LOWELL — They come from as far away as Fitchburg, Rockport, East Boston, and Cranston, R.I.
Priced out of other markets, they are artists drawn by the low rents, ample space, and vibrant community of some 350 creative peers who flock to the sprawling complex of art studios and lofts in the converted factory here just off the Pawtucket Canal.
Now, as soaring rents continue to uproot artists across Greater Boston, Western Avenue Studios & Lofts, where studio space rents for just $1 per square foot, is poised to become something more: a test case in the nascent effort to preserve affordable artist studios and housing the way some organizations conserve treasured land.
Last month, the Arts & Business Council of Greater Boston purchased the complex for $20 million, turning the converted textile mill into a nonprofit whose mission is to preserve the facility, which owners describe as one of the largest such arts communities in the country.
Think of it as a conservation trust, but for artists.
“We’ve never applied that same concept to artistic spaces,” said Jim Grace, executive director of the nonprofit Arts & Business Council.
And Western Avenue, which boasts 250 artist studios and 50 work/live lofts across some 240,000 square feet, is just the beginning. If all goes well, Grace hopes the project will set the stage for an even grander ambition: a real estate investment fund that identifies, acquires, and preserves buildings that offer affordable artist studio space and are at risk of being sold.
“That is the next iteration,” said Grace, whose organization is already working on a creative hub in Worcester as part of an effort to secure cultural space in Massachusetts known as the Creative Campus initiative. “You replicate it by having your own access to capital.”
All too often, affordable studio space in Greater Boston has depended on the presence of benevolent landlords — property owners able and willing not to make a lot of money on their investment right away. But circumstances change. The landlord sells, private developers swoop in, and artists are forced out.
Some version of this story has played out repeatedly over the years in Greater Boston, as area artists have endured a punishing series of evictions amid rising property values.
The Fort Point Channel neighborhood, where artists once occupied an estimated 600,000 square feet of loft space, now has just a handful of buildings with studio space. The Allston-Brighton area has surrendered more than 100,000 square feet of studio and rehearsal space in the past seven years, according to an internal city assessment, and still more facilities are at risk of being uprooted. Meanwhile, artists have similarly decamped from areas such as the South End, Jamaica Plain, Cambridge, and Somerville.
“The impact on the arts ecosystem in Greater Boston is existential,” Kara Elliott-Ortega, Boston’s chief of arts and culture, said via e-mail. “Artists and businesses are displaced in the process, and suddenly find themselves in a market where the rents are triple what they’ve been paying.”
There have been some bright spots. The Fort Point Channel neighborhood is home to a pair of artist work/live co-operatives. Similarly, residents at Midway Artist Studios formed a nonprofit in 2014 to purchase the Fort Point property and preserve it as work/live studios for artists. And tenants at Humphreys Street Studios are now working with New Atlantic Development to buy the Dorchester property, with support from the city.
But for the most part, gentrification has won the race, as private developers with quick access to capital outmaneuver artist-led fund-raising efforts.
“At one point, the conversation might have been about leaving Boston for a nearby city,” said Elliott-Ortega, whose office is working to secure more arts space in Boston. “The distance you have to travel to find truly affordable and sustainable space is getting longer.”
It’s unclear just how many artists have abandoned Boston for lower rents elsewhere, but a recent pandemic-related survey by the city of some 1,500 area artists found that nearly 40 percent “worried about being able to afford their mortgage or rent in the next 3 months.”
Elliott-Ortega added that organizations in other cities are using innovative methods to secure affordable arts space, including a city-sponsored development authority in Seattle, and a trust in San Francisco to safeguard cultural space.
She asked, “Do we want creative communities to be able to live and work here? . . . If so, then we need to address this head on and identify new models and partnerships to preserve and create cultural production space.”
The Arts & Business Council’s planned real estate investment fund is just such an innovation, said Grace. Instead of relying on a piecemeal approach, a well-resourced fund could be more systematic, he said, moving quickly to secure at-risk properties, and then acting as a sort of cultural community development corporation to preserve or develop the property.
Even so, the Council’s Western Avenue purchase is roughly 90 percent debt, which begs the question: Is the model scalable to higher-profile markets like Boston?
“The only way to do it there is to have more equity, more capital,” said Grace, who added the proposed fund would draw on philanthropic donations, social-impact investing, and other sources. “You have to be ready to respond, and you have to have access to capital. If some organization doesn’t step up, we’re going to continue to lose buildings.”
Lowell’s Western Avenue might have suffered a similar fate, were it not for the building’s previous owner Karl Frey, a commercial real estate developer who had originally planned to turn the mill into apartments — a bedroom community for Boston.
But his plan foundered when his major tenant went bankrupt just six months after Frey took control of the property.
“This is now a failed investment,” said Frey, who cobbled together income from smaller commercial tenants as he scrambled to bring artists into the space. “It was a nightmare for me: This is a personal asset, and I was recourse on the debt.”
Over the next 15 years, Frey managed to transform the erstwhile mill into one of the country’s largest affordable arts studio compounds and an economic driver for the city. It now serves as a vital resource for hundreds of artists from Lowell and across the region, including painter Angela Alés, who began renting a studio here about eight years ago and eventually moved into a loft.
Alés, who teaches at Middlesex Community College, said she rarely leaves the compound.
“Never,” she said. “We just need a Whole Foods.”
Fine art and portrait photographer Mark Elson commutes to Lowell from his home in Medford.
“Everything around Medford, Somerville, and Boston was just way too expensive,” said Elson, who pays about $500 a month for his studio. “What you get here is so much better.”
The average Western Avenue studio costs about $350 a month; the average 1,300 square foot live/work loft costs about $1,600. The facility also features an indoor performance space, art gallery, brew pub, coffee shop, and after-school arts program, while hosting art markets and other events. Add to that Lowell Makes, an independently-owned collaborative workspace on the campus, and the compound hosts more than 600 artists and other creatives, everyone from painters and glassblowers, to ceramicists, woodworkers, photographers, and sculptors.
“It’s the worst investment I ever made financially, but psychically the most rewarding,” said Frey, 61, who began planning his exit from the project a few years ago. “Why should it just be sold to the next developer who’s going to kick the artists out? I’m not going to let that happen. I’ve got too much work in it.”
He eventually approached Howard Amidon, vice president for philanthropy at the Greater Lowell Community Foundation, who introduced Frey to Jim Grace of the Arts & Business Council.
With Western Avenue, Frey “wanted to make sure it would continue on as the jewel, and the arts and culture hub that it is,” recalled Amidon. Regarding Grace, he added, “I knew he was looking for a project like this.”
Even so, the deal itself became an object lesson in how difficult it can be for a small nonprofit to work within the for-profit world of real estate.
“This little project was the most difficult closing in my career,” said Frey, who in his professional life has shepherded numerous large-scale commercial and residential projects. “Bridging the not-for-profit, and for-profit world — it’s beyond different languages.”
Frey had already shown that Western Avenue’s business model was viable. He was willing to work with the Arts & Business Council on the transaction. He even held the property for nearly two years without a deposit while Grace raised $600,000 for closing.
“He couldn’t really raise any money until he had the asset,” said Frey, who ultimately contributed another $1.6 million for the Council to close on the deal. “That’s the problem,” he continued, a nonprofit ”can never control an asset for the length of time it takes to raise capital.”
Grace freely acknowledges that the Council couldn’t have pulled off the deal without Frey, a serendipitous partnership Grace described as “lightning in a bottle.”
“But doing public policy based on a lightning in a bottle approach is terrible policy,” said Grace, who’s been formulating some version of the idea for the past 10 years. “You have to have resources; you have to have expertise.”
Frey has agreed to stay on as a management consultant while the building is stabilized under the Council’s ownership. Once it’s stabilized, however, Grace said that proceeds from Western Avenue, combined with money from other sources, could help grow the planned arts preservation fund to secure other properties.
“There’s no reason it can’t support the next purchase,” said Grace. “It’s our attempt to be part of the solution.”