Hugo Claudin of Mexicains Sans Frontieres. Hugo Claudin of Mexicains Sans Frontieres. Photo by Katy Batdorff

Art sighs: Despite convergence of positive factors, Grand Rapids artists worry about their future

BY Sunday, October 02, 2016 01:30pm

As the 2016 version of ArtPrize enters its final week, it might seem like local artists are living in a golden age. 

On Oct. 7, the radical art competition will announce the artists selected to share the $500,000 pot of prize money. Throw in the 400,000 art-hungry visitors who flock to Grand Rapids during the three-week competition, creating nearly $30 million in economic impact, and the potential bonanza seems to grow. 

There are plenty of positives for local artists the other 49 weeks of the year, too — from Kent County’s healthy job market to the region’s embrace of design-centric thinking, which has spurred freelance opportunities for commercial designers, graphic artists, illustrators and photographers.   

Even rents for live-work spaces along downtown’s “Avenue of Arts” — South Division from Fulton Street to Wealthy Street — have remained relatively stable, allowing artists to escape the rapidly escalating costs for space that have crept in a couple of blocks away as a result of new development. 

Given all this, it would seem there’s no greater time than the present to work as an artist in downtown Grand Rapids. 

The reality: Many artists say they’re more worried than ever about their ability to create and make a living in the city. 

They cite a variety of reasons, from looming gentrification and likely displacement, to the long-standing dearth of art collectors in town. Additionally, many artists struggle with navigating the institutional bureaucracy surrounding arts funding and sometimes find they must balance their creativity with frequent attempts to sanitize the city’s cultural underground. 

[RELATED: ArtPrize director eyes what’s next for organization]

“There’s a sense when I talk to the city, builders and developers and even artists, that that’s just the way it is, and I just don’t think that’s acceptable,” said Tommy Allen, a longtime Grand Rapids writer and artist. “(Artists) are a critical part when you talk about the cultural capital of a community.”


While many artists are looking to cash in on the attention and momentum in the Grand Rapids arts scene, commercial real estate developers with similar hopes for profit have turned their attention to key areas of the city that are ripe for redevelopment. 

It just so happens that one of those areas, the South Division corridor, is the place many of the city’s veteran artists call home.

That dichotomy keeps Hugo Claudin awake at night. The owner and operator of Mexicains Sans Frontieres said he just hopes to prevent his art and his contributions to the neighborhood from getting swept under the rug. 

“At the moment, I see a bleak outcome,” Claudin said. “How long can I afford to live on a beautiful street?” 

For more than a decade, the 1,300-square-foot loft at 120 South Division Ave. in Grand Rapids has served as Claudin’s home and studio base, as well as a music venue, art gallery and general neighborhood gathering spot. The list of musicians who have performed at his space over the years continues to grow, but it includes among its ranks Greg Ginn of legendary punk rock band Black Flag. 

A Mexican immigrant of about 50 years old, Claudin’s personality stands out as much as his vibrant space, which is painted bright red and green and stocked with his paintings of luchadores, the colorfully masked Mexican wrestlers.  

When he moved into the area, Claudin saw the Heartside neighborhood as the city’s version of Bohemia, as long as he and his neighbors looked past the many people who used their doorways as a bathroom. 

“(I wanted to) do something exciting that no one else was doing,” Claudin said of his attraction to the neighborhood, which was largely populated by punks at the time. “There was nothing shocking there.”

These days, the punks have been replaced by towering construction cranes and new building projects. Just three blocks from Claudin’s space, one such crane hovers over a $40 million, 12-story tower that’s being built at 20 East Fulton St. The mixed-used building will offer ground-floor retail, parking and 110 new housing units, a mix of market-rate and income-restricted apartments. 

The project’s owner, Brookstone Capital LLC, along with its affiliate property management arm Live Downtown Grand Rapids LLC, have developed approximately half a dozen mixed-income apartment projects in and around the Heartside neighborhood. 

Now, Claudin believes it’s only a matter of time until the moneyed interests make their way to the stretch he calls both work and home. When that happens, Claudin says he’s positive rents will rise and he and other nearby artists will have to start over somewhere else.  

“Once the poop is scooped, I’m worried that my ass will be out,” Claudin said. “When the danger is gone, the people who beautified (the street) will be gone.”

The issue of rents has taken center stage in the commercial real estate conversation in downtown Grand Rapids this year. Newly built one-bedroom apartments typically rent for upwards of $1,200 per month, while the costs for existing stock range from $900 per month or more. 

Commercial real estate developers in the area say that the best way to keep rents for artists and other residents from going higher is to invest in new product. 

“I have to think (new investment is) a good thing,” said Mike VanGessel, president and CEO of Rockford Construction Company Inc., a Grand Rapids-based building and development firm that’s currently investing millions in projects on the city’s West Side. “I believe that because I think if there’s one thing that will drive up the price of housing, it will be the lack of product.”

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Local artist Tommy Allen working in his studio. Photo: Katy Batdorff.


Much of the available artist space in the present-day Heartside neighborhood came out of the now-defunct “Cool Cities” initiative unveiled by former Democratic Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who identified the area as worthy of the designation and paved the way to building subsidized live-work units. 

The program highlighted more than 30 attributes that led to “cool cities,” including safe and walkable streets, affordability and access to a variety of jobs. Much of the program stemmed from the work and ideas of author and economist Dr. Richard Florida, who has written significantly about the so-called “creative class.” Florida’s work essentially hypothesizes that if cities invest in the infrastructure believed to be of interest to artists and those in related fields, they’ll experience greater economic returns.

“The way the state was funding things at that point, they didn’t have a lot of money allocated directly for arts-related funding, but they did a lot of infrastructure improvements in cities to create their term, ‘cool places,’” said Jenn Schaub, neighborhood revitalization specialist at Dwelling Place. “And now we hear the same sort of ideas around ideas of ‘placemaking.’ It was kind of the idea for placemaking.” 

A nonprofit development firm headquartered in the Heartside neighborhood, Dwelling Place built and maintains many of the live-work spaces for artists and others along the corridor. The organization was among the groups that helped spawn a creative renaissance of sorts along Division Avenue on the south end of downtown Grand Rapids.

In the city’s history, the corridor has changed and shifted with the local economy. While it was once a key retail destination for the city, it slipped into decay with multiple boarded-up and vacant buildings after decades of disinvestment. South Division became the place where the sex workers, homeless and other down-on-their-luck individuals lived, hung out and conducted their business.

Today, the area might best be described as stuck somewhere between the glitz of its former retail glory days and the gritty skid row it became at its nadir. Although it still has the homeless shelters and soup kitchens, the area serves as a haven for artists who’ve been attracted by the cheap rents and the plentiful spaces. The area has stayed cheap because despite many improvements, the stretch of South Division still struggles to attract many retail tenants. 

Still, that hasn’t stopped developer Robert Dykstra from trying. 

Dykstra is a principal with Harris Lofts LLC, the investment group that redeveloped the eponymous building at 111 South Division Ave. into a mixed-use facility targeted at artists, musicians and startup technology firms. The developer invested more than $4 million into renovating the facility, he said. 

The building operates on a membership model and offers meeting and event space, art galleries, cultural events and education in areas such as cooking and art. 

“We’re bullish on the area,” Dykstra said, adding that it was the focus on arts and the opportunity for eclectic retail that initially led him to purchase the property eight years ago. “This is potentially one of the better retail corridors in Grand Rapids. You need more good retail to move in.” 

While investors like Dykstra see a large upside in making the area geared toward retail and commercial uses, Dwelling Place’s Schaub says the so-called “Avenue of the Arts” should offer a bit of everything. The Heartside neighborhood, she contends, is not exclusive to artists, retailers, residents or homeless people. 

“I think ultimately, as we move forward, that’s what we need to keep in mind,” Schaub said. “It’s a space for a variety of different organizations. Hopefully, as a community, we’re mindful of creating a space where everyone can be successful.”


As Grand Rapids continues to struggle with a lack of available housing, developers will push the boundaries of traditional neighborhoods to more places in the city. As they move into those new areas, build new buildings or rehab existing ones, they can breathe new life into neglected corners of the city where artists have long operated in spacious studios with cheap rents. 

But in so doing, the rising tide of development can also make it difficult for many of those artists to remain in their spaces. It’s an example of the classic push-pull relationship between the arts and gentrification. 

“Artists have always had to take on questionable spaces,” said Allen, a local artist and photographer involved with Tanglefoot, a studio on Grand Rapids’ southwest side. “The artists, we know from history, are the ones who go (into a neighborhood) first. But from the artist’s perspective, we don’t ever go in with the amount of money to ever make any kind of impact on the neighborhood where we begin to see displacement. 

“It’s what follows — that’s where displacement begins to happen.”

Put simply, artists tend to locate their workspaces — and in many cases, their living spaces — in more affordable gritty urban areas or former industrial sites. As more artists move in, so do the restaurants and galleries, and the prices eventually go up, driving out the long-time residents along with the artists. 

Independent journalist Peter Moskowitz wrote a story for Vice in 2015 looking at how a similar dynamic is playing out in New York City. One of Moskowitz’s sources noted that because the term “artist” is so broad and can represent such a wide variety of class statuses, there’s some hope for the future. 

“The changes in neighborhoods in terms of raising cost of living, raising rent, fewer opportunities for people of working class backgrounds to be able to have mobility, have been taking place in America for a long time,” New York City-based artist and curator David Kenny said for the report. “And people still make art. People will figure out a way.”

In assessing the current situation in Grand Rapids, Allen says the existing landscape largely comes from the culmination of work over two to three decades aimed at changing the culture in the West Michigan area to something more in line with a big-city mentality. 

“All of our places have been the product of sweat equity,” Allen said, noting that as artists move to an area, they tend to build upon others’ work and eventually grow it. “Once that’s done, you begin to focus on your business model. … These art spaces are not only places we can incubate our businesses, but we begin to impact policy in the community.” 

When they’re left alone, art spaces also impact the cultural fabric of the community, according to fellow artist Claudin. The trick is getting local government to step back and allow the arts to function on their own, without the constant threat of code violations, permits or costly fines, he said. 

Multiple sources contacted for this report noted that Grand Rapids authorities frequently target arts and music venues for fire and zoning codes and noise violations. As a result, establishments ranging from grungy coffee shops to houses hosting live music to sprawling former industrial complexes have come and gone for a multitude of reasons over the last 20 years.

For Allen, the more the city tries to crack down on anything outside of the regularly accepted cultural arts environment, the more it will hurt itself in the long run. That’s because young creatives — the people the city is trying to lure in — will head somewhere else if those authentic experiences aren’t available.

“It’s not enough to have a symphony or a ballet here — those are more formalized, structured institutions. What we need is vibrant counterculture because the people we’re looking to attract here, (what) they crave is that counterculture experience in their city. Every city has one,” Allen said. “And every city tries to squash it at some capacity. … We’re in an area where we don’t have as much area to squash and expect it to bounce back. I think it would just bounce out of the area, to be honest.”

Claudin notes that the constant targeting of anything perceived as “counterculture” is at least partially built into Grand Rapids’ ever-present conservative culture. 

“If the authorities think there’s too much going on, they investigate,” Claudin said. “I don’t know, I think that’s a Calvinist thing.” 


While gentrification and economic pressures may be new, many West Michigan artists point to a longstanding lack of art buyers as another pressure point. Despite the number of galleries for artists to display and sell their work, the city isn’t known for its art collectors, an issue Claudin and Allen, both of whom are artists, noted in separate conversations recently. 

Indeed, artists interviewed by MiBiz sister publication Revue have cited that challenge for years.

“There is a pretty widespread consensus among most artists in GR that there aren’t enough active collectors in town,” painter Loralee Grace told Revue for a report last month. “Especially if the artwork is a bit out of the box or not obviously Michigan-related — or even if it is, but with a unique twist — there seems to be hardly any demand for it. By investing in original artwork, you support the creative culture of your community. We need more of that mindset here in GR.”

Faced with a lack of local collectors, artists often have to fall back on the region’s strong job market just to make ends meet. Grace, a painter, left the area to travel for professional and personal reasons shortly after last month’s report. Meanwhile, Allen, the artist quoted elsewhere in this report, also serves as the publisher of Rapid Growth Media, an online publication. 

“Like many other cities, making a living as an artist in Grand Rapids is difficult,” illustrator and painter Ryan Brady told Revue last year. “Most of my friends, including myself, work full- or part-time jobs to support themselves and do artwork on the side.”


While selling art definitely helps to bolster an artist’s income, many organizations also step up and offer widespread institutional support for the arts. Groups like the Ford Foundation headquartered in New York City and the Flint-based Charles Stewart Mott Foundation are known for their significant grants to cultural arts. 

Moreover, the state and federal government, nonprofit groups like ArtPrize and educational institutions like Kendall College of Art Design at Ferris State University offer myriad services and grants aimed at bolstering the arts and supporting local artists.

But for artists who are also small business owners, working through the bureaucratic process to obtain grants and other funding can be an onerous undertaking. 

“Artists on South Division are worried about piss on their door,” Claudin said. “There’s no time for grants.” 

Claudin says he’s concerned that the major arts groups like Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park and the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts (UICA) already have a leg up when it comes to the kinds of large-scale funding needed to make an organization sustainable in the long term. 

And while consumers attend the cocktail parties and gallery galas, artists say they often don’t witness the input that goes into making that happen. 

“Lots of people see the glamorous life of artists,” Claudin said. “But they don’t see the struggle for funds.” 

ArtPrize Crowd 2

ArtPrize crowds. Courtesy Photo.


Despite all the attention ArtPrize brings to Grand Rapids art and the millions in prizes it has awarded in its eight years in operation, most Grand Rapids artists say they don’t benefit from the annual competition. 

At this point, criticism of ArtPrize — whether legitimate or not — has become basically a cottage industry. 

Artist Claudin notes that the majority of ArtPrize winners hail from outside of Grand Rapids, meaning the funds generally leave the area. To date, only one person from Grand Rapids was awarded the competition’s grand prize. Meanwhile, other artists contend the event has vastly overshadowed what was already a successful artistic community in the city. 

“We couldn’t have had ArtPrize, honestly, if we didn’t have a thriving arts culture,” said Allen, the long-time Grand Rapids artist and writer. “I have no beef with ArtPrize whatsoever, but it’s like they found a way to co-opt something and make it work.” 

Allen says an arts competition with $50,000 in prize money or the existing Grand Rapids Festival of the Arts cannot compete with the kind of buzz that ArtPrize has generated. 

“It was all about being bold,” Allen said.

Even many downtown office denizens say they try to avoid the event and the thousands of tourists it attracts, all of which makes everyday activities in downtown Grand Rapids all the more challenging. Based on a number of casual conversations, some downtown workers even have decided to get out of town on vacation during one of the weeks of ArtPrize. 

Christian Gaines, the executive director of ArtPrize, welcomes the notion that the event has become so big that locals are choosing to opt out. In fact, he says that’s an indicator that the event is drawing crowds akin to South By Southwest in Austin, Texas or major global film festivals. 

“It’s one of those rites of passage for a local person — they clear the hell out,” said Gaines, who has a background running film festivals. “To me, that’s sort of an indicator of a successful event, if that’s what it’s inspiring and it’s having that impact.” 

Gaines takes all the criticism in stride, however. 

“We don’t expect everyone to go along with us,” he said. “And it’s not surprising. If you think about these big signature events … they create these massive blankets. And those involved in the arts, some people don’t want to be under the blanket. That’s understandable. … Art isn’t supposed to be a safe space.”

Even for all of the criticism about ArtPrize, many said it’s had a positive impact as far as enabling a broader conversation about how art can impact a community. 

In fact, that larger discussion has created a disruptive environment and allowed for the general population to see what artists lend to a community, Allen said. 

“If we’re talking about disruption, then let’s talk about disruption this way,” Allen said. “Artists have been there for the community for 30 or 40 years, and it might be time for the community to be there for them in the future.”  

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