Creative Exodus | Arts and Culture | Style Weekly

Two years ago, Johanna Monson Geerts, 26, decided to move to Richmond after finishing college in Indiana and taking time off to travel.

“One of my goals was to live in a city as an artist,” she says. “I had heard Richmond had a good art scene and had affordable studio space.”

Her chosen field is ceramics and she found a place to live and a studio at Shockoe Bottom Clay where she paid $175 for the space, a relatively low rate for the Richmond market.

But the city’s living costs daunted her. She gave up the studio and is thinking about moving somewhere else that’s more affordable.

Geerts is just one area artist whose goals in Richmond were dashed by sticker shock. Her concern also applies to veteran artists who built up the city as an art destination as well as younger ones who want to partake in what it used to be.

Richmond has for years been regarded as one of the best places for art in the Southeast. In the 1960s it boasted of the Richmond Professional Institute, a top draw for graphic arts that would morph into Virginia Commonwealth University, which now has some of the top-rated art education programs in the country. Today the Institute for Contemporary Art at VCU offers a modern institution where one can learn creative skills and catch cutting-edge artists from around the globe before they make it big.

But the arts scene really kicked up a notch roughly 20 years ago, when a creative wave spawned at grassroots places like Art Space and many others swept the city in areas such as West Broad Street, Scott’s Addition, Forest Hill, Manchester and downtown.

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  • Scott Elmquist
  • Johanna Monson Geerts, 26, an artist who moved to Richmond from Indiana, has been shocked by living costs here and recently gave up her affordable studio.

Organic, ground-up events like First Fridays on Broad Street changed Richmond’s reputation from a stuffy, sleepy burg into a creative hot spot. More artists wanted to move into the city where they could live cheaply and mingle around like-minded individuals.

But then, following a familiar pattern, the atmosphere changed. Buildings were bought. Prices went up. Houses, apartments and condominiums flew up. Many in the creative class were priced out and moved to the suburbs where they could afford rents or mortgages and work from home.

“That’s definitely what is happening downtown,” says Jenny Kirby of Crossroads Arts Center. “It’s been at least 10 years since everything went up in price, especially on West Broad Street. Some years ago, an artist could rent workspace for about $250 a month. Now, it is at least $500 a month,” she says.

Laura Lafayette, chief executive officer of the Richmond Association of Realtors, says that the hot Richmond market and the rise of a creative class have driven up prices, but they aren’t the only reasons. In terms of living space, demand is out-stripping supply. “It has to be incredibly difficult for people with modest incomes,” she says.

From November 2020 to November 2021, houses rose 9.3% in price, which now average $380,000; condominiums average $296,000 in the city. Less expensive homes go very quickly, often within 15 days for one in the $250,000 range, she says. “You usually have to bid over the list price to get it.”

Lafayette points out that “you shouldn’t be spending over 38% of your gross monthly income on housing but many spend 50%,” she says. “That affects [your] ability to buy healthy food, save for retirement or college, or go out.”

Rents for decent apartments can easily go up to $1,500 or perhaps $2,000 a month. The city’s supply of more affordable apartments is dwindling. Neither a spokesman for the Richmond mayor’s office nor for Venture Richmond, which markets the city, responded to Style’s request for comment.

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Veteran Richmond photographer John Henley had to leave his former studio space at Plant Zero in Manchester after rents went up, parking decreased, and his studio began flooding. - SCOTT ELMQUIST

  • Scott Elmquist
  • Veteran Richmond photographer John Henley had to leave his former studio space at Plant Zero in Manchester after rents went up, parking decreased, and his studio began flooding.

Take the case of John Henley, a local photographer. In 2010, he opened a photographic studio at Plant Zero, part of a funky, repurposed warehouse that dates to before World War I in industrial Manchester, just south of downtown Richmond.

For years he loved the location, his neighbors, and the creative atmosphere. There was an excellent sandwich and coffee shop called Plant Zero Café where people could meet. There was ample parking and artists could drive right up to load or unload their creations. Rents were reasonable. “This studio offered a lot,” he says.

But a big transition forced Henley to leave Plant Zero a year ago. “It has changed dramatically,” he says, as more new, pricey apartment buildings went up. “It was terrible when I left.”

Construction led to flooding at his studio, which he started to use less. His convenient parking lot turned into an apartment building. Rents increased. He now works out of his home.

One artist wrote in an email: “Honestly, it’s not the young artists that this is happening to, it’s mostly the artists who have been established ten or more years. For example, spots were bulldozed for square condos. I ended up moving to New Jersey this month because my studio lease ended and I want something that feels more permanent.”

Plant Zero is being converted into more condominiums and offices. Officials from that building could not be reached; a phone number on its website did not work. Their site states that studio spaces can range from a low of $139 a month for up to 296 square feet of space, to $3,949 a month for 3,161 square feet of space.

Curiously, another enterprise that shares the building at 320 Hull St. tells another story. Glenda Kotchish, owner of the Art Works part of the building that also houses Plant Zero, says she bought her property in 2003 when the Shockoe Bottom Art Center shut down and moved to Petersburg.

She now has about 80 studios and there’s a back-up for space. They run from $150 to $750 a month depending on the location and average about $275 a month. “We’re about the artists and we try to keep prices down,” she says. “But the taxes on the property went up 30% and we didn’t pass that along.”

Kotchish notes that a large parking lot next to the building has become new apartments and offices. Parking is available on an elevated lot for $2 an hour with the first hour free. “That’s good for our customers,” she says.

For those who can afford it, artists can rent studio as well as living space at Artisan Hill, a complex in Fulton Hill that features three buildings, including the former Robert Fulton Elementary School east of Church Hill.

Margaret Freund, a lawyer and real estate developer, bought the school in 1997 and has been developing around it ever since.

The project has more than 200 live-in apartments around a 75-yard outdoor swimming pool next to the renovated school whose old classrooms have been converted into art studios. It also has apartments, a restaurant and a gymnasium.

The entire establishment went under an extensive renovation that lasted for three years, finishing in February 2020. “I’ve done my best to support the arts for many years,” says Freund.

Rents range from $400 to $1,400 a month for studios and $950 to $2,100 a month for live-in apartments. Some studio units are arranged alongside the pool. “If you compare us to Scott’s Addition, we are less,” Freund says.

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Artisan Hill, a complex in Fulton Hill, includes the former Robert Fulton Elementary School, now owned by lawyer and real estate developer Margaret Freund. - SCOTT ELMQUIST

  • Scott Elmquist
  • Artisan Hill, a complex in Fulton Hill, includes the former Robert Fulton Elementary School, now owned by lawyer and real estate developer Margaret Freund.

One artist who takes advantage of both the living and studio space is Taylor White, a painter who works in a large studio that once contained two school classrooms.

He was working on several large paintings of cars that will be on display in an international show in Munich, Germany this summer. He moved to Artisan Hill from Stafford County because he needed more room for work.

Just across a corridor is the smaller studio of Linda Hollett-Bazouzi, who is known for her paintings of landscapes, many of which are of the Richmond area.

“I’ve been here since 2012 and it’s been great,” she says while sitting in her small, well-ordered studio whose price is expected to increase to $700 a month soon. The retired art teacher works two days a week in her studio and lives in Richmond.

Like many other art centers, Artisan Hill has taken a hit from the coronavirus pandemic. There were plans for more gallery space but the designated areas will now likely be made into offices or studios.

For more affordable options, there’s Petersburg, about a half an hour south of Richmond by car. Aimee Joyaux, an artist and educator who lives in the middle of downtown with her husband in a multi-level building, says real estate there is half the price of Richmond’s.

“The cigarette factory downtown has been turned into beautiful and affordable loft and studio spaces, some reserved specifically for working artists,” she says, referring to the Petersburg ArtistSpace Loft Apartments which broke ground in 2019.

In the last year, at least two 10,000-plus square foot buildings downtown have sold for less than $200,000. ArtistSpace Loft offers studios starting at $200 a month and living space ranging from $588 to $1,556 a month.

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An old cigarette factory in Petersburg was turned into the Petersburg ArtistSpace Loft Apartments at 110 Perry St. - SCOTT ELMQUIST

  • Scott Elmquist
  • An old cigarette factory in Petersburg was turned into the Petersburg ArtistSpace Loft Apartments at 110 Perry St.

“Petersburg is still a great deal,” she says. “It is close enough to Richmond to reap the rewards but far enough away to live in a small town. And it takes the same amount of time for me to get to Short Pump as it does for some one coming from the middle of Richmond.”

For Richmond area artists, it may be time for a reality check. Many of the great deals for studio space and housing are approaching market rates. That’s unstoppable and what the market was 15 or 20 years ago simply doesn’t exist anymore.

“We’ll have to figure out a way to get [more affordable] housing. We have tools in the toolbox to do that, but you have to deal with the market,” says Lafayette of the Realtor association.

Some limited help is already on the way. Venture Richmond has been awarded $100,000 from the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development for 10 grants to be given to creative entrepreneurs by May 15. The money will go to grant winners who have new leases for storefront establishments on Broad Street between Belvidere and 5th Streets. You can read more about those here.

Meanwhile, artists who had laid down roots in Richmond feel that they are being forced out. In 2010, Kyle Lucia, a blacksmith and metal worker, moved into Scott’s Addition with his wife, Johannah Willsey, a mosaic artist.

They were happy there for several years. “There used to be a lot of working class guys so we felt at home,” he says. Then a number of things started changing, starting in 2012.

A number of new buildings went up with a commercial enterprise on the first floor followed by four stories of luxury apartments.

“They are looking for a place to party. It is not a place that is friendly. There has been a big change in the neighborhood dynamic. These buildings are ugly,” he says.

Their rent went up 3% every year. City property taxes have doubled and according to their lease, they had to pay them.

So, he and his wife are buying a home in Fluvanna County west of Richmond. Their Scott’s Addition lease expires in July, about the time a new studio addition being added to their home is finished.

At that time, they’ll be gone, Lucia says.

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