“Arts on the Rise”

Artists have long pioneered the rebirth of hard-hit urban districts, but rarely as part of a larger vision for social welfare. Last month, the Ford Foundation announced a bold effort aimed at offering just that kind of neighborhood-based support: a $100 million program to help fund new and rehabilitated theaters, museums, galleries, and live/work spaces that enhance creative communities and social equity—with one Manhattan project already in the pipeline.

Known as Supporting Diverse Arts Spaces, the ten-year, nationwide effort dovetails with the foundation’s longtime mission to advance social justice. “We really looked at the way that the arts would integrate more meaningfully with the rest of the work that Ford does to improve people’s livelihoods and aspirations,” said Roberta Uno, program officer for the foundation.

The current initiative builds on a recent package of grants made to New York City arts spaces such as Chinatown’s Chen Dance Center, an expanded Pregones Theater in the South Bronx, and the recently renovated El Museo del Barrio. As part of the new program, competitive planning and predevelopment grants of up to $100,000 each are targeted at groups aiming to buy, build, renovate, or partner in the development of arts spaces that can serve as engines of social change. The grants are administered through the group Leveraging Investments In Creativity (LINC), with applications for the spring 2010 cycle due by May 28.

Helping to signal its emphasis on creative communities, Ford has awarded a $1 million predevelopment fund to Artspace Projects, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that creates affordable housing for artists. The group, which owns and operates 24 projects across the country, has two New York projects underway: a 45-unit building under construction in the Long Island village of Patchogue, and a plan to transform the abandoned P.S. 109 in East Harlem into 72 units of housing for artists.

The latter project, expected to break ground late this year with a budget of approximately $60 million, is a prime example of the group’s multi-layered approach. “We tend to have multiple agendas in each one of our specific projects, such as affordable housing, economic development, and cultural infrastructure, as well as historic rehabilitation and green, sustainable design,” said Shawn McLearen, project manager for Artspace. “It’s kind of a win-win when somebody can create a project that does all of those.”

Artspace is working with El Barrio’s Operation Fightback, a community-based housing group, as co-developer for the project. Buffalo-based Hamilton Houston Lownie Architects will lead the restoration of the Charles B.J. Snyder– designed school, along with Brooklyn architect Victor Morales. As with many of the group’s developments, it is tapping a diverse array of funding sources, including low-income housing tax credits and New York State historic preservation tax credits, along with philanthropic and other funds.

Mindful of the gentrification that accompanies economic development efforts, Ford has worked to nurture neighborhood social fabric rather than destroy it. For example, the East Harlem project will encourage occupancy not just by solo artists but by families. “We really pushed Artspace on this particular building to make it address families, with one- to three-bedroom units,” Uno said. “Artists are not just individuals. They’re part of their communities, and that means they have families.” The project will also offer permanent affordable housing, with 60 percent dedicated to neighborhood residents. “That preserves the historic character of El Barrio,” Uno said.

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