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arts: Artists Ousted

Artists search for affordable studio space as Shockoe Bottom Art Center prepares to leave Richmond.


"They were all saying, 'What are we going to do?'" The occupants of Shockoe Bottom Art Center's 140 studios had just received news that the facility would shut down in summer 2003 when founder Rusty Davis' lease with building owner Secam Inc. terminated.

The artists had reason to be concerned - and still do. The rents at Shockoe Bottom Art Center, averaging 60 cents per square foot, per month, can't be beat. With the closing of the art center slated for the end of June, many artists still don't know where they will go to work and show their art. Some may travel to Petersburg, where Davis plans to open a new 60,000-square-foot center in July, but many are not willing to travel.

"Petersburg is not even an option, mainly because of the commute," says jewelry designer Caroline Cox, who has maintained a studio at Shockoe Bottom for five years. "I love it down here. I don't have this 9-to-5 job, but I get to come downtown every day. I will miss being down here."

Kotchish and business partner Paula Demmert, a photographer and fellow Shockoe Bottom Art Center tenant, are hoping they can help. The two spent the summer writing a business plan to create a smaller version of Shockoe Bottom - a facility that would provide studio and exhibition space to artists at a reasonable rate. But they, too, are facing difficulties. They've spent months looking for an affordable space and so far have not had success.

"It is extremely difficult [to find a space]," Kotchish says. Buildings downtown are too expensive to be able to allow artists to rent space at a reasonable cost. "And the other buildings on the fringes are so despairing. … It would take so much money just to meet code, it's dazzling. It just makes your head spin."

Shockoe Bottom artist Mehmet S. Altug, a sculptured-furniture designer, has also taken the matter into his own hands. In January, Altug submitted a bid to the city to purchase a former Health Department building at 1312 Bainbridge St. in Manchester. He proposes to turn the 15,000-square-foot-building into about 40 studios, a gallery and space for art classes. At press time, he still had not learned if the city plans to accept his bid or that of a competitor.

"All the artists are homeless," he says, his voice rising with despair. "I feel homeless. We need a space to work." He estimates it will cost about $175,000 to fix up the building.

Davis himself was hoping to relocate his studios, which he founded in 1994 with his mother, artist Deanna Brizendine, within Richmond. But as he began looking at possible locations, he soon realized he wouldn't find a building that was affordable and large enough to allow him to accomplish what he had at Shockoe Bottom.

Last summer, he was contacted by the city of Petersburg, which was eager for him to come and check out its downtown and the former Butterworth's furniture building at 132 N. Sycamore St. Unlike Shockoe Bottom Art Center, the 60,000 square-foot, four-story building is climate-controlled, and Davis says he soon "fell in love with the building."

In early February, Petersburg's city council approved a deal in which Davis will receive the building for $1 in exchange for developing it as an art center and maintaining it for at least 10 years. Large studios will rent for less than 50 cents a square foot and smaller studios for less than 60 cents a square foot.

Petersburg is looking to the art center as an important economic development tool in the revitalization and reinvention of its downtown into a cultural and entertainment district. "It hits on quite a few fronts," says Vandy Jones, Petersburg's economic development manager. "It fits in with the existing arts and cultural community that is here, it fits in with the desire of the city to eliminate vacant buildings and it fits in with the general desire to bring people and attractions to the downtown area."

Davis knows that not all of Shockoe Bottom's current tenants will want to follow him south to the new Petersburg Regional Art Center, but he is hoping some will and that people will at least come to see it before they decide. He also plans to lure the many artists who reside in Petersburg and surrounding areas.

"I don't expect anything to happen right away, to have an instant art center," he says. "It will take time and years — but we wouldn't run out of time."

Indeed, it took some time for Shockoe Bottom Art Center to reach its full stride.

Its loss frustrates those artists who have made the center their home. They wish the city of Richmond would do more to help — that something could be done to preserve the community that has grown there during the past nine years.

"Shockoe Bottom Art Center is so progressive for Richmond," Demmert says. "That it exists at all is such a wonderful thing. That the city is losing this is a tragedy. It's crazy that something is not being done is to ensure that this remains in Richmond." S

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