How Can We Keep Artists In Our Cities?


NewCo Shift Forum

Moy Eng has a market-based answer worth understanding

Moy Eng, Executive Director of the Community Arts Stabilization Trust, gives one of five Shift Ignite talks earlier this year at the Shift Forum. Our cities are losing their artists as the flight back to urban centers has driven rents beyond their reach. What can be done? This five minute Ignite talk has some answers.

Moy Eng: Hi. They say that you are who you really will be, at the age of seven. Here I am at the age of seven, bright, eager to please, and wanting to make parents and my teachers proud at my first Holy Communion.

What they don’t see and what you don’t see is the world in which I grew up in, a working-class industrial town where men made and built things — iron, steel, bridges, and even beautiful china. A hundred thousand people, mostly white, some colored folks, as they referred to African-Americans, and two Chinese families. One of them was mine.

My parents and my grandparents were immigrants. When you don’t speak the language and when you don’t look like most of 1960s America, silence is a powerful tool. You use it to learn, listen, and be safe. Every single day, someone would come by the glass-pane window, knock on it, stare at my grandfather and my family, and say names — sometimes unprintable names — to remind us that we were less-than, and our place in the world.

My sanctuary was beauty, books, music. I decided in my 20s that I would create spaces for beauty of all kinds. As an expatriate New Yorker, I was drawn to San Francisco — innovative, rebellious artists, the third largest artist population in the US, and a beautiful place to live. How could you not want to live here?

However, when I got here, the economic surge has pushed up demand and prices so much so that living here, the rent can take up to 50 percent of your income. What can we do?

When we look at an apartment, $3,500 a month here in San Francisco, for an engineer who lives in a high-tech company, that might be affordable. For an artist who’s making a median income of $43,000 a year, not so much. So are we looking at a city or cities without any artists, no art, no music? How do we keep artists in our cities?

We have a solution. I lead an experiment called CAST. CAST is non-profit real estate development company. We create affordable, safe, permanent — you heard that right — space for the arts, in one of the most expensive real estate markets in the country.

We’re testing two models. The first is a lease-to-own model. We purchase the building. We then rent it out affordably to an arts group for seven to 10 years, giving them time to raise the money to buy the building. We then recycle the funds back to benefit another arts organization.

The second model is that we’re working with a real estate developer to create multi-arts, multi-tenant centers, affordable rents for those who cannot buy, but need the stability of renting. CAST, over the next 10 years, is going to raise over $75 million to acquire a hundred thousand square feet in one of the most expensive real estate markets in the country.

To date, we’ve raised $22 million and have bought two buildings and renovated them, one of them for CounterPulse. We’ve renovated a dilapidated porn theater into a state-of-the-art contemporary art center, as you see in this slide, for dance, theater, and music.

In addition to the Federal Reserve Bank and World Cultural Cities, we have been cited as a model from leaders in Boston, New York, to London, Nairobi, and Tel Aviv. But we’re not alone. In the US, Minneapolis-based Artspace has been creating live-work space in Minneapolis, as well as in 20 cities across the US.

In Seattle, we’re also seeing artists leave the city due to rising costs. Its arts commission is creating, as part of its new offices in that railroad station, co-working space, as well as event space for artists and arts organizations. London is even more expensive than San Francisco. Twenty years ago, a big effort started to convert the historic Somerset House into a public arts center.

It takes a global and local village to make this all happen, and we are well on our way for San Francisco to continue to be wild and wonderful and innovative. I’m thrilled to be leading this experiment at CAST to keep artists in San Francisco. Thanks for listening.

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