PS109_Ford_Rendering

Challenges addressed, lessons learned

As Artspace’s first project in New York City, El Barrio’s Artspace (PS109) will transform East Harlem’s historic and long-vacant P.S. 109 into a mixed-use facility containing 90 affordable live/work units for artists and their families, plus 10,000 square feet for arts and culture organizations.

The project is a partnership with El Barrio’s Operation Fightback (EBOF), an organization that provides the East Harlem neighborhood with vital housing and social services. When completed, the project will contribute to many local community development goals, including historic preservation, affordable housing, economic development, green design and food equity – further underscoring El Barrio’s reputation as a Latino cultural capital.

Of the $52 million project’s development budget, 6 percent came from charitable gifts, and ArtPlace’s generous $1 million grant allowed Artspace to close the gap and move the project forward.

Shawn McLearen, director of properties for Artspace, is working closely with community leaders on the El Barrio’s Artspace project. Here, he talks about the challenges the project has faced and the strategies Artspace employs as it collaborates with partners to create arts-driven projects that serve communities.

ARTPLACE: As you reflect on your work to date, what unexpected challenges have you encountered?

SHAWN: Sadly, the economic downturn has simultaneously increased the need for projects that provide sustainable cultural infrastructure and affordable housing, while decreasing the level of public financing available for such projects. We’ve also seen decreased levels of lending in the market. Taken together, deals like PS109 – which are complicated enough to begin with – are getting more complicated, and the partners involved are increasingly risk averse.

ARTPLACE: Have you had any happy surprises in your work to date?

SHAWN: As the nation’s largest non-profit real estate developer for the arts, Artspace Projects has been at the crossroads of the arts, advocacy, community development and affordable housing for more than 30 years. That position has allowed us to work with and learn from a great many community partners across the country, and apply those lessons to the next set of challenges that our projects and community partners might face. As we look back over that arc, and think about the new challenges of financing in the current environment, it’s been particularly rewarding to see our philanthropic partners respond with an increased level of advocacy for the role of the arts and creative industries. This, in turn, has translated into additional financial tools, which can be brought to bear to fill that gap, and ensure these projects are as community oriented as we all need them to be.

ARTPLACE: Are there things you’ve learned in your work that others in the creative placemaking field can learn from?

SHAWN: The challenges that have resulted from the economic downturn have generated at least as many opportunities for genuine inter-sector partnerships, and a rethink of the role that the arts and creative industries can play within communities. While the ongoing need for community development has been made more acute over the last several years, it has also given rise to a pragmatic appreciation for projects that can achieve multiple policy goals in one collaborative effort. At a time when public and private financing tools are under increased demand and decreased capacity, inter-sector projects can provide community development with a platform that is greater than the sum of its individual parts.

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