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Non-profit converts public buildings across New York into affordable studio spaces

Spaceworks’ initiatives span Brooklyn and the Bronx, but concerns are raised about their long-term impact

As rents in New York reach dizzying heights, the city government has pledged $10m to Spaceworks, a non-profit dedicated to converting overlooked, publicly-owned buildings into affordable studio space for artists. The organisation plans to use the money to launch its most ambitious project yet: 50,000 square feet of affordable studios and community art spaces across two sites in the Bronx. The $10m capital allocation will take effect in 2017 and 2018.

“It’s a borough that is clearly under-resourced in terms of creative space,” says Paul Parkhill, Spaceworks’ executive director. He is also hiring a full-time community organiser based in the area “to make sure there is a grassroots conversation early on, so people know what is happening”.

Spaceworks, which was established in 2011 with support from the former mayor Michael Bloomberg, also opened a 4,400 sq. ft community art space in Brooklyn’s Williamsburgh Library last month. The venue, which was retrofitted with a $650,000 grant from the city’s department of cultural affairs, houses three visual art studios available for between $200 and $400 per month, a performance space and a classroom for public programmes. The organisation received 218 applications for the three studios; winners were sel ected by lottery.

In addition, Spaceworks is preparing to convert a former school on Governors Island in the Upper New York Bay into 40 artist studios and a performance space, which will add an additional 20,000 sq. feet to its portfolio.  Parkhill estimates that Spaceworks needs to operate “in the ballpark” of 100,000 to 150,000 sq. ft of studio space in order to be self-sufficient. "To have a citywide impact long term, we have to do this at scale,” he says. 

Spaceworks’ model arguably amounts to a privatisation of public space, but Parkhill says: “There is a long track record of the city utilising its real estate assets to fulfil public purpose objectives, ranging from affordable workspace for manufacturers all the way to affordable housing.”

There is concern, however, that the demand for cost-effective studios is so great that bodies like Spaceworks can make little difference. El Barrio’s Artspace PS109, an affordable housing project that opened in East Harlem last year, received more than 50,000 applications for 89 units reserved for artists. “I wonder and worry if those initiatives are really going to solve the problem,” says the artist Jenny Dubnau, a member of the Artist Studio Affordability Project (ASAP), a New York-based activist group.

ASAP is advocating for policy changes, such as the passage of the Small Business Job Survival Act currently pending in the city council. The bill would offer commercial renters in New York City, including artists and manufacturers, additional rights. But Parkhill remains optimistic about the Spaceworks model. “My sense is that the demand is not bottomless—it’s just very deep,” he says.