A look inside Washington Studios art co-opLocal photographer Ryan Tischer talks about what it's like living in the Washington Studios Artist Cooperative.
By: Erik Pheifer, for the Duluth Budgeteer News
Many artists have two main needs when it comes to housing. They need more space than the average person, yet they need it to be affordable, as a lot of them live on often-unsteady incomes.
Although size and price are directly related, members of the Washington Studios Artist Cooperative get the best of both worlds. The cooperative, located on Lake Avenue between Third Street and Fourth Street, offers its residents low-income housing along with the abundant space that artists covet.
Washington offers a variety of apartment types from efficiencies up to three-bedroom units. These range in price from $554 to $823 and include basic utilities except electricity.
According to a study done by the cooperative’s leasing agent, Bowman Properties, the sizes of the units vary from around 700 to 2,000 square feet and are 30 percent cheaper than comparable units in Duluth — even though there aren’t many that compare in size.
In addition to the extra square footage, the units at Washington feature 14-foot-high ceilings, extra storage space and views of the city and lake.
Cooperative president and local photographer Ryan Tischer sees Washington as a great resource and opportunity for local artists. In his two-bedroom unit, he has a spacious living room and a work area (complete with tables to work on and two large printers), and the unit still doesn’t feel cramped.
However, the biggest benefit for Washington residents might be getting to live among other artists.
“It’s great living here if you’re a working artist, or even if you’re just a hobbyist, because you’re always able to brush shoulders with other creative people,” Tischer said.
Living with other artists allows Tischer to run ideas by residents before proceeding with high-cost projects, which helps him to save time and money by avoiding some of the trials and errors associated with new creative ventures.
“If you’re living in another house or apartment complex, the odds of those people being [artistic] are fairly low,” he said.
Tischer says living in a creative environment can do wonders for even the most inexperienced of artists. Living at the cooperative usually brings out the best in an artist, he said.
The cooperative offers all residents use of common spaces, including an art gallery, a performance room, a ceramics room, a meeting room and a work room where artists can work on messy projects that they wouldn’t want to do in their own units.
Because of the unique opportunities that Washington provides, it’s no surprise that there is a somewhat extensive process for renting a unit there. Tischer said that the process usually takes a couple of weeks.
Prospective residents not only have to qualify as low-income, which is the biggest reason for rejection among applicants, but they also have to go through an interview process with current residents.
During the interview, residents on the selection committee ask predetermined questions to ensure that the applicant would be a good fit living in a cooperative environment that is not a typical living arrangement. This interview is also used to learn more about the type of art the applicant is interested in, since being involved in the arts is another requirement for living at the cooperative.
However, the cooperative tries to be as inclusive as possible when considering an applicant’s art interest, as it usually isn’t one of the deciding factors whether an applicant is accepted or not. Applicants don’t need to be full-time artists; even beginners and hobbyists are encouraged to live there.
Once accepted, residents are required to volunteer 12 hours of time in some capacity to the cooperative every three months. This could include showing art in the gallery, planning a show or even doing cleaning or maintenance around the facility.
Washington is a self-governing entity that was created by Artspace after it acquired the property, which served as a school for more than 80 years. Many units have the school’s old chalkboards still intact, while the two apartments on the top floor are in the school’s old gymnasium and have a raised running track that has been split between them.
The cooperative’s executive committee is allowed to make almost any decision (with the input of residents) without consulting Artspace, as long as it follows the organization’s guidelines and tax laws.
As part of its self-governance, the cooperative also has six committees under the executive committee that its members can serve on if interested. These include a gallery committee, performance committee, selection committee, building committee, pet committee and facilitation committee, which ensures everyone is meeting their volunteer requirements.
Artspace is a non-profit based in Minneapolis that creates low-income housing tailored to the needs of artists. Washington was Artspace’s first development outside the Twin Cities when it opened in 1996.
The non-profit currently operates 24 properties spanning both coasts, including buildings in Brainerd, Fergus Falls and multiple sites in the Twin Cities.