“Artists are like goldfish. If you keep them in a small bowl, they stay small. But give them space to grow and they’ll change before your eyes.” So said one of the artists supported by the work of non-profit organization chashama. Founded in 1995 by Anita Durst, chashama exists to support artists and enliven communities by repurposing under-utilized spaces in the city for artists’ studios, performance and display. Durst, an artist and performer as well a member of a family widely known for the real estate company founded by her great-grandfather, recognized early on that access to affordable space — whether for living, working, presenting or selling — is essential to the growth and success of creative communities. But it is increasingly difficult to find. Through chashama, Durst channeled her passion for the arts and her connections to property owners and began to find ways to connect empty spaces that are in need of revitalization and artists in need of “space to create.”
The most visible of chashama’s programs are the performances that take place in storefront windows and plazas around the city, but the organization’s quieter work just might make the biggest impact. In a city notorious for its sky-high rents, chashama’s subsidized studio program makes workspaces available to artists at a 50 to 90 percent discount from market rate. The organization has negotiated both short- and long-term space donations from developers ranging from Rockrose Development to the NYC Economic Development Corporation, in spaces as various as Jamaica, Queens, Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and Downtown Manhattan. Durst has also established a series of youth outreach programs and an artist residency at a farm in upstate New York, where community and collaboration is encouraged over solitary, concentrated work.
Later this month, chashama is partnering with Artists Wanted to present Art Takes Times Square, an installation that will replace a number of the plaza’s jumbotron advertisements with artwork by a yet-to-be-revealed contest winner. In anticipation of the event, which will kick off with a day of live music, performances and other events on June 18th, we sat down to speak with Anita Durst and chashama’s development director Kim Schnaubert to talk about how creative repurposing of empty space can improve the economic, civic and cultural vitality of our city. –V.S.
Tell me about how chashama started.
I used to work with a theater artist named Reza Abdoh who staged all his productions in non-traditional spaces: hotels, offices, spaces that were always used as something else before he produced work in them. From Reza, I learned about the power of creativity. After he passed away, I wanted to find ways to continue that energy and to share it with others. So I started chashama. Much of my family works in real estate, which helped in our search for non-traditional spaces where artists could create and present their work.
Beyond facilitating access to these spaces, how did your family connection to the real estate market influence your decision to pursue this work?
When I moved to the city when I was 18, I moved in with my grandfather. He had an incredible collection of New York memorabilia, with thousands of books and maps and newspapers dating back to the 1800s. A pipe in his bathroom was covered with postcards of the history of New York, and he once made a model of the Brooklyn Bridge out of cigar tubes. Everything he did was very artistic. We would walk around New York together and he would teach me about architecture. Living with him, I gained a deep love for New York and its history and buildings. That love collided with my work as an artist and performer and my family’s involvement in real estate — it had to.
How do you select the artists you work with and how you identify the spaces you inhabit, and how do you match the two?
We have artists and property owners coming to us all the time. Most of the space we use is donated, on a short or long-term basis. Artists fill out an online RFP and provide as much detail as possible about their particular needs. Then our programming director matches projects to spaces.
It’s really about finding a balance between the needs of the artist and the needs of the space. We aren’t going to put, for example, our big immersive production of Romeo and Juliet, which is currently running in Long Island City, in a 300-square-foot space.
Some artists want to come into a really raw space and turn it into something else. Some artists need to have a white box gallery. But we don’t always have a white box gallery available when someone wants one. There’s a lot of connecting the dots.
We try to keep the process very simple and open for both the artists and property owners who want to work with us. And we try to work with everyone that contacts us, but we don’t have the resources to manage all of them.
Sometimes property owners approach us with spaces that aren’t built out, or they’re super raw, or crumbling. We have to be strategic when we decide which spaces our limited staff can build out and which projects are worth doing.
When you begin to work in a new space here in the city, how do you engage with or reach out to the surrounding community?
Community engagement starts with us. We reach out to local community boards and different art centers and youth groups in the areas to get the word out. But then, once the artists start going to these spaces every day, they begin working with the community in various ways as well.
The level of local community engagement often depends on how long we have the space. When we secure a long-term donation of space, we immediately start putting down roots in the creative community and talking to local government officials. We want to spread the word about the space being in the neighborhood, so artists and other creative organizations know there is a space nearby they can utilize.
What about locals who aren’t necessarily connected to these creative communities at all?
One of the most important things to me about chashama in the beginning was to get people who didn’t usually see art to be able to experience it. The window performances that we have help accomplish that, because they’re not invasive, because you’re behind a window and you’re making art. People walk by and are naturally curious.
Non-traditional spaces help make the work more approachable. Some people will seek out art in galleries. But sometimes people are intimidated. However, if they wander by an open warehouse door, they might be more likely to walk in to see what’s happening. And when the artists are there, working in the spaces — and the artists always want to talk to people about their work — that creates the kind of environment that removes a lot of the normal barriers that exist in a typical gallery setting.
We think of all of our spaces as incubators. We want to incubate the whole creative process as well as each individual artist.
One of chashama’s stated goals is to invest in neighborhoods and to sustain not just creativity and culture, but also commerce. How do you see short-term use of these spaces translating into long-term investment? And how do you see commerce playing into that work?
I think our spaces out in Long Island City serve as a good example. Rockrose Development donated four spaces to us in Long Island City for three years. If these spaces lay unused for three years, the neighborhood would feel blighted. But instead, we have two to three hundred people going there every day. First of all, that creates a positive energy. But also, those artists are going to coffee shops, they’re using the hardware store, they’re creating economic activity in the neighborhood. And then they’re having their openings, which bring more people there, who then might say, “Wow, I had no idea that Long Island City was so close. Maybe I could live out here, or maybe this is a neighborhood I want to spend some time in.”
It also works for our property owners. Oftentimes, people donate space that they’re having a hard time getting leased on a month-to-month basis. Because we activate those spaces, and people come in and have an opportunity to see them, they often end up rented. And our process is flexible so that when that happens we can move on to the next place.
Making more out of what we already have is something that we like to talk about on Urban Omnibus, as both an economic and an environmental imperative. What are other ways that the city should be optimizing or activating our underutilized spaces, or using untapped resources?
I think the most obvious need is for housing. Finding a place to live that’s affordable is such a difficult thing for people in New York. If we can be creative with our use of space and find ways to make living in the city a little easier, I think that could make a huge difference.
It’s one thing to talk about repurposing spaces and what that does for the community or for the artists, but part of the challenge is getting landowners to think differently. Buildings are constructed with a certain purpose in mind, and so often it never occurs the owner to do something else with them.
What else do you think property owners or real estate developers can learn from the work that you do?
Our work brings attention to spaces in a nontraditional way and attracts audiences who might not have been interested or visited otherwise. There are a lot of benefits to keeping not just spaces but neighborhoods activated. For landowners, whether they’re interested in renting their spaces, or just keeping them in use in anticipation of other long-term plans, there are a lot of different levels of benefits. It’s good for their press and marketing, and for their relationship to the neighborhood, to be a part of this kind of community enrichment. We encourage the landowners be as involved as they want to be in the projects that are on their sites.
I think our work shows property owners the value of giving an empty, unused space to an artist, allowing someone to find a place to work and hone his skills, and how that will bring productive change to both the artist and to the neighborhood.
In the last five or ten years, there has been a lot more talk about space transformation and especially this idea of pop-ups, which has been good for helping people understand what can happen in a short amount of time in a non-traditional space. But at the same time, it’s important for people to realize that chashama doesn’t own any of these spaces and it’s a challenge to find money to do temporary construction, or to change a space as much as you can without tearing it down or changing the bones. We do work to bring spaces up to code, but we can’t raise capital money since we don’t have long-term leases.
So, we just have to be inventive and find people who understand what we’re trying to do and want to support that, and we’ve had to be flexible in our agreements with property owners. Some owners who are willing to give it a shot on a month-to-month basis end up donating more space later for longer periods of time. They meet the artists and start to understand the value of this kind of work and they get excited. Then it leaks into other sides of their business, where they’re meeting other people that they wouldn’t have met, and they have this amazing project they can talk about or bring to other potential funders or partners.
On the other side of that, are there lessons that creative organizations can learn from your work?
I think that a lot of organizations are starting to be able to see the power of creating a community. Communities have strength, can collaborate with one another, and can create economic vitality. I think Third Ward is a good example of that. Those guys have taken art and made it into a great business in just six years.
It’s been a work in progress over 17 years for us to figure out how to operate this three-pronged structure of artist management, space management and curatorial work. We’ve had to learn a lot about what you can and can’t do. At this point we have a model that works, and now we’re thinking about how to make the model scalable and applicable to other organizations. Already, people contact us from all over the world asking for help. They have space, they know that artists need the space, but they don’t know how to make the connection. So we’re thinking of how to communicate our model to other people who are interested in changing their communities in the same way.
All images courtesy of chashama. All rights reserved.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.