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North Minneapolis is next stop for Artspace’s Kelley Lindquist

As president for the past 25 years, he has championed the renovation and construction of 32 projects that provide work and living space for artists.

The Grain Belt Studios in Northeast Minneapolis provide studio and retail space for artists.
Courtesy of Artspace

He’s a real estate mogul of a different sort — master of a universe of nonprofit developments that provide studios and housing for artists across the U.S. As president of Artspace for the past 25 years, Kelley Lindquist, 59, has championed the renovation and construction of 32 projects that provide work and living space for artists.

Thirteen more are in progress, including P.S.109, a one-time grade school in Manhattan’s East Harlem. Cobbling together financing from low-income housing and historic preservation tax credits, state loans and grants as well as donations, he has planted Artspace’s footprint in places as diverse as Fergus Falls, Seattle, New Orleans, Chicago, Fort Lauderdale and Reno. The spaces are not only safe, warm and up to code — circumstances many artists previously did without — but bright and beautiful.

Lindquist sees these ventures not merely as properties but as catalysts that can help restore pride to left-behind communities. Here’s what he has to say about what he’s done and what lies ahead:    

How it all started. There was an Artspace for about 4 years before I came that helped artists find temporary space in the Minneapolis warehouse district. My predecessor kept lists of where the artists could get cheap workspace. Sometimes it wasn’t even up to code. But this type of activity, as always, attracted economic development. By 1984 and ’85, hundreds of artists whom my predecessor had placed were being evicted because then these really lovely cool design shops had moved in. Artists were being priced out of the space that they had made feel safe and exciting.

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When I started at Artspace in early 1987, I was the only employee. My point with my board was to change Artspace into a real estate developer for the arts. The economic development that the artists’ activity attracted was fine. But if we had a nonprofit that actually owned and operated a building here or there, it could be kept permanently affordable for the artists. [The idea] wasn’t anti-economic development at all. We wanted the neighborhood and business councils to include a redeveloped artist space within their vision for the community.

What makes an artist.  It usually takes two to three years to go through the development process, raising the money to do either new construction or renovate a space, and throughout, we’re getting to know artists and creative people from the community. On Pine Ridge Reservation, we have bead makers and quill workers on the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Reservation. We ask for five of them to sit on a volunteer community that will judge whether an applicant is an artist or not.

There are three criteria that make sense to every community. First of all, do you have a body of work? You have to prove that you are singing regularly or you have a lot of paintings or show that you perform as a dancer in a lot of places or, if you’re Ojibwe, that you are interested or have worked with pipestone or birch-bark canoe making.

Second, do you have passion for your art?  Artists have to talk about why they do the work, what drives them. We understand that most of the people coming into our buildings have other jobs. That’s fine. But when they have free time, do they dedicate it to their art form?

Number three is unusual for any affordable housing organization. We ask what other community activities they have done. They are going to be living and working in a building where families and artists are talking to each other all the time. Doors are going to be be banging, kids running from place to place. People are going ask whether they can borrow your saw. There’s nothing wrong with artists who create their beautiful work quietly, separately, but an Artspace building would not be for them.

[The artists who live in the space must also meet income criteria] determined by the IRS for every community, usually 30 to 60 percent of the area median income. And the vast majority of the creative community that that we work with automatically fits in with that bracket. [If they become Keith Haring and earn a lot of money], they usually decide they’d like to have their own condominium somewhere or their own house with a yard, and they move out.

Are there untalented artists? The market takes care of that sort of thing. Even low-income people in our buildings have to pay rent. If they don’t, they’re evicted. They can passionately be working on their poetry or their singing or their piano playing, and in the long run if that doesn’t get them anywhere, they quit. Of course, there have been great artists from the past that were totally disrespected whose work we now cherish. I’m not saying that that happens often, but how do we know? 

Washington Studios in Duluth
Courtesy of Artspace
Washington Studios in Duluth focuses on serving Ojibwe artists.

Our current emphasis. Artspace is also very, very clear about communities where we work. We choose those that have a rich diversity. For example, our project in Duluth is primarily Ojibwe, or in West Garfield Park in Chicago, it’s almost 100 percent African-American. 

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We find ourselves more and more focused on marginalized communities and those that have a distinct culture, ones that would otherwise not have a space where they can celebrate their culture and stay within that community. [To ensure that happens] we market to the neighborhood where we do our work. But, of course, we cannot in any way discriminate by ethnic background.

What’s going on in the Twin Cities. We finished the Cowles Center [for Dance and the Performing Arts]; we own and operate that. [They’re doing] really well, ending this calendar year in the black. They were in 2011 as well. And 2013 looks good. The reason it works is that we [Artspace] raised $43 million for that building, and only $1.5 million is a loan. We just finished our financing and started doing beautiful new construction in Northeast Minneapolis on the Jackson Flats Building, which will contain approximately 40 units of low-income artist live-work space.  It’s our first residential development in Minneapolis.   

Focus: North Minneapolis. We’re now looking at different areas in North Minneapolis. [More and more] we want to serve communities that haven’t had a chance to flourish, a chance to celebrate their art, who feel somewhat down and out. We want to partner with neighborhood groups to develop an inventive space. Along with at least 40 spaces of affordable housing for low-income artists, I would want to include a small black-box space where neighborhood groups could perform and a gallery that would be serving artists who are differently abled, who are disabled. You have to start with a vision, but in the end it will be what the community wants; but so far, this is what I’m hearing. I’m in what I call “my discovery phase” where I’m running around looking at building sites, talking with everyone.  I’m thinking new construction.

Why build new. One practical reason is that over the last 10 years the redevelopment of large old buildings finally hit its stride within the for-profit community. We were developing these properties 25 years ago; but doing that became a high-end business. The great old buildings across the United States are mostly renovated. Also we work in a lot of communities that never had that kind of stock. 

The vision for Minneapolis. I am not a grand-plan kind of guy. I’m old enough to have seen urban renewal. I remember when I was a little boy, I went downtown [to Hennepin Avenue] every day from Kenwood, sometimes with my brother, sometimes alone. I went to the old Public Library, I went to the Minneapolis Athletic Club and I ate at the Forum Cafeteria. There was a Greek steakhouse and a riflery range and Shinders [books and magazines]. I had a blast, and I felt totally safe.

When I was in my mid-20s, and there still was enough of it left, I went to my first really good gay theater — turns out I am gay, but at that time I didn’t know — and it was a great experience to have good theater expressing that if you love someone, it’s OK, and it can be someone of the same sex. I loved those old buildings, and I loved the goofy craziness of it all. When the city condemned those buildings, I was really angry. There were artists living on the second floor, super-creative people who were doomed. I helped them relocate. I’d like to have that creativity back. It is all part of freedom of speech and an expression of humanity. It’s a city.