For many an artist, the idea of living in the studio holds a level of romantic prestige. The ability to grab a paintbrush or chisel whenever inspiration strikes, take breaks from the creative process and walk directly into your kitchen and put work on display in a space downstairs for potential buyers to see—it sounds like a bohemian dream. But while Sarasota boasts a national reputation as an arts hub, such a lifestyle remains hard to find. The rents stay high and the regulations strict. But could the chance for a true artist’s colony develop on Sarasota’s North Trail? A group out of Minnesota responsible for establishing such spaces in communities around the nation sees potential here.

Artspace has created work-live spaces catering specifically to the creative class for more than 30 years. Based in Minneapolis, the nonprofit organization has overseen the grand opening of spaces in major metro markets like Manhattan but also in smaller communities with a strong arts presence like Hamilton, Ohio. And as leaders in Sarasota in 2014 looked at an exasperating loss of artists in programs like those at Ringling College of Art and Design, the work being done by Artspace looked like a prescription for the Gulf Coast’s woes. Veronica Morgan, a Sarasota artist, helped coordinate a visit by Artspace to Sarasota, proclaiming that it was vital that affordable living space for artists come to town. “We don’t have any housing for artists and craftspeople anywhere,” Morgan says. 

At a meeting at the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee, Artspace officials in April 2014 laid out reasons why having studios built could bring about a renaissance for the neighborhood. Wendy Holmes, Artspace senior vice president of consulting and strategic partnerships, and consultant Stacey Michelson told artists and residents at the meeting that affordable housing catering specifically to the artistic community could be a great fit here. The right support systems appear to be in place in Sarasota to make a successful project. Michelson led the community through a slideshow of Artspace projects in other communities, all of which now are mixed-use, with the inclusion of commercial space and habitable space at affordable prices. Other projects include expansive studios in Washington that are rented by artists for $800 per month. Projects always include community space that can be used for art exhibitions and other events. 

When questioned about what an optimal Artspace development would be from the organization’s viewpoint, Michelson and Holmes described a project with 40–70 units on a little more than an acre. Typically, projects have between 35–40 livable units. As for a guess on how much commercial use would be included as well, that would depend on market studies and local demand. And that costs more money.

That original Artspace visit was paid for using $5,000 in city funds, $5,000 from the Sarasota Alliance for Historic Preservation and $5,000 from the Community Foundation of Sarasota County. The meeting was sponsored by the Art and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County and that organization is currently in the process of gathering the research necessary to take the next step. Jim Shirley, Arts Alliance executive director, says a total of $42,500 will be needed to cover that study, and the organization as of early May had that money raised. Shirley is now seeking out corporate support that could make up most of that remaining gap.

Anna Growcott, Artspace director of consulting and strategic partnerships, says the organization ultimately needs to find that demand exists for the live-work space. To justify a project, a survey must demonstrate that for every unit included in a project, there are three artists living here who are willing to pay the cost and move into an Artspace unit. “That helps us make sure we build the appropriate number of units and get them filled,” she says. As such, if there are 90 interested artists, Artspace would know it could support a 30-unit development.

Filling them won’t be the hard part, Shirley expects. He gets calls from artists regularly who are in search of a cheap place to live that has space for them to do their work. He expects research to show a much higher demand than Artspace’s threshold. Once that takes place, the real issue may be finding the right place to put the project.

End in Site

Residents of North Sarasota have long lamented that the North Trail, which serves as one of the city’s main gateways, remains blighted and impacted by crime, even though waterfront mansions sit blocks away. But developers will tell you that while no one likes the substandard conditions on US 41 today, it can also be tough to bring change. Neighborhood objections ultimately stopped plans to redevelop a yacht club on the Whitaker Bayou and even projects later embraced like a Goodwill store, the Museum of Whimsy and a Wal-Mart market were initially met with neighborhood skepticism.

But some leaders in the region see Artspace as a potential development that would be embraced on North Tamiami. Dick Clapp, a former Sarasota mayor and long-time neighborhood leader, says a community need for affordable housing and a more localized desire for high quality development could both be met by an artist colony on the Trail. “Everyone I have talked to in the neighborhood would like to see it happen,” he says. “And I don’t think anybody is worried very much about where it will be.”

That said, finding the right side could prove challenging just because so much of the property fronting US 41 lacks depth. Many properties are linear in nature, snaking along the roadway, and may not be suitable for building a townhouse and apartment project. But Clapp could envision the project taking over some unused spaces now hosting defunct strip malls. And if things go that direction, a North Trail Redevelopment Overlay District approved by Sarasota City Commissioners last year could make it easier to get a site plan completed.

And ongoing conversations about the need for affordable workforce housing may create the right political environment for Artspace. Growcott says rents are typically set at between 30 and 60 percent of an area’s average median income. That would actually put things lower than the 80-percent threshold recently set by Sarasota City Commissioners when discussing a low-income housing project planned on Fruitville Road.

Of course, whatever hunger may exist for working class rental units today, Artspace seems in no rush. Growcott says it typically takes between three and seven years from the time the organization first comes to a community until the point when a grand opening takes place. “We understand this can take a while,” she says. “We will every once in a while touch base with community leaders, but we will follow their lead.”

Photos courtesy of Artspace.