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Trendsetters: Creative Developments

When real estate developers Anthony Harper and Chris Melhouse first considered purchasing the 19th-century cotton gin property in Atlanta’s West Side in 2008, their plan was for a conventional real estate development. But when the recession hit shortly afterward, they decided on a less traditional – and what they thought would be temporary – use for the 12-acre property: cost effective studios for artists, performers and musicians.

“We did that for two years, and by the end of the second year we had so many artists, so many performers and so many tenants,” says Harper about the Goat Farm Arts Center. “It was just an attractive model for us. It was rewarding in a lot of ways outside of the monetary rewards – just being active in the arts ecosystem.”

Opened in 1889 as E. Van Winkle Gin and Machine Works, the facility first manufactured cotton gins and later produced ammunition and mortars during World War II. Today, the Goat Farm – named for the goats that have long roamed the property to keep kudzu in check – is home to nearly 500 creative people who rent art studio or project space. A large portion of their rent goes to fund and present 150 performances a year, says Harper.

The center and its reputation have grown far beyond Harper’s expectations. Each week, the company receives up to 180 requests from artists around the world to hold exhibits or performances at the center, which also supports artistic endeavors outside the center’s walls.

“The artists and performers that use our venues not only get to use our venues for free, but we fund their production and let them keep 100 percent of the ticket sales ... or their art sales. So effectively what you have is creatives paying rent, knowing that a large portion of what they pay in rent actually supports their peers.”

Last year the center joined the Hambidge Center for Creative Arts and Sciences, a nonprofit organization in Rabun Gap funded in part by the Fulton County Commission, to put on a field experiment competition. The annual competition aims to “uncover truths and ignite new thinking” with transformative concepts that encourage public action.

Each of five finalists receive $2,000 to present their project concepts on a small scale. The winner receives $20,000, a two-week Hambidge residency, and administration and production support for their project.

This year’s winner – chosen from 77 applications received from 32 cities, 16 states and four countries – is the team of Pablo Gnecco, Derek Bruno and Travis Broyles for their project 9to5. The winning team plans to use open source software to create a place much more connected than the average coffee shop or communal workspace, one that encourages conversation and interaction between those using the space.

The Goat Farm’s next major project is Beacons, an initiative to catalyze an arts district in vacant buildings in south downtown. “The architecture is beautiful on some of those streets,” says Harper. “We help match arts organizations to other owners of vacant buildings, then we help those arts organizations renovate those spaces and turn them into their venues, their galleries or their project spaces.”

While helping tenants get into another owner’s building may seem illogical for a real estate developer, as a social impact real estate developer, Harper is hoping his plan will bring about a dense – and stable – art district, which is lacking in the city. To avoid the typical outcome where artists move into an area, make it exciting and eventually get priced out, part of the program is to teach resident artists to become micro real estate developers, Harper says.

“We help them build out additional art studios that they can rent out to practitioners to generate cash flow. The next stage of the plan would be to help them take that extra cash flow, find a down payment and get a loan to buy their own building, so we have the arts organization that owns the building.”

The initiative, which targets downtown Atlanta’s South Broad Street, Mitchell Street and Peachtree Street south of the Five Points Marta Station, has resulted in six arts organizations relocating to the area. Collectively the six organizations will be on track for about 1,000 performances and exhibitions, bringing in some 90,000 people yearly, says Harper.

“It is a lesson in density,” says Harper, noting that an arts district will allow for collaboration – and creativity – among organizations that otherwise might be widely dispersed. “Because they are seeing each other much more often, they kind of feel they are on the same boat together. You get the effect of unplanned productivity.”

That productivity could foster a stronger focus and hopefully more support for the arts in a city that is quickly becoming one of the country’s largest metropolises. – Mary Anne Dunkin

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