From the Fine Art Connoisseur March/April 2022 Editor’s Note:
Two Birds, One Stone?
Across America, retail stores and office buildings continue to empty as more consumers shop from home and professionals choose to remain working there. At the same time, artists are struggling to find affordable studio spaces in the group settings that help them inspire each other.
For better or worse, it is creativity — more than manufacturing or services — that keeps the U.S. out in front; the world looks to our visual and performing artists, designers, video gamers, and other creatives to lead the way. Yet many of these folks have been priced out of the areas where they once gathered, even as the rest of us drive past shopping malls and main streets plastered with “for rent” signs. Surely there’s a way to solve both problems simultaneously?
Yes, Virginia, there is. Recently I was glad to learn that the young Fort Lauderdale-based “vacancy management company” Zero Empty Spaces opened its 23rd location — its first outside Florida — at the upscale Natick Mall in Massachusetts. Its newest outpost once housed the luxury fashion brand Burberry, and its next-door neighbor is a Louis Vuitton boutique. Hardly shabby, but now the 12 lucky artists moving in will pay only $4.50 per square foot, including all utilities and without having to commit to more than one month at a time. The spaces available to them range in size from 70 to 238 square feet, enough to suit every budget.
Those artist-tenants will sign up for one front desk shift per week, allowing the facility to be open during regular mall hours. All those well-heeled shoppers can watch the art being made and will (almost certainly) buy those creations to take home. In the meantime, the artists get to connect with each other, though they need not always keep their studio doors open.
This model would not suit every artist, but it’s a promising one and should be replicated elsewhere. ZES co-founders Evan Snow and Andrew Martineau currently operate similar facilities in such Florida locations as Doral, Hallandale, Hollywood, Fort Lauderdale Beach, Boca Raton, Lake Worth, Palm Beach Gardens, and Sarasota.
Martineau notes, “The way we plan any of our new locations is based on outreach from property owners and artists,” generally those who have heard about the ZES concept and can suggest a suitable new location. Not surprisingly, many shopping center owners have contacted ZES since it launched in 2019; now under review for viability are possible sites in Rhode Island, California, Illinois, and Virginia.
I know this model works because I grew up near the Torpedo Factory Art Center in Alexandria, Virginia, a near suburb of Washington, D.C. During the 1970s, that hulking, outmoded plant overlooking the Potomac River was reimagined by an enthusiastic band of art and preservation advocates; it remains a popular place for artists to work and browsers to learn and collect. The artistic energy emanating from a community like it grows exponentially over time, with tenants always becoming more proficient thanks to the (inevitable, healthy) mix of admiration and competition.
Due to its massive size and downtown location, the Torpedo Factory had to be either repurposed or demolished, but now every town in America is witnessing unsightly and depressing vacancies in every possible context. Please, let’s all work together — marshaling our private entrepreneurs as well as our tax and zoning authorities — to transition those empty spaces into sites of creativity.
As a reminder of how crucial an artist’s studio environment is, we have just started (on page 76) a new article category, “Studios: Where Creativity Happens.” It launches with Allison Malafronte’s fascinating article about the John F. Peto Studio Museum in New Jersey.
And this issue also offers a new round of profiles highlighting the exemplary collectors of contemporary realism we so admire. It is people like them who keep our artists busy and excited, and we salute them all for buying so very well with their eyes, minds, and hearts.