Vacant buildings generally are the pits. But there are times when they can create an opportunity.
That’s what Jonathan Boyd is doing with Vital Spaces, an arts initiative that he defines as “activating our vacant real estate, whether it’s for lease, for sale or it’s an out-of-town owner who’s trying to figure out what to do with it.”
Boyd is leasing the building at 220 Otero St. from owners Marc Bertram and Andy Duettra, who have plans to remodel it for luxury condos in the future. For now, though, it’s serving as studio space for more than a dozen young artists affiliated with the Institute of American Indian Arts.
Vital Spaces was inspired by Chashama, a similar initiative that was established in New York City in 1995. Founder Anita Durst was especially interested in offering affordable space for working artists.
That’s also a goal for Boyd, a furniture maker who founded his company, Boyd & Allister, with Damian Allister. Another aim is “to bring underrepresented voices to the forefront in our city,” he said.
By that he means certain types of art and artists rarely exhibited in Santa Fe.
Vital Spaces is catering to younger artists and Native artists, in one instance by hosting a satellite space at 220 Otero for the Canadian organization Urban Shaman Contemporary Aboriginal Art. “And we’re also reaching out to a couple of Hispano artist collectives on the south side,” Boyd said, “trying to create opportunities to collaborate.”
Vital Spaces offers artists both studio and exhibition space. Boyd said he doesn’t want to see himself as a curator, as in a gallery.
“What’s more important to me is their commitment to being artists and to engaging in this community,” he said. “We encourage artists to come to us with ideas, but as part of the application process, we ask them what they are doing to engage with our community outside of their studio walls.”
He anticipates having an art opening or other event about once a week. Vital Spaces does not manage artists’ sales — also unlike the gallery model — but any artist who makes money from the space is encouraged to donate 10 percent to 20 percent of his or her profits back to the organization.
The $5,000 monthly lease payments are possible because of “a number of generous donors,” Boyd said. “Revenues from studio space barely covers insurance. We are looking at other revenue models for our long-term viability.”
Alicia Bertram, an associate broker with SF Brown Real Estate and daughter of owner Marc Bertram, said she thinks the arrangement is good for the firm, the artists and the community.
“It’s always better than a building sitting vacant,” she said. “We are getting very discounted lease income, but it also helps us because people see it and they’re going to be interested in our next phase, instead of it just sitting alone and sad and vacant.
“In our case, we’re not planning on relisting it; we were just wanting to get someone in there short-term before we get into the renovation project. I think it always helps to have a little activity at a building, even if you’re going to sell it.”
She said an added benefit for the artists is they could “go wild with whatever they wanted,” including getting paints on the walls and floors, because her father and Duettra plan to do a substantial demolition and renovation with the condo conversion project in a year or two.
The second local building energized by Vital Spaces is at 310 Johnson St., the previous home of the Asian Adobe furniture store.
“We purchased the building several months ago,” said owner Evan Geisler. “We have exciting plans for it, but in meeting Jonathan, I really wanted this space to be used.”
Geisler and his wife, Denise Ip, have an architectural design firm, Geisler Projects, and own The Parador bed and breakfast on West Manhattan Avenue.
The two are also involved in real estate and know all about the challenges posed by vacant buildings.
“I completely believe in Jonathan’s vision,” Geisler said. “We come from Los Angeles and most recently Hong Kong, and even in larger cities like those, when there is empty real estate, it tends to devitalize an area. There’s nothing better than having vibrant spaces being used and occupied and alive. It’s good for the personality and confidence of a neighborhood.”
He was once an artist himself, trying to find a usable, affordable art space in L.A.
“I know firsthand how difficult it is in any city, and these two spaces are not on the outskirts; they’re in places that are actually walkable and visible,” he said. “The fact that Jonathan’s able to do this for free and that we’re able to be part of that gives us a huge sense that we’re giving something to the community.”
The artists using Vital Spaces are curated. Boyd has a vote on the initiative’s curatorial committee, which is made up of artists, faculty members and curators: Amber-Dawn Bear Robe and Jamison Chas Banks from the Institute of American Indian Arts; Joanne Lefrak, SITE Santa Fe; Bess Murphy, Coe Center for the Arts; and Ariel Plotek, Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.
Boyd issued a call to artists last week. Those interested will find an application at vitalspaces.org. Also check the Vital Spaces website if you are an interested property owner and to find out about upcoming happenings — one is a June 29 event featuring performance artist Cohdi Harrell at 310 Johnson Street.