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A Place to Create: Proposed studio space could play role in $27M local arts economy

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Art aficionados often talk about its potential to transform, whether it be for artists, audiences or communities.

Art also transforms places, and the former Doling Elementary School on West Atlantic Street may soon begin its own metamorphosis if the vision of a husband-and-wife team comes to fruition.

Kate Baird and Mike Stevens have penned a purchase agreement with Springfield Public Schools to transform the 1916-built school into the New Moon Studio Space, which would provide work and classroom areas for dozens of local artists.

Stevens approached Springfield City Council to request a zoning change that would clear the way for the project. The measure, approved Feb. 22, allows the building to be used “as professional and business offices, limited retail establishments and a school and studio or art, dancing, drama, music, photography, interior decorating or similar courses of study.”

In a walk-through of the former school, Baird shared her vision of classrooms that could be rented, perhaps for dancers, or subdivided into many smaller studio areas. She also showed off other rooms – offices, closets, staircase landings – that might well be purposed to house a musician, writer or visual artist.

The couple is working toward agreements with organizations that may be interested in renting the school’s large gym or library. Initially, they plan to start small, offering 13 studio spaces while the rest of the building is renovated. The building may house 50 studios by the time the project is done.

Art and the economy
Wide-eyed talk about transformation can disguise an essential fact about art, which is that it’s also big business.

Leslie Forrester, executive director of the Springfield Regional Arts Council, said at last count, the local arts scene boasts 1,065 full-time jobs and an annual economic impact of $26.9 million. The arts also generate $2.3 million each year in tax revenue for local and state governments.

The last count she was referring to is a 6-year-old study with nonprofit Americans for the Arts, and the next local study will kick off this summer, according to Forrester.

“We know from the study that a third of our audiences were coming from other places, so it was not just locals attending shows,” she said. “Even locals indicated that if they weren’t able to find that kind of performance, they would go elsewhere.”

Forrester noted arts and culture make up a $730 billion national industry and 4.2% of the U.S. gross domestic product.

“Often people think, ‘Well, that’s nice to have, but it doesn’t feel essential,’” Forrester said. “If you do the math, if you removed it, that would be extremely detrimental.”

Forrester noted that the city’s comprehensive plan, Forward SGF, will have opportunities for the arts and hopefully some funding chances as well.

“When we think about our communities and the places we want to live, the baseline of communities are good streets and sewer systems that work and strong police, fire, public safety – most communities of our size and any equivalent will have all of those things,” she said. “What sets us apart from other cities like ours – from all the other Springfields that exist – tends to be the creative sector of the community.”

Forrester said the arts are important for placemaking but also for valuable life experiences, like family outings, first dates and nights out with friends. They are also a key part of the economy.

“Arts and culture are all one part of a mega ecosystem,” she said.

Space to create
In his remarks to council, Stevens said Springfield has a lot of gallery and exhibition spaces, but it’s short on rentable studio space.

The New Moon Studio Space would help to fill that need, but it is by no means the only show in town. Creava Studio, located downtown on St. Louis Street, has rentable space for potters and two-dimensional artists, and these range from small rooms to reserved shelf space in a communal studio. Some spaces may be leased for a period of months, while others can be rented for the duration of an individual project.

Summer Benedetti, Creava’s owner, said the difficulty in Springfield is that most spaces are communal. That makes the New Moon project particularly valuable.

“A building where artists can have their own private space would be very desirable,” she said. “People look until they find us, and when they do, they’re almost desperate for a private space.”

Creava has two buildings containing four rentable studios. One 8- by 10-foot space suitable for two-dimensional art is available now at $100 per month with a minimum three-month lease. Another slightly larger studio, which can be used for clay or 2D art, is available at $120 per month for a minimum of six months.

Benedetti sees more and more people turning seriously toward art.

“I think as a result of COVID, a lot of people that had been toying with the idea of creating art as a business took the leap,” she said. “While they were stuck at home, they embraced their creative side.”

Benedetti said people are also looking for artisan items to purchase.

“The days of everyone wanting something from a big-box store are passing,” she said. “People want things that are hyperlocal. Having a vase on the shelf that you know the artist makes it really valuable to them.”

Benedetti said the growth she sees in the arts is only beneficial for Springfield.

“The longer I live here, the more each year it just seems to blossom, which is wonderful,” she said. “It just needs people to continue to engage with it.”

Downtown, Chloe Thorne is preparing to open a shop called Snail Art House on South Campbell Avenue, and artists will be invited to supply what she calls “drops” – think of new music, dropping on a much-anticipated date. Someone who makes hats can bring in a drop of 20 of them to sell in her store, which she plans to open in April. Following the store, she plans to offer a small product photography area for artists to use to market their products.

Ultimately, Thorne wants to provide studio space as well, though she is still working on the details of size and price.

Another studio option for artists can be found at Forming, a project of Formed: An Artist Collective. Forrester said the workspace was set to debut to the public at the March First Friday ArtWalk at its location at the intersection of South Street and Walnut Avenue. A peek in the windows of Forming shows artists already at work at easels, with paintings adorning the walls.

Big investment
Back in 2018, the school board approved the sale of the Doling school building, which closed in 2002, to a St. Louis company that intended to transform it into senior housing. The price tag for Bywater Development Group was $425,000.

That sale fell through, and now Baird and Stevens have an option to buy the 28,000-square-foot space for $125,000 – well below Zillow’s average home price of $200,000, and significantly above the city’s median house size.

Baird said the purchase price might seem low, but the cost of renovating the building will be several times higher. Baird and Stevens have not yet secured a bank loan, and they are in the process of extending their purchasing agreement with SPS as they put together their financing.

“Both Mike and I want a safe, functional building where there’s a certain level of seriousness about what we’re doing,” she said. “If someone’s going to pay for spaces, it’s absolutely their right to expect a high level of functionality.”

At the moment, New Moon Studio Space is in the very early stages, Baird said, but she believes the project is important.

“Our arts community can’t make it to the next level until we have a way for people to make a living,” she said.

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