Showing art / meeting the public

Looking at Arts incubators: The torpedo Factory & the Garver Feedmill

by Doug E. L. Haynes

This April Madison voters approved a proposition to allow the Common Wealth Development to create an arts incubator in the Graver feed mill. The feed mill is an abandoned building on the east side behind Olbrich Gardens. The plan calls for over 40 artists’ studios, which will be open to the public.

The model for such a facility is well established. In Arlington, Virginia, the Torpedo Factory has been a successful draw for art tourists from all parts of the world for over 30 years. Numerous arts incubators around the nation seek to emulate that business model.

This summer I had the opportunity to visit the Torpedo Factory and speak with artists there. I was also able to interview an artist who showed work in a similar arts incubator in San Diego called the Spanish Village. The basic arrangement is as follows: Artists are offered studio space at below market rates in exchange for being present in their studios a certain number of hours per week to meet the public. It takes a certain personality to thrive in such an environment. There are interruptions and the commitment to be present for set hours can be demanding. However there are also intrinsic rewards. For those who find work in an isolated studio to be lonely, this community of artists would be a true blessing. The opportunity to reach an audience and sell without commission is also quite desirable.

When I enquired about the jurying process, I received some very thoughtful responses. The jurying process does not seek to weed out those whose work might be too cutting edge for audiences, but artists whose work does not sell well, often are driven away by the economics of the situation. One respondent raised concerns about a process that could allow black balling by one juror. Another raised a concern about an artist who had been juried in with high quality work, but then had let her standards slip. This artist had come in with strong oil paintings, but had switched to painting pithy sayings on rocks. Such a situation might not occur if the artists were to come up for review from time to time. Another artist put the question this way: “Either the artists are a workforce, or they are beneficiaries.” If the artists are a workforce, then regular productivity reviews are in order (In this case productivity would mean, creating dynamic art that draws audiences and raises the stature of the venue). On the other hand if the artists are beneficiaries, then the purpose of the incubator is to allow emerging artists to learn skills and bring their work up to snuff. In that case the incubation period should have a limit so other artists can reap the benefit.

Currently the process of developing the arts incubator in Madison has a ways to go. The building will require a lot of work and there are a number of hurdles to be passed; but for those in the arts community it is not to soon to begin forming a vision of how such a community of artists might function. For those interested in seeing the proposed floor plans, they can be downloaded at www.cwd.org/arts/artsincubator/artsincubator.aspx. The plans call for studios of varying sizes, a gallery, museum and a small performance venue. There are also some parts of the building, which are planned to be used for market rate rental offices and a space for weddings and other rental uses. The point of mixing the use of the building is to bring a variety of people to the arts who might not otherwise come and to make the facility self-sustaining. An artist I spoke to at the Torpedo Factory said that weddings are an especially reliable revenue generator and that the bride and groom often return every year to buy an anniversary gift from the artists.