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Bainbridge to Open, Arts Scene Grows

Just as it happened to artists in New York's SoHo, so too did it happen to Richmond artists two years ago — they were priced out of the neighborhood into which they had blazed a trail. In July 2003 almost 200 artists learned they'd be displaced when the nearly decade-old Shockoe Bottom Arts Center would close. Its owners had chosen to replace once-affordable studio space with upscale apartments.

Ubiquitous downtown development caused rents to soar to levels no starving artist could afford. The news was especially troubling to sculpted-furniture designer Mehmet S. Altug, 45, a New York City transplant. So he submitted a bid to the city to purchase a former Health Department building at 1312 Bainbridge St. There, he planned to re-create an artist-friendly and affordable atmosphere similar to what he'd known in Shockoe Bottom.

"We need a space to work," Altug told Style in February 2003. "I want to buy and own the building so nobody can kick us out."

The city liked his proposal, Altug recalls. It would turn the 10,000-plus-square-foot building into studios for about 22 artists, which would include a gallery and facilities for neighborhood art classes. In July he purchased the building for $35,000. The sweat equity of $150,000 to fix it up has since turned into $280,000. It's still a bargain, Altug says, for the expected return.

And now all his planning has come to fruition. Bainbridge Art Center, aptly named for the neighborhood, will open in February. And for Altug, the occasion can't come soon enough. After all, he's watched as the nearby Plant Zero opened, signaling to area art-lovers that Manchester could become a viable, vibrant haven.

(Last week, Plant Zero announced the opening of Solvent Space, a new large-scale experimental exhibition space it will run with Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts and the Department of Painting and Printmaking. Richard Roth, the department's chairman, will serve as Solvent Space's director.)

"I am the first one who bought a building — I'm actually the first pioneer" artist to move to Manchester, Altug says. "But somehow it took forever to finish it."

About 10 artists have reserved studio space, so far, at Bainbridge Art Center. Altug says he's planning an official kickoff for the public and prospective tenants. Once the center is open, shows will coincide with those of other galleries and the popular First Fridays series.

"Everybody thinks it's so beautiful and peaceful," Altug says of the center's renovation. Special features include a balcony and incredible windows, he adds. "It's really giving value to the neighborhood, which is getting better and better every day." — Brandon Walters

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