Keeper of the Plans

A solution to ugly, vacant spaces downtown: Pop-up artist studios

A sneak peek inside the first OpenStudios space in Broadway Plaza, in downtown Wichita.
A sneak peek inside the first OpenStudios space in Broadway Plaza, in downtown Wichita. The Wichita Eagle

No one likes an empty space.

But throughout downtown Wichita, there are plenty of vacant spaces, unattractive to potential tenants for one reason or another.

Maybe the spot doesn’t have street frontage, maybe it’s in need of some renovation, or maybe it hasn’t had new development around it in years.

A group of artists and community advocates think they’ve found a way to eradicate these empty spaces: fill them with artists.

The project, called OpenStudios, will work with downtown building owners to fill empty spaces with temporary artist studios that will be open for Final Friday showings.

The hope is that increased foot traffic and vibrancy in the vacant spaces will lead to their finding more permanent tenants.

"Artists get a free space and landlords get an attractive, animated space that is rentable in the future — it's a really nice synchronicity," said Elizabeth Stevenson, director of the Fisch Haus and architect of the program. "Everybody wins."

How does it work?

OpenStudios is the product of Stevenson, the Fisch Bowl's Marcela Gimenez and community consultant Ty Tabing (who organized the ArkArt project downtown last summer).

The Wichita Art Museum is a sponsor.

Local artist Ellamonique Baccus is the first to try out the concept, as she has set up a temporary space in the Broadway Plaza building, 105 S. Broadway. Local developer Sudha Tokala donated the space.

In it, Baccus is working with area youth to complete her 9th Street beautification project. Half of her workers are in a city youth employment program, and the other half are volunteers with Rise Up For Youth.

“People are interested in what it is – we have people looking in the window, and when they see the artwork they give us a thumbs-up,” Baccus said. “It’s a chance for those kids to come downtown, because right now there’s nothing specifically targeted toward them in downtown. It makes downtown more inclusive.”

OpenStudios is working to procure more downtown spaces – a task Stevenson admits will likely be the most challenging aspect of the project.

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The designs for OpenStudios were created by local graphic designer Carlos Palomino, a Wichita State graduate. OpenStudios Courtesy

OpenStudios doesn’t pay rent for spaces; the draw is simply the increased exposure for a space that would have sat vacant anyway. It does, however, cover liability insurance and utilities.

“Once the program gets going, I think developers will see the value in the free promotion,” Stevenson said. “Every Final Friday they’ll get people in their space, and we’ll be promoting throughout the rest of the month. It’s free advertising for everybody and the artists get free studios.”

The timing of OpenStudios is particularly prescient, given the fervor surrounding analyst James Chung’s recent indictment of Wichita’s growth (or lack thereof).

Rather than looking for a “silver bullet” solution to downtown woes, OpenStudios is highlighting an asset Wichita already has, Stevenson said.

If OpenStudios is successful, it might be able to draw young artists from Kansas City and Oklahoma to Wichita, Stevenson said.

“It’s a really attention-grabbing way for Wichita to get on the map for something that we are already recognized for, i.e., our very vibrant and productive art scene,” she said. “We’re using a resource that we already have and capitalizing on that.”

Lessons from Chicago

Tabing knows the concept can work.

He’s done it before.

Before moving back to Wichita, Tabing worked as the executive director of the Chicago Loop Alliance, a downtown development organization in Chicago.

He started a similar program in Chicago at the height of the Great Recession and filled as many as 50 vacant downtown storefronts with artist studios.

“Ultimately the economy picked up and because there was market demand, the program was run out of business,” Tabing said. “In the meantime, building owners really saw value in the program, because the curb appeal of these spaces is really enhanced when the windows have nice graphics on them, and there’s energy and activity in the space.”

The concept of using art to fill vacant downtown spaces shouldn’t be foreign to longtime Wichitans. A similar project, called the Phantom Art Gallery Project, filled empty downtown windows with art from 1990 to 2000. That project was spearheaded by artist Matthew Foley.

“Let’s face it – we have way too many vacant storefronts than we should downtown,” Tabing said. “The more we can do to chip away at that and, in the process, bring some energy and life to these buildings, we really think it’s a win-win for the artist as well as for the building owner.”

Art as economic driver

OpenStudios is betting that artists can spur economic development.

And it’s not a bad bet – just look at Wichita’s own Commerce Street Art District.

What was once a row of industrial warehouses has become a bustling Final Friday stop, filled with posh apartments, shops, galleries and an event venue.

It was artists who first colonized the area.

“There is definitely something to be said for the type of energy created by an artistic culture,” Stevenson said. “I think Wichita right now is very much in need of that kind of neighborhood identification in a way, and I think artists can definitely bring a sense of community to places that are … underutilized.”

It’s sometimes called the SoHo Effect, named after the transformation of New York’s SoHo neighborhood in the 1980s.

The concept: Artists take up residence in a distressed area, and soon that area becomes hip and vibrant, driving developer investment.

It’s typically seen as a bad thing for those artists, a sign of gentrification that will eventually force them out.

But at a micro level, OpenStudios is hoping the so-called SoHo Effect will kick in — that the art will eventually be sacrificed for the good of downtown.

“'Mission Accomplished' would be when there are no more big, empty pieces on main thoroughfares, when everything is exciting, dynamic, fun and occupied,” Stevenson said. “If at the end of this, Wichita, Kansas, is this crazy awesome art town, I will throw down my gloves and say we are done.”

OpenStudios is currently looking for vacant spaces primarily in the downtown area, though it will consider spaces near downtown as well. For more information, contact info@fischhaus.com or visit www.fischhaus.com/blog/openstudios.

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