The struggle to find local, affordable studio space

As of the end of next month, at least 30 Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti artists will simultaneously find themselves creatively homeless. SPUR Studios, a former Ypsilanti office building repurposed to provide 29 individual private studio spaces for rent, will close July 31. SPUR filled to capacity shortly after its 2009 opening and has since housed a variety of local artists: musicians on the ground level and visual artists on the second floor, many of them sharing their spaces with fellow creators. The closing comes as a result of the death of the building's owner, whose beneficiaries chose to sell the property to a developer. 

Ypsilanti Township artist Cre Fuller has maintained a studio at SPUR since it opened. Fuller says he relished the opportunity to build his popular robot sculptures in a private space at an affordable rent ($175 per month for a 12' x 12' studio). 

"It definitely was instrumental in helping me kind of find myself artistically and having that break from my home," he says. "And I just felt really cool being part of that crew. I felt creatively invigorated. On days when it was hopping it was an amazing thing to be a part of."

Ypsilanti musician Shelley Salant has also worked out of SPUR since it opened. She first rehearsed there as a member of the band Tyvek, later taking over Tyvek's space for her own solo projects and other bands. Salant says SPUR's closing is "really a loss."

"Just having that access to that space for a very reasonable price has been really important," she says. "There's nowhere else like that around here. There's really not."

There used to be more like it, however–much more. In Ann Arbor, a building called the Tech Center offered over 50 individual studio spaces for rent from the mid-‘80s until its demolition in 2003 to make way for what is now the Ann Arbor YMCA. Ann Arbor musician Chris Taylor rented a studio in the Tech Center from 1998 until its closure. 

"It wasn't just bands," Taylor says. "It was dance troupes and theater troupes and artists and costuming people. Just all kinds of people were in there. It was a really eclectic mix of folks."

Taylor organized a coalition of artists when news of the Tech Center's closing broke, trying to build some group momentum towards finding a new space. However, he says artists "lost interest" and scattered to their homes or other individual spaces. Taylor now has his own studio space in Ann Arbor. Asked if he thinks a shared studio space like the Tech Center will ever arise again in Ann Arbor, Taylor's answer is firm.

"Hell no," he says. "They don't want it. Ann Arbor pretends like it's an artsy-fartsy community and stuff, and we've got some great stuff like the Michigan Theater or the art museums through the university and stuff. But really, people around here don't give a shit. They really don't. They talk a good game but they don't want to support it. They want art on a stick."

SPUR's attempts to establish an Ann Arbor outpost seem to bear out some of Taylor's views. Given the success of SPUR Ypsilanti, SPUR's cofounders established an Ann Arbor location in 2011, offering six studio spaces with monthly rent ranging from $250 to $475.

"For whatever reason we just couldn't fill them," says SPUR manager Chris Sandon. "It was a strange thing that made us think, ‘Wow, this is a novelty that all these things fell into place that made [SPUR Ypsilanti] happen.'"

Among those novel factors were the Ypsi location's unique compartmentalized floorplan and a favorable agreement with the building's landlord, for whom the space had previously been sitting vacant. Sandon says he and his SPUR colleagues have sought locations for a new SPUR site in Ypsilanti and come up empty-handed.

"Honestly, at this point it's hard to replace something that seemed to have such a unique template already in place, and to not have a ton of money to make it work," he says.

The days of Ann Arbor being a financially feasible location for such an operation may be long over, but to hear Sandon and Fuller tell it, Ypsi seems increasingly out of the question as well. That's a good sign for the economy in general, and for growing interest and revitalization in Ypsi. But Fuller says if someone like SPUR founder James Marks–"someone who has done it before and did it successfully and is very capable"–couldn't find SPUR a new home, he's not sure who else could establish such an operation.

"Unfortunately, with this, I think the era of cheap studio rent might be over," Fuller says. "I don't know if there are abandoned buildings that people will see fit to rent out to a bunch of random artists. It could happen. I just haven't seen it yet."

However, one new Ypsilanti project will follow somewhat in SPUR's footsteps. Ypsi Alloy Studios is the new home of an artists' collective called the Ballroom, who were evicted from their previous location near the Eastern Michigan University campus in April. 

"We were given a date of May 6 to be out and that kind of lit a fire under us," says Ilana Houten, one of three artists spearheading the Alloy space on Carpenter Road in Ypsi.

The new space will accommodate approximately 15 visual artists in a large communal studio space, with individual studio "bays" available for storage of personal items. Alloy will cater primarily to 3-D artists, with shared equipment for specialties like woodworking and metalworking. 

"As a 3-D artist, having access to a lot of tools is difficult, especially after you graduate," says Alloy organizer Jessica Tenbusch. "So many of us have slightly different backgrounds, so we figured we could pool all our resources together so that everyone has access to more tools than they would otherwise."

Alloy is unlikely to provide a new home for many of SPUR's displaced artists, however. Most Alloy tenants are collective members transferring over from the Ballroom, although there is still limited space available for new tenants. But the future could hold much bigger possibilities for Alloy, and the artists who might seek studio space there. Houten says she and her fellow organizers hope to eventually buy, rather than rent, a more permanent location with expanded operations including a gallery and retail store.

"As students come out of either the BSA program or the MSA program [at EMU], there will still be a need," she says. "As more and more people, especially artists, are settling in the Ypsilanti area I think we'll continue to see a growth in the amount of space that's needed."

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and a senior writer at Concentrate.

All photos by Doug Coombe .
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