The Near Westside Initiative, comprised of neighborhood residents and local organizations, is restoring a vibrant urban neighborhood in Syracuse, New York dubbed: the SALT District (stemming from a long history of salt mining in the area). Within the SALT (Syracuse, Art, Literacy, Technology) District, a small neighborhood adjacent to downtown, they are testing the premise that art and culture can unite to create a revitalized community that is not only aesthetically pleasing, but true to the social and cultural values of its residents. Most recently, in partnership with ArtPlace, they have started a new effort called SALTQuarters which will consist of a renovated, formerly abandoned restaurant in the heart of the district into four affordable living quarters for artists, along with three artist studios and a wonderful gallery. As part of the project, two artists in residence will be provided one of the apartments, one of the studio spaces, and a stipend to support their work. These artists, one local, and one national, will spend one year developing professionally and using their craft as a strategy for placemaking in the neighborhood.
ArtPlace recently spoke with Maarten Jacobs, Director of the Near Westside Initiative, about their new project, SALTQuarters, and what is most critical to the success of the project.
ARTPLACE: What is the biggest risk you’ve taken in your efforts? How did you get burned, or how did you prevail?
JACOBS: This is an easy one. We think that our biggest risk will also be our biggest reward. With SALTQuarters we very purposely decided to have an artist in residence program for both a local and a national artist; both under the same roof (actually sharing an apartment and a studio space). While this may not seem like a big deal to many, this decision was based around an ongoing contentious conversation that the arts community is having in the city of Syracuse. Perhaps other cities of a similar size (150k) have a similar dilemma: half of the arts community thinks that we need to be bringing in more national and international artists to raise the quality of art and the profile of the city. The other half of the arts community thinks that we need to “focus on our own” first and make sure that we give almost all arts opportunities to local artists. The debate has gotten so intense at times that it has resulted in people storming out of meetings, being obstructive, and even boycotting installations.
Knowing this challenge, we wanted to be sensitive to people’s concerns while also challenging people to consider both valuable and important. We could think of no better way than to support a local artist through the residency program, and to recruit a national artist for the same program. We then decided to go one step further and chose to have them share a living space and a studio space. We feel confident that the artists will easily be able to work together and support one another. We also believe that it will show the broader Syracuse arts community that, not only room for both national and local artists, but the best model for our city is to have a vibrant mix of local and national artists.