As Austin’s creative spaces disappear, artists look to city code rewrite, city grants for help

Rachel Zein

The long, convoluted process of rewriting a city’s land development code may sound like a project reserved for urban planners and city officials, but as the number of Austin’s available art spaces dwindle, the city’s creative sector wants a say in the conversation.

This past Wednesday, the city’s Cultural Arts Division held an open house for members of Austin’s art community at the Canopy cultural center on Springdale Road to explain how the new code, called CodeNEXT, will affect those who own or are looking to own an artistic space.

Shirley Rempe, project manager in the Cultural Arts Division, said the goal of the meeting, held in collaboration with the city’s Economic Development Department, was also to solicit artists and venue owners’ feedback.

“When we saw the first draft come out, (the Cultural Arts Division) identified a need to help our creative spaces better understand the code,” Rempe said. “The planning department is actively seeking citizen input.”

Sarah Wingfield, a local artist and recent UT graduate who attended the meeting, said she is hoping to develop her own artistic space soon but has heard concerns from fellow Austin artists about the code.

“A lot of the artists around town have been (experiencing) some problems with performance venue spaces,” Wingfield said.

Wingfield cited examples such as the Salvage Vanguard Theater and The Off Center, two performance venues which were forced to close within the past year after their rent prices increased.

Although the issue of affordability, paired with the arduous process of a land development code rewrite, affects all Austinites, last month city officials made it clear that they would not ignore artists’ concerns over space issues. At the end of June, the EDD announced the Art Space Assistance Program (ASAP), which will provide grants for tenant improvements or rent stipends to displaced artists or artists who face displacement due to rising rent costs.

Last week, city officials held a meeting for Austin artists to discuss the ASAP application process and to explain who would be given greater priority for the dispersal of the available $200,000.

T.J. Owens, program manager for the EDD, said the program was created to help non-profit art organizations facing eviction — particularly those serving high at-risk/disadvantaged communities — but that all applications from non-profits would be considered.

“I would never discourage or dissuade someone from applying (to the program),” Owens said. “We understand that there are some special-case scenarios. The department would never discourage or dissuade someone from applying.”

Lauren Love, a local artist and vintage curator currently looking for space for her art, attended the ASAP meeting to see if the program was right for her. However, she said she is unsure if she will apply because her business is for-profit.

“From what I understand, I have to create a nonprofit in order to have what I’m envisioning,” Love said. She said excluding for-profit organizations from applying to to the program would affect the nature of Austin’s art scene because it would drive out for-profit artists who don’t have a substantial financial foundation.

At the meeting’s end, Love said she was still thinking of applying to the program because it would allow her to open up an art space sooner rather than later.

“This has to be for me because there’s nothing else like this,” Love said. “ I have to make this for me.”