Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Supporting the Arts in a Safe Environment for Artists

"Packing up in my studio" ©Mary Montague Sikes
The sad and tragic fire in an old warehouse building in Oakland, California reminds us once again about the importance of safety and vigilance in the life of an artist. Over the years, I have had art studios in several old buildings. I seldom questioned safety or the fire codes compliance situation in these artist facilities. I enjoyed working and showing paintings surrounded by other artists. I liked having an Open House to attend each month where patrons of the arts gathered.

I expected these buildings to be safe. I trusted those who operated them. More than one was a converted warehouse. Others were former school buildings.

Artists need spaces to house their works in progress. They covet places where they can show their paintings, crafts, sculpture, and more. They long for camaraderie, so they often look for and find nooks and crannies inside big buildings often located in "bad" areas of town where they can afford to rent.

"Open House Night" ©Mary Montague Sikes
I read somewhere that real estate people love for artists to invade an old rundown area because they know in 10 years it will be booming. That happened with Shockoe Bottom Art Center in Richmond, Virginia a few years ago. The artists converted an old tobacco warehouse into studios. Each month for the Art Open House, the area overflowed with art lovers as well as with those who enjoyed the refreshments and free (at that time) wine. It was fun and exciting to be there. The old section of the city thrived with the presence of the artists until eventually the real estate people came in and took it away. The artists moved to other locations, some of them to an old furniture store in Petersburg. More studio spaces were built and painted in the old buildings uncovered by the artists, and so a new cycle of development began.

Over the years, I have created a very large piece of sculpture inside an abandoned school building; I have painted in a rundown old office inside a once-deserted building; I have walked along many streets where I felt unsafe. I have stood on a sidewalk where slaves were once sold at auction. People were not permitted to live inside the studio spaces they rented in places I called my art home. I suspect that some of them did. After all, artists keep very strange hours. When they are inspired, they don't want to stop work. In one location, I brought in a little sofa that higher powers made me remove in case I became tired one day and fell asleep there.

I am fortunate because I have a working art studio inside my home. If I decide to fall asleep, no one tells me not to. I have a space in Richmond now in a nice well-kept studio/gallery facility. (Thank you, Jenni Kirby, for making this possible.) The Petersburg building now houses apartments, a beautiful art gallery and artist spaces. (Thank you, Noelle Ward and family.)

Because of my own past experiences, I can understand how the situation in Oakland could have occurred. Artists need affordable places where they can work. They need safe locations. They need patrons for the arts. There can be and should be joy in the creation of art.

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