August 27, 2013

Finding young Maine artists a cheap space to create

Creative Portland is taking on the challenge and plans a Web clearinghouse of potential studios.

By Randy Billings
Staff Writer

PORTLAND — John Nelson makes art out of metal -- art that's both sculptural and functional. His recently commissioned pieces include custom tables and racks for the new Elsmere BBQ and Wood Grill in South Portland, baskets for Broadturn Farm in Scarborough and wall posts for an art gallery on Congress Street.

click image to enlarge

Metal fabricator John Nelson welds a basket at his Portland shop.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Metal fabricator John Nelson was forced to go off the Portland peninsula to a commercial building on Presumpscot Street in order to find affordable work space, and wishes he could be closer to his West End apartment.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

Making that art produces a greasy, dirty mess, and at times, a lot of noise.

For young artists like Nelson, 25, it's hard to find affordable places to work in Portland, especially on the peninsula. It once was a haven for young artists, but they are increasingly being forced out by rising property values.

Nelson works in a warehouse on Presumpscot Street -- off the peninsula -- a space he learned about when he was a student at the Maine College of Art. Asked if he would rather work and show his art closer to his apartment in the West End, he said, "Definitely. That would be really cool."

That's why Creative Portland Corp., a nonprofit that supports the city's creative economy, is undertaking a $60,000 effort over the next year to compile an inventory of art studios and raw industrial spaces that could easily be converted into work and display spaces for artists.


Creative Portland Executive Director Jennifer Hutchins said artists are feeling the pressure of gentrification as aging parts of the city are converted into more affluent neighborhoods.

Artists were the first to set up shop in the rough-and-tumble Old Port in the 1970s. As commercial interest in the area increased, they were pushed to Congress Street, Hutchins said.

Now, as more young artists look to come here, there appear to be fewer opportunities for them to find affordable working space.

"There isn't a lot of cheap buildable space in Portland," Hutchins said. "Figuring out this conundrum of finding a space that works for property owners at a rate that artists can afford is a challenge."

Earlier this month, Creative Portland received a $30,000 grant from the Portland Downtown Committee to build an online resource guide for artists who want to move to Portland.

To lead the effort, Hutchins said, Creative Portland is forming another nonprofit group, Creative Space, to use the grant to begin compiling an inventory of spaces that could be converted into studios where artists can work and display their art.

Hutchins said the new nonprofit will oversee the effort, which will involve sensitive real estate negotiations that could be considered public information under the umbrella of Creative Portland, a quasi-municipal organization.

"It requires a nimbleness and independence," Hutchins said.

The city grant requires a $30,000 private match, about half of which has already been raised, said Tom Blackburn, executive director of Creative Space.

According to its grant application, the "Artist and Creative Relocation Guide" will:

• Consist of an inventory of existing and potential creative spaces.

• Identify code and land-use barriers for using existing creative space.

• Create a Web-based clearinghouse of available properties.

• Develop and implement a plan for matching artists with available space, offering advice for repurposing space and moving to new space.

The online clearinghouse would be updated regularly, Blackburn said, with the goal of making it easier for artists to come to Portland.

"We find that artists are incredibly capable in some areas," Blackburn said, "but there are other areas that are more challenging for them."

He said he expects to find some raw studio space in Bayside.


Nelson's studio is a 750-square-foot space that is walled off from others by 14-foot-tall plywood walls, which open up to the high ceilings of the warehouse. He pays 80 cents a square foot in monthly rent.

(Continued on page 2)

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