Portland's art dilemma: Artists make the city cool, then can't find space to work

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PORTLAND — For artists and musicians, it’s a cruel cycle.

Time after time, in city after city, artists take over blighted neighborhoods, inject them with color and life, then find themselves driven out by rising costs.

“Artists make it cool, and then they can’t afford to live there anymore,” said Alice Kornhauser, board president of Creative Portland, a quasi-municipal association tasked with fostering the city’s creative community.

That task is a perpetual challenge, Kornhauser said.

On one hand, it’s good for the economy when property values increase. On the other hand, if the arts dry up as a result, the city could lose the very reason people flock here.

The Portland arts boom dates back to the mid-1980s. For at least a decade, however, the city has lost its artists to neighboring communities like Westbrook and Biddeford. Now there are indications that artists from out of state are skipping Portland altogether in favor of rougher, less-expensive locales.

This month alone presents several examples of the tenuous balance. On Thompson’s Point, a multi-million-dollar development has reduced the number of rehearsal spaces for the city’s musicians. Meanwhile, two communal studios are kicking off fundraising campaigns to grow new spaces.

Bands on the run

On the night of Friday, March 28, four bands and more than 50 concert-goers crowded into an old brick building on Thompson’s Point to say farewell to an unusual, yet beloved musical space.

The concert, dubbed “Demolition Party,” was a last chance to celebrate their practice and recording space before having to vacate as plans move forward for a $105 million development on the peninsula.

Forefront Partners, the Portland firm behind the Thompson’s Point development, purchased the 25-acre waterfront parcel last July, with plans to develop the peninsula into a mixed-use commercial area.

While the firm’s plan for Thompson’s Point will usher in a host of new art-tinged developments – including a circus college and a medium-sized concert hall – those plans have since caused at least two music spaces to shut down.

They also leave a storied 15-room practice space with an uncertain future.

In a city where reliable practice spaces are few and far between, this is a problem for people like Casey McCurry, who leads the eight-piece indie rock band Sunset Hearts, one of the bands that played Friday night. The local musician was in charge of handling the now-defunct space that he and others called “Paw Palace,” a nod to one of the band’s songs.

The space was a medium-sized room in a one-story, white, brick building that was primarily used by a plumber who subleased the room to bands for a reasonable rate, McCurry said. Sunset Hearts had been sharing Paw Palace with other bands for about three years after it was inherited from Spencer Albee, a well-known Portland pop musician.

McCurry said vacating the building has put the bands in a difficult situation. Rooms like Paw Palace – which are cheap, open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and isolated from residential and commercial areas – are exceedingly rare.

“It’s very tricky to find a place like that, and besides looking at Craigslist I can’t go to real a estate broker (because of the variety of costs involved),” he said. “Without finding a sweetheart deal like this, it’s impossible.”

A few hundred feet away from Paw Palace is Thompson Point’s last-standing practice space, a 15-room building that houses Grime Studios, a practice space that caters to about 20 bands from the city’s heavy metal scene. The building’s history dates back to the early 1990s, but its future remains in question.

Justin Curtsinger, manager of Grime Studios and frontman for metal band Zud, said with Forefront Partners’ plans to redevelop the peninsula, there are two possibilities for Grime: stay on Thompson’s Point, or move to a new location.

Like Paw Palace, Grime’s place on Thompson’s Point is ideal because the bands can play as loud as they want, whenever they want, without triggering noise complaints.

Curtsinger, who helped revive the space in 2012, said he has been in negotiations with Forefront Partners to move Grime to a new building on the peninsula, but couldn’t disclose any more details. He said he would ideally like a bigger building because it would help drive down rental costs and provide room for bands that are placed on the studio’s waiting list.

“My only skepticism is if Grime is to remain on Thompson’s Point,” Curtsinger said, “it has to double in size at least.”

Regardless of whether Grime stays, he said, he’s excited about new development coming to Thompson’s Point, most notably the Circus Conservatory of America, which is set to open next year. He said the college will help Portland become a “legitimate artistic city.”

“It doesn’t matter where we end up,” Curtsinger said, “What (the developer is) doing with this place, it’s a high-rolling thing, but I think it’s the right thing to do with a place like this.”

‘Panic level’

Kate Anker, owner of the studio Running with Scissors, said the space constraints for Portland artists are tight and could be getting tighter.

“I think we’re getting close to panic level,” she said. “If you look at communities like New York and Philadelphia, it begins slowly and then it happens all of a sudden.”

Anker has created more than 30 artist spaces in East Bayside, a neighborhood that recently received national attention as Portland’s new Brooklyn.

In late October, Anker moved Running with Scissors to a 16,000-square-foot space on Anderson Street, a short distance from its former location in a 7,000-square-foot building on Cove Street, where it catered to 22 artists.

The investment cost about $125,000 for Anker and another $125,000 from the building’s owner.

“It was huge a risk, but we really felt there was an immediate need to grab some space,” she said. “In East Bayside, space is disappearing quickly; development is happening so fast that artists are continually being pushed out or forced to take smaller and smaller studio spaces.”

Anker has been a print-maker in Portland for 14 years. She used to rent a studio in the State Theater building, but a decade ago she and other artists were squeezed out by economic conditions and zoning.

Anker tried South Portland for several years, then moved to Running with Scissors, also known as RWS, which was started 10 years ago by three artists. Two years ago, Anker bought the for-profit business.

“We’re still working toward that elusive profit,” she joked.

The new location has 55 artist spaces, all of which are rented. The studios range from small cubicles in the building’s interior to offices with windows. Anker asks for one-year leases, which can range anywhere from $150-$850 per month. Currently, there’s a waiting list.

The business supplies artists with equipment such as a printing press, power tools and a kiln. This month, RWS is in the midst of a Kickstarter campaign to raise $25,000 toward more equipment and improvements, including the creation of a small photography studio.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the effort had raised more than $10,000. The campaign ends on April 15.

A similar campaign will soon be underway for a like-minded facility on Thompson’s Point.

The Open Bench Project is an effort to bring power tools and space to craftspeople, entrepreneurs and artists, founder Jake Ryan said. 

Ryan hopes his idea will get a big push during the launch of an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign, which begins with an event from 6-8 p.m. Thursday, April 3, at SPACE Gallery on Congress Street.

Ryan said the impetus for the project had less to do with a shortage of space than a need to build a community.

“I found myself standing around in my barn full of tools alone and I felt like I wanted to go around and meet a bunch of other ‘makers,'” he said. “It’s lonely working alone in a barn.”

In addition to offering the use of tools to paying members, Ryan hopes to offer courses in specific projects, like building a bookshelf, tuning a bike or other hands-on projects.

Ryan said he’s in negotiations with Forefront Partners to use an existing building at Thompson’s Point, a former train depot that’s known as Brick North. The goal of the fundraising campaign is $27,500, which will pay for half a year’s lease and buy time while the fledgling project builds its customer base to sustainable levels.

Although Ryan’s intent is to foster community, he acknowledges that creative space is an increasingly rare commodity.

“There’s definitely a need for it,” he said. “Specifically for the stuff that we’re doing, there’s a need for dirty space where people can be loud, and get into bigger projects.”

‘Dirty’ arts

Potter Meg K. Walsh understands the need for dirty space. Walsh co-manages Bayside Clay Center, a pottery studio within RWS.

Not only is pottery an equipment-heavy pursuit, requiring a potter’s wheel and a kiln, but it also requires an understanding landlord, she said.

“You need somebody who’s going to be OK with you’re basically throwing dirt around inside … and then baking that dirt to 2,000 degrees,” she said. “There’s not a lot of options.”

Eric and Genevieve Drzewianowski, a married couple who live on Munjoy Hill, share an office at RWS with their standard poodle. Genevieve is a part-time jeweler; Eric is a nearly full-time book binder. Both are considered somewhat dirty arts. Jewelry making, which is also considered a fire art, is zoned out of many areas in the city.

Eric said he’s happy to have found a space to accommodate them both. Last year, Genevieve had a jewelry studio in South Portland in an area without streetlights.

“She’d go there late at night and it was just kind of creepy. So when we had a chance to move in here, we jumped on it,” he said. “I know a lot of people who want to move here, but finding (artist) spaces is hard. To find a place in Portland is just difficult.”

For many out-of-state artists who want to move to Maine, a life in Portland is considered unattainable, according to Sten Isak Havumaki, a fine woodworker in Biddeford, which also shares a reputation as Portland’s Brooklyn.

When Havumaki moved from the Boston area, he barely considered Portland, because he found it too difficult to find leads on studio spaces. He said he knows several Biddeford artists who share his story.

Tammy Ackerman agreed. Ackerman is executive director of Engine, a non-profit group that fosters the arts community in Biddeford. She is also coordinator for the city’s monthly art walk. The town’s former mill sites provide an attractive option for artists, she said.

Many artists in Biddeford arrived there “because they either heard Portland was too expensive or didn’t know where to look,” she said.

Kornhauser said Creative Portland is developing a website to catalog all available studio spaces in Portland. She hopes to launch in late spring or early summer.

In the meantime, Anker said any loss of artists in Portland will have a “dramatic effect.”

“Our artists helped develop and revitalize this community,” she said. “If we lose them, it’s going to be pretty drastic.”

Ben McCanna can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or bmccanna@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @BenMcCanna. Dylan Martin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or dmartin@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DylanLJMartin.

Video by Troy R. Bennett of the Bangor Daily News

Sidebar Elements

Nigel Stevens, right, and Joel Glidden perform as Mr. Neet on March 28 at Paw Palace, a Portland practice and recording space for local musicians. The event was meant as a farewell to the building, which is being vacated  this week to make way for the $105 million Thompson’s Point development.

Potters Yunus Lowenthal, left, and Elizabeth Ruskin work in side-by-side cubicles March 31 at Running with Scissors, a collection of artist studios in Portland’s East Bayside neighborhood.

Alice Bucket plays guitar with High Spirits during last week at Paw Palace in Portland.

Erik Tasker, keyboardist for Portland band Sunset Hearts, performs last week at Paw Palace.

Meg K. Walsh turns a mug on her potter’s wheel March 31 at Running with Scissors, a collection of artist studios in East Bayside.

Jason Unterreiner of Portland band Wood Burning Cat performs last week at Paw Palace in Portland.

Casey McCurry sings for Portland band Sunset Hearts last week at Paw Palace. McCurry managed the building, which is being vacated this week to make way for a $105 million development on Thompson’s Point.