What happened to the Mayor’s Safe Art Space Task Force and how is the DIY scene carrying on?
By Brandon Block
Mayor Pugh at the Wind-up Space announcing the formation of the Safe Art Space Task Force (J.M. Giordano/City Paper)
When Nicholas Wisniewski and a group of six other artists started the Compound in 2010, it was nothing but an abandoned forklift factory. Now, it's a sprawling complex that provides affordable housing and studio space for eight residents, and includes homes for small businesses, a woodshop, a library, nonprofits, and various other enterprises.
The idea to start a co-living/working space evolved out of another project, Participation Park, a land-reclamation project of 12 vacant lots in Johnston Square that was designed to "simulate a bottom up community planning process" and won Wisniewski, Dane Nester, and Scott Berzofsky a Sondheim Prize in 2009 under the name "Baltimore Development Cooperative" (a play on the Baltimore Development Corporation, the public-private partnership that facilitates development of city-owned properties).
Pushing back against corporate-led development and envisioning alternate frameworks have always been key elements of Wisniewski's art practice; when Wisniewski and Marlon Ziello purchased the building in the Midway neighborhood, the group saw an opportunity to create a living and working space that could itself be an art project.
"Because of the practice studios and the recording studio and the woodshop and Oak Hill [Center for Education and Culture] and the library and the garden, there's just always activity happening at the space," says Merrell Hambleton, a writer who lives at the Compound. Other residents include a photographer, a musician, painter, cartoonist, and two teachers.
The layout of the Compound is quite different from the average warehouse space: It's a sprawling area, only one story high in most spots, with an open courtyard and well-tended garden, which some of the rooms open out onto.
"What's interesting about the Compound is that it's not only a place where you can live and work cheaply, but you also have in the past had the flexibility to shape the way the space works," Hambleton says. "It's an environment in which you end up encountering other people doing interesting work."
Around the city, DIY spaces like the Compound cultivate an autonomous and self-made lifestyle that is now facing existential threat, as DIY residents and their communities are drawn into the chaotic process of Mayor Catherine Pugh's Safe Art Space Task Force.
The task force, which was announced a few weeks after Baltimore officials abruptly evicted tenants of the Bell Foundry in the wake of the Oakland Ghost Ship fire, has set its focus on the structural safety of these spaces. But 10 months after the Safe Art Space Task Force was formed, it has not made any public recommendations—they were supposed ready in June—though the mayor's office recently said they will finally be ready early next month.
As artists wait for the task force recommendations, the city's DIY scene is stuck in a holding pattern, with venues temporarily closed or pushed even further underground and artists unsure if their space can continue or if they will need to make radical and costly readjustments to their spaces.
It may mean end of the Compound and other spaces like it.
"Definitely it is much harder to book a warehouse-style space in Baltimore now without having the cops come or to have something get shut down or risk the people who live there in that space," says Chase O'Hara, one half of the R&B duo Chiffon. "It's a very real situation. Where a lot of these venues have been getting shut down, like even prior to the Bell Foundry, there were a lot of venues that were here that don't really exist anymore in the same sense."
After the Bell Foundry's shutdown and the beginning of the task force, the Compound was one of multiple DIY art spaces in Baltimore to receive attention from the city in the form of surprise inspections.
"The space has operated without involvement with the city or state at all up until this point, so it's definitely a big change to suddenly be pulled into this whole bureaucracy and try to navigate it," Hambleton says.
Since the inspection, the Compound has been forced to take on an unexpected and high-stakes project: writing grant applications, filing paperwork, and working with a professional architecture firm to bring the space into line with city zoning requirements and building codes.
In previous years, the Compound would have shows once every couple of months or so, notably a huge Halloween party last year with performances from Dan Deacon, Abdu Ali, Chiffon, 83 Cutlass, and others. After the Bell Foundry shutdown, the Compound "had basically stopped having any large-scale events at the house altogether," Hambleton says. "Obviously when the Bell Foundry was shut down so quickly, I think we all felt very nervous about what that process was gonna be like for us."
Hambleton stresses that fire safety issues like the ones cited in the Ghost Ship fire have never been an issue at the Compound, though the residents went over things like how to use a fire extinguisher and where they are located as a precautionary measure.
The concept of "safety" and its various meanings, especially for DIY residents, has been a crucial wedge in conversations about DIY spaces. Some artists feel that the undeniably important issue of "safety," now that it's been embraced and publicized by the city in a narrow way, has become a justification for a crackdown on DIY venues and, it seems, a potential for space and land grabs to court developers who have had their eye on Baltimore's arts scene for a while. Within months of the Bell Foundry eviction, the .31-acre lot where the Bell Foundry sits was up for sale, with a listing price of $1 million (in response, someone tagged the entire side of the building with the word "SHAME").
While the Bell Foundry has so far been the only reported eviction, a festering unease in the arts community persists amid the city's tentative steps. Pugh's "moratorium" on evictions—an executive order signed on April 4 that allows artist spaces with code violations to stay open, so long as the "conditions do not represent an imminent threat to life or safety," and pending a fire department-approved plan—calmed some immediate fears. As the summer dragged on, however, there was no indication the task force was ready to release its findings, exacerbating artists' insecurity about the city's intentions.
The Compound, which has long operated as an autonomous creative sanctuary, has been thrust into an awkward position: They must fund costly renovations to make their home and creative hub code-compliant, or face an uncertain future—in the eyes of the city they are an illegally occupied space.
Part of the language barrier between DIY residents and city officials is that zoning laws and safety requirements are different depending upon the way that spaces are categorized (i.e. commercial, industrial, residential). DIY spaces by design blur boundaries in an effort to create a new type of egalitarian, communal, and diverse community where one can live, work, play, and gather.
"These spaces exist and they're not homes, they're not just workspaces and they're not residential, they're not industrial—it's a gray area, it's a new paradigm of space that doesn't exist," musician and task force member Dan Deacon said at one of the early task force meetings that CP reported on in February.
People who live in DIY spaces don't want their spaces to be unsafe or hazardous—some DIY tenants in attendance at task force meetings had to clarify this multiple times. But there is another side of the "safety" debate that cannot be ignored. As City Paper's Maura Callahan and Rebekah Kirkman observed earlier this year, "for many of the Bell Foundry's tenants, physical safety was a less pressing concern" than the ability to be in a supportive and mindful "safe space" that had the best intentions for the most vulnerable, such as women, people of color, and those in the LGBTQ community. But those nuances and the philosophies of DIY, its autonomy and intentionality, naturally took a backseat for the task force's ultimate goal: getting a couple of spaces structurally sound and up-to-code safe to satisfy the city.
What Happened to the Task Force?
Between January and May of this year, the Mayor's Safe Art Space Task Force met eight times and brought together artists from the DIY community, developers, finance people, city planners, the fire marshal, and arts nonprofits with the stated mission "to create a citywide network of safe, cost-effective, contemporary, living, live/work, studio, and performance space for established and emerging artists." The task force members divided into three groups: artists' needs, funding and financing, and codes and regulations.
No one from the Bell Foundry was invited to participate in the task force.
At a public forum at the War Memorial in February, a broad swath of artists and citizens voiced their hopes, fears, and concerns about the mission, such as the difficulty of creating housing solely for artists (who gets to claim to be an artist?), what some felt was a dearth of actual artists on the task force, and the generally conflicted nature of having "underground" spaces interface with the government.
There was "an equal mix of hope and absolute doubt," when the mayor announced the task force, says Vin Seadler, who co-founded La Bodega Gallery (more recently known as Big Friendly Gallery) in the Copycat and also maintained a studio space in the Bell Foundry for two years. He says he went to four or five meetings, but started to feel discouraged about the whole thing.
"I know a lot of people on that board, and they're people I trust, but I don't think anything has really been accomplished," he said back in June.
Amy Bonitz, president and CEO of Baltimore Arts Realty Corporation (BARCO), reached out to residents at the Compound in February, saying the city wanted to look at the building, and offering for BARCO to act as an intermediary.
"I don't know how we got on the radar of the city," Hambleton says.
Bonitz says the city reached out to her, as the chair of the task force's code and regulations workgroup, to help them schedule an inspection, "rather than just showing up to their door unannounced," she writes in an email. Bonitz and BARCO have taken the most visible action on behalf of the task force—or perhaps in lieu of it—to work with the DIY spaces currently under the city's regulatory scrutiny.
BARCO then recruited two architecture firms (Ziger/Snead and Cho Benn Holback & Associates) to do pro bono "code review and design analysis" on two artist-owned spaces in Baltimore, one being the Compound (the other building's tenants wish that it remain anonymous), according to Bonitz. Along with Central Baltimore Partnership, BARCO helped the Compound apply for two state grants, Project CORE and BRNI (Baltimore Regional Neighborhood Initiative), to fund part of the identified necessary renovations. They did not receive the CORE grant, but the $200,000 BRNI grant was approved by the Department of Public Works at an Oct. 18 meeting.
So far, according to Bonitz, the firms have "donated over $40,000 in free design assistance."
Actually making the renovations will cost much more. While exact numbers are not known, the CORE grant they were not awarded averages about $600,000 based on figured for 2018 awardees.
"If people have already invested both their own skills or labor as well as financial resources, I think it makes sense for the city to figure out if they can get them to a completely legal status," Bonitz says. "So long as they're not doing anything that puts people in danger."
She adds that the diversity of enterprises housed at the Compound represents a "really fantastic example" of what artists can bring to a community. One legal step Bonitz points to is to reform an element of a zoning code that prohibits more than four unrelated people living together in districts zoned as single family. The task force has written a draft zoning ordinance, she says, aimed at working around this rule and allowing people in artist spaces to apply for conditional use and occupancy permit in certain zoning districts (such as industrial mixed use, a new one created by 2016's Transform Baltimore code rewrite) for live/work spaces with more than four people.
Melissa Webb, a sculptor and curator who works for Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts as the exhibitions manager for School 33 Art Center, attended the task force's public meeting at the War Memorial. She described how the task force was partitioned into three tables that seemed to represent the divisions between each of the various actors: artists on the left, more "institutional arts based" folks (from BOPA, Station North Arts and Entertainment District, Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance, and BARCO) on the right, and the fire marshal and mayor's office in the center.
"And you've got Dan Deacon trying to get a straight answer about whether they're going to keep shutting down more places," Webb says. "I expected the task force to be speaking to us based on their discussions, as a unified entity. But what ended up happening was that it was obvious that that entity was still working out things amongst themselves, [that they] were not on the same page about the goals of the task force."
Since the final task force meeting in May, it's been unclear when the city plans to make a public announcement regarding the recommendations submitted by the task force. At early meetings City Paper attended, task force co-chairs Jon Laria and Franklin McNeil stressed the urgency of the issue for the task force members, and at meetings it was suggested that recommendations would be given to the mayor by June.
Neither Laria nor McNeil replied to multiple emails asking for interviews.
"We've all sent our recommendations in for the draft," Jeannie Howe, executive director of the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance and head of the artists' needs workgroup, said in June, but added that the process is ongoing. "When we're decommissioned I feel quite sure that some of the recommendations that go to the mayor's office will be about how this work can continue because it's really complicated, there's no one size fits all."
In early September, Bonitz said that the recommendations had been "fully vetted by city agencies and presented to the mayor," and anticipated a public announcement within 30 days. However, on September 23 when City Paper contacted Anthony McCarthy, the spokesperson for Mayor Pugh, said the mayor was "looking forward to receiving a report with recommendations in the next few weeks."
Upon a follow-up request for clarification, McCarthy added: "The report is in its final stages of production. All task force members were given the opportunity to review and make additional suggestions and recommendations. The report will be made public once the mayor receives it."
McCarthy went on: "This is positive and groundbreaking. Following the tragedy in Oakland many leaders expressed concern. In Baltimore Mayor Pugh and the arts community went further by seeking to create opportunities to ensure that artists could thrive in safe creative spaces. It is a win for everyone."
Into the fall, task force members have expressed confusion with the ever-shifting deadline for the mayor's office to act on the recommendations, and confirmed that they sent in final comments at the end of the summer.
The fizzling out of the task force seemed to fit Pugh's governance strategy: Make bold promises up front, then fail to deliver. On issues like the $15 minimum wage, which candidate Pugh supported then later vetoed; the Tent City protest, where she promised permanent housing that has yet to materialize for most of the 55 people experiencing homelessness; or the new homelessness "plan," which basically asks the private sector to donate to a Christian treatment center's project.
The task force, Wisniewski says, has "been helpful in navigating this very complex process of development."
For now at least, it seems like the city has finally learned a lesson from the Bell Foundry it should have learned years ago: They should work with DIY venues rather than immediately evict them.
Baltimore Afrobeat Society at Fifth Dimension (Valerie Paulsgrove/For City Paper)
This Is How These Things Go Down
There have always been ebbs and flows in the arts scene, and though many artists feel the scene is currently in a lull, this isn't first time that DIY spaces have been squeezed by the city.
In 1996, Webb started The Whole Gallery on the third floor of the H&H building with four friends from MICA.
An old garment factory, the place was bare when they moved in. They had to build everything.
"There was no kitchen, no bathroom, no walls," Webb remembers. The group "gutted the place," she says. "We pulled up the floor, which was nasty. . . There were pins everywhere."
"If you had a show, you posted fliers," she says.
Later there was MySpace.
Meanwhile, one floor above, other MICA grads were opening up Gallery Four, and within a few years, more galleries and show spaces started popping up in the H&H. Webb describes the "full building experience" that the many galleries cultivated: bands playing at the penthouse, theater productions on the fifth floor, and two floors of art openings.
Like most people then and now—including those who run DIY spaces—Webb knew very little about building codes.
"We decided to get legal" in 2000, she says. "The whole building. What happened was, we called the fire marshal, to have somebody come through and tell us what we needed to do."
"Naively," she adds.
Webb and her friends wanted to make sure all the people coming in and out of the space for shows were safe.
"So [the inspectors] came in, and they were like, 'You're not zoned for residential status, you're not zoned for assembling.' They were like, 'Y'all gotta go.' It all happened really fast," she remembers.
So the Whole Gallery collaborators started a building-wide appeal to cooperate with the city to fix the issues: "Meanwhile, the owners of the building, who were not that invested in it anyway, realized they didn't wanna deal, and they bailed."
No one in the building was in a position to rent an apartment and studio space elsewhere at market rate, Webb says. Luckily, a buyer, French Companies, "swooped in and bought the building" just in time. "They really did seem genuinely like they wanted to maintain it as an art space," Webb recalls.
The building's tenants still needed a judge to grant them an occupancy permit, so Webb and her friends hit the pavement to gather community support, getting the Seton Hill and Lexington Market neighborhood associations to write letters.
"Everyone was on board," she says, and coupled with the backing of a new, more present owner, the building was approved for residential zoning status.
"I think [Jay French, founder of French Companies] wanted to be a part of that dream, of keeping art alive in that area, and he had support," Webb says. "We showed the judge that we deserved to have this."
Fast-forward almost two decades and the H&H building continues to be an epicenter for art and music in Baltimore: a place where many artists live, work, and perform, as the site of multiple DIY galleries and venues, including Gallery Four and The Fifth Dimension, where musician Tiffany DeFoe, who is also a Red Emma's collective member, lives with three other artists and shares studio space with two more. The Fifth Dimension crew, many of whom are musicians who practice and perform in the space, have collectively booked shows in the space since 2003.
DeFoe says that after the Bell Foundry eviction, Barker French, manager of the H&H (still owned by French Companies, which also leases to New America Diner across the street) called a meeting in their office across the street and asked for a temporary hold on "performances and public gatherings" while they assessed safety issues in the building.
French says even before the city inspection, French Co. had their electrician do a walk-through of the building: "We actually had a scope of work [a formal agreement to make repairs] that was developed and ready to go for when the fire inspector stopped by."
"The easy stuff happened pretty fast," DeFoe says—things like the electrical wiring. More complicated structural renovations, however—specifically opening up a "second internal means of egress" (i.e. another staircase, French explains)—that the building needs to comply with city codes are a more involved process.
"We're trying to move it along as fast as we can," French says.
For now, the hold on events is still in place, French says, but "it's our hope to be able to have that happen [in the future]."
French admitted that while "there's always a possibility that rents will go up" because construction projects such as this often affect long-term affordability, he says he is "committed to keeping the building as artist live/work space as long as we can."
DeFoe says that the goal is to continue having music at the Fifth Dimension once the construction is finished. "We've really enjoyed being a show space and I hope that we'll be able to again," she tells me.
"I think we just have to see how it all works out. We understand the affordability issue that surrounds artist housing," French says. "I really like the artists and I really enjoy working with them. We've really tried to always be straightforward with them about what that building is and what the intent is, so that we're on the same page."
"On Holiday Break"
For many of Baltimore's DIY art spaces, the last 10 months have felt like living in limbo.
"Everything stopped" after the Bell Foundry eviction on Dec. 5, Seadler says. "[Big Friendly Gallery] got an email that day saying that there will be a moratorium on all events. No more parties, no more shows, no more anything. We were all very nervous."
The website Showspace, which for seven years has been the go-to list for DIY shows in the city, went on brief hiatus back in December, with a simple post saying "On Holiday Break." The page listing venues and addresses (only ones already posted elsewhere) was also taken down. Around the same time, a number of right-wing 4chan message boards launched a campaign targeting DIY spaces in Oakland, bombarding authorities with bogus reports in an attempt to get spaces shut down—a campaign that spread to Baltimore and threatened some spaces here too. Showspace returned after a month-long hiatus, but only listing shows at bar venues and other more "above ground" spaces like the Crown or Ottobar.
On Feb. 1, the Station North Arts and Entertainment District announced via a Facebook post that Alloverstreet, the popular monthly art-walk, was going on hiatus "to better define it's [sic] role in the current social climate."
The post alluded to a feeling many artists had that the scene was at a turning point: "While the Mayor's Safe Arts Space Task Force reevaluates the needs of artist spaces in the city over the next few months, we will also reevaluate how we can support the work of independent artists through thoughtful programming and advocacy work," the post read.
Seadler describes how the management of the Copycat, where many Alloverstreet galleries are located, was opaque about communicating when events could resume, calling the process a "'let it die in the Senate' kinda thing."
With a wave of DIY shutdowns and evictions across the country since December, including venues in Denver, Richmond, Nashville, and New York, many artists are cautious about even saying names of certain spaces, for fear of putting the space on the radar of city officials for inspection.
"To be productive we would need to have nitty-gritty conversations, but I would not want to put any of these spaces in danger of being closed down," Lu Zhang, then-interim-director of the Contemporary, said at the first task force meeting.
Many people I contacted for this story declined to comment on the record, and some explicitly told me that it was out of fear of calling attention to or stirring the pot during a process that could result in their spaces being taken away from them. Those people and places are not mentioned here.
"We all agreed we were not gonna say anybody's name [at the task force meetings]" Howe says when I ask about the widespread mistrust of the task force by those in the DIY community.
While safety is often the reason given for the perennial police busts of art spaces, noise complaints are another—over the years, many spaces have been outed to the city by 311 calls. Artists have cause to be incredulous about the city's concern for safety, which seems selective and opportunistic.
"Unlicensed doesn't mean unsafe," Wisniewski says, pointing out the widespread blight and neglect across the city. Many artists feel the communities that they've worked so hard to build are being singled out, when other levers of city government ignore safety issues, failing to prosecute slumlords who actively endanger their tenants. In a 2015 report by the Public Justice Center on Baltimore City's Rent Court, 72 percent of 297 surveyed renters facing court-ordered eviction had previously notified their landlord of "at least one threat to health or safety existing in their home at the time they appeared at court"; prominent defects cited included "no heat/hot water," "broken window/door," "roof leaks," and "faulty electrical."
83 Cutlass performs at the Compound's Halloween party in 2016 (Valerie Paulsgrove/For City Paper)
Reports Of DIY's Death Are Greatly Exaggerated
Amy Reid, the other half of Chiffon, has been playing shows at different venues in the city for years. She says that venues cycle in and out, some getting shut down and other new ones popping up, and the idea of DIY transcends more than just one particular venue or space.
She cites her collective GRL PWR, which throws dance parties featuring exclusively female-identified, non-binary, femme, and queer DJs.
"With those parties, we're taking this political idea, and I feel like that also shapes the vibe for the night and kind of can transform a space," says Reid. "Even if it is at the Crown or a non-classified DIY venue, you're still shaping the night with a larger idea or a larger intention."
"DIY is very malleable and can be anything," says O'Hara. "It doesn't necessarily have to be in a warehouse space, it doesn't have to be at like, the Bell Foundry or something, it can be the Crown, because it's not run by corporations, it's not run by some kind of corporate promoter."
GRL PWR, which Reid started in 2015 "in response to [the lack of] femme visibility in the music scene," recently hosted a drag show called "Sweat!" at EMP Collective and a fashion show at Motor House, formerly the DIY space Load Of Fun (where Webb and others, including City Paper Photo Editor J.M. Giordano formerly had studio space) and now an above-ground venue and office space.
Motor House is a fascinating example of how above ground spaces still offer plurality to the arts scene, but it also offers up a look at how the task force might handle DIY space. Load Of Fun closed in 2013 after an anonymous 311 complaint led the city to come and inspect the building and declare that it wasn't in compliance with "use and occupancy" zoning.
That same year, the building was purchased by BARCO, where Bonitz is president and CEO. Back in 2014, Sherwin Mark, who owned the building when it went by Load Of Fun, said this to City Paper about the 2013 sale of the building: "For whatever nefarious reason, Load Of Fun was destroyed by the city while so many much more non-compliant buildings in the city continue to be supported and publicized by the very organizations that took advantage of Load Of Fun and its artists."
The modest sense of a lull by those in the scene has been amplified by national media, most recently a Vice report (written by Kaila Philo, a former CP intern) which cast Alloverstreet's hiatus and a dearth of recent shows at Copycat venues as part of a linear city-wide decline. Most local artists, however, agree that the scene continues to thrive, albeit adapting and morphing into different spaces.
"I get that it seems desperate, I get that," says Webb. "I'm not afraid for the DIY scene. . . . I really do believe that things mushroom out of the destruction of other things. People aren't just gonna move away, or get sad. They're gonna do other stuff, it's what we do. The idea that [DIY] is dying is ridiculous to me, and the idea that something is killing it, it's a little defeatist. It's alarmist and defeatist."
Spaces like EMP Collective have expanded programming recently, and Baltimore Youth Arts has taken over Platform Gallery to launch a youth-run gallery where students will curate exhibitions.
City Councilman Ryan Dorsey says the conversation we should be having is about affordable housing.
"Artists are the same as everybody else," he says, describing a conversation with a fellow council member. "They need a place to live that's safe and clean and healthy, and a way to get where they need to go that's reliable and affordable, and access to healthy foods, and a decent living and health care. "
Though not involved with the task force, he has been a vocal supporter of the arts community since taking office in December. He cites Citizen Artist Baltimore, an advocacy organization and forum that stresses the role of artists as citizens who both contribute to and ought to be supported by the city and its government.
Webb observes that treating artists as a special "class" can be politically fraught.
"The city is full of families that are ejected from their homes every day," Webb says. "So what's the priority there? You can't just make laws for artists. Well then, who qualifies as an artist?"
As far as the mandate of the task force, Howe says that "the hope is that anything that we accomplish will have implications not just for the arts community but for the broader community, and that goes for access to any kind of space. [The artists] would say themselves—they didn't even have to be asked—we want safe spaces . . . so that's not the issue of desire, but it's striking some balance without destroying the opportunities for those kinds of spaces to exist."
Prominent artist-owned spaces, like Current Space and Le Mondo, Webb notes, are "really amazing endeavors that are exceptions"—the products of enormous coordination and planning. At the task force meetings, "there was a focus on: Well, artists should buy buildings and they should get them up to code," she says. "Well, with what money? Buying a building is a big deal."
There are certain fundamental differences that are baked into DIY and often escape this conversation when developers or nonprofit entities get involved, Wisniewski explains—namely that DIY spaces have little to no money, because they're DIY spaces: "I think that for artists and DIY spaces, the contradiction is that a DIY space is, at its core, a process that runs counter, or runs underground, or utilizes unconventional resources, or sweat equity resources, or resources that are of a kind of unquantifiable category. It's just a different type of development; it's like a competing methodology for the future of how we live and interface with the city."
Webb agrees that DIY spaces often work with severely limited resources, even less than nonprofits.
"It's not really fair to expect that everyone is gonna be like Motor House," Webb says. "[BARCO] can do a lot, and they can do a lot in a shorter period of time. . . For an artist-run or bought building, it's gonna take a longer period of time for them to get up to code. They're gonna have to get grants; they're gonna have to do a lot of legwork."
By launching a task force, Pugh has inserted herself into conversations about housing, disinvestment, and how people ought to respond when the market fails to provide the resources they need. Pugh's assumption in setting up the task force seemed to be that alerting the private sector to the issue of code compliance in art spaces would be enough to solve the problem. The idea of setting up a "task force" itself betrays a lack of understanding, however, both of the reasons why people start DIY venues and the problem of affordable housing, which is larger than artists and won't be solved by the market.
Shortly before press time on Monday, the mayor's office finally provided City Paper with five of the task force recommendations from the upcoming report.
"The report is currently being edited and will be released shortly," Andrew Aleshire, a member of the task force who is also on staff at the mayor's office, writes to City Paper. "By the end of the next week."
The recommendations provided suggest the creation, with "third party funding," of Artspace Technical Assistance (TA), "that would be run independent of City government to provide advice and assistance to both artists and art space developers, owners, and operators," and an "inter-agency," called Artspace Resource Team (ARTeam). This ARTeam would meet at least monthly and bring together "relevant city agencies" such as the fire department, housing, planning, and BDC to "inventory" spaces and the issues at the spaces—essentially constructing something resembling another task force that identifies spaces by name, a prospect that has made artists in particular uneasy.
Other recommendations encourage investing in the GBCA's already-existing Partners for Sacred Places (PSP) program, "which, links organizations, artists, or collectives that are in search of a home with congregations that have available space," and the development of a "Code Modification Database" that would be open to the public. The last of the recommendations provided says that the city should "use strategically-located property owned by the City both to serve art space needs and to invigorate and stabilize existing communities." It also stresses, however, that these places must be "financially stable upon disposition and development," severely limiting who can begin or run a space—and contradicting the DIY spirit which is usually not motivated by long term financial stability or profit.
None of the shared recommendations include funding being made available for non-code-compliant spaces that want to get up to code, such as the Compound, but did note that "there will be more" recommendations.
"All of these things are basically asking the mayor to start a new task force," a source close to the existing task force who asked to remain anonymous told City Paper. "I'd be surprised if anything happens."
For now, the Compound has to figure out how to come up with the money to meet the city's use and occupancy requirements, specifically paying an architecture firm to draw up plans and then professional contractors to actually do the work.
The money from the BRNI grant, which is a state grant and unrelated to the task force, will help with some expenses, however significant funds still need to be privately raised. A crowdfunding campaign is being considered, Wisneiwski says.
Whether the Compound can afford that or not, Wisniewski isn't sure. The whole project may be cost prohibitive to the point where he'll have to shut it down, he says, pointing to the underlying irony of this whole thing: People who took immense risks and invested years of labor and resources into an area that developers have refused to touch are now facing the possibility of being priced out of a property that they own by municipal red tape.
"It felt like there was not a lot of choice in the matter," Hambleton says. "It felt like we either needed to go through this process with the city or opt not to go through the process and sort of prepare to either be shut down outright or slapped with enough fines to make it no longer viable to run the space."