median Income. In some cases, Artspace develops non-residential spaces set aside for cultural organizations, galleries, and meetings.

Artspace is committed to involving the local community in the development of its projects. Each one is “built to address the unique needs of a specific community.” The organization therefore takes “the time to observe and listen to artists, civic leaders and other stakeholders in the community.”

One instance of this dedication to a local community’s unique situation is Artspace’s Ola Ka ‘Ilima Artspace Lofts in Honolulu, Hawaii. The space includes “84 units of affordable live/work space for low-income artists and their families,” green space, “commercial space for arts-oriented businesses,” and the PA’I Arts & Culture Center, “which serves Native Hawaiian dancers, musicians, visual artists, cultural practitioners and others interested in experiencing Native Hawaiian cultural traditions.”

According to Vicky Holt Takamine, director of the PA’I Foundation and the person responsible for lobbying for Artspace to come to Honolulu, the space “will be the poster child for how to do construction in Hawaii.” Before getting to work on the project, Artspace’s staff accompanied Takamine on a visit to key sites, including the home of a local artist, a volcano, and Hawaii’s forests. The staff took the time to get to know the natural beauty of Hawaii before building, understanding that, as Takamine stated, “our traditional and contemporary art is inspired by the nature around us.” The time invested in getting to know Hawaii before building meant that the PA’I Arts & Cultural Center could be a space that fit in with its surroundings and facilitated genuinely Hawaiian artistic expression.

Philanthropy News Digest described Artspace as “a leader in systematically expanding opportunities for equitable, sustainable, arts-centric community development work in America.” The idea of “arts-centric community” is worth thinking about. The development jargon aside, we instinctively realize that art is an important aspect of our communal life. James Baird describes cultural failure as “the loss of a regnant and commanding authority in religious symbolism.” For art to genuinely reflect a culture, it must respect that community’s traditional symbols; otherwise, it loses its distinctive character. A sure sign that a culture is in a state of crisis is that it has come to question its traditional symbols, or the “economy” of ideas that find expression through art. If a culture’s “artistic life” is doing well, chances are that community is doing well on a deeper level.

By working closely with local communities and encouraging “arts-centric community,” Artspace has the opportunity to strengthen cultures, not only by giving their artists an opportunity to express their symbols in art, but by creating an opportunity for local symbolic economies to endure.

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