From vacant office to art hub

The commanding black steel of New York’s One Liberty Plaza, a tower located catty-corner to the World Trade Center site, makes the building look every bit the home of powerful legal, financial, and governmental institutions that it is. A quick elevator ride to the twelfth floor, however, and the scene is suddenly more Bushwick than Wall Street. On a recent visit, 20- and 30-somethings in jeans and T-shirts wielded power tools and glue guns as a baby crawled on the carpet nearby. Half-finished sculptures rested under exposed ductwork outside of cubicles filled with canvases and art books.

Since October 2012, One Liberty Plaza has been home to Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s (LMCC) Workspace program, an artist residency that offers studio space and professional growth opportunities to visual artists and writers in the early stages of their careers. In a city with notoriously expensive rents, the free studio space can mean the difference between being able to make art and not.

LMCC’s remit is twofold: the organization works both to support artists and to make the arts a more integral part of its traditionally business-oriented neighborhood. Established in 1973, it now runs multiple residency programs, organizes public performances ranging from rock concerts to poetry readings, administers grants to Manhattan-based artists, and manages a number of different professional development workshops designed specifically for artists.

In an era when cities around the world are competing to bolster their arts credentials, inspired partially by urbanist Richard Florida’s writings about the economic impact of the ‘creative class’, these and similar initiatives present particularly interesting models for inexpensively and organically nurturing local arts communities. While large-scale investments in new concert halls, museums, and university buildings can have a significant impact on civic life, smaller interventions focused on making better use of existing resources also have tremendous potential.

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In eight years with the program, LMCC Director of Cultural Programs Melissa Levin has become an expert in downtown real estate. She often receives tips about vacant spaces from well-connected board members in the real estate or architecture fields, then works with the property owners to negotiate arrangements to bring artists in. “We’ve been building this reputation for over 15 years now to be able to go into space. We have license agreement templates and all the legal stuff and insurance worked out… It really allows us to take advantage of whatever temporary vacant space there is in Lower Manhattan for art and artists to be able to have a place here.”

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