To Feed or Not to Feed Starving Artists

By on June 6, 2018

Redmond Rentals partnership stirs controversy over who should be prioritized for affordable housing

Now-homeless artist Andy Kincaid used his house as gallery space for groundbreaking works. (Holiday Forever)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Artist Andy Kincaid will spend the summer sleeping in a tent. Kincaid, who shows his work nationwide, founded two contemporary art galleries in Jackson, and helps curate exhibitions by internationally renowned artists, cannot find a place to live.

When Kincaid lost his lease earlier this year, he had to close the doors on his gallery, Holiday Forever, as well. His rented house across from the Center for the Arts was more than a home. The front half of the house functioned as the Holiday Forever gallery space, welcoming young contemporary artists from across the country. The house also had room for Kincaid’s art studio.

“To be able to find all the things that I had is pretty much impossible in Jackson,” Kincaid said.

His landlord, who Kincaid said was very generous and supportive of the arts, needed the house for one of his children. But with rents in Jackson starting at $1,000 for a studio, he will be lucky to find a place he can afford just to house himself. Victor, he said, would remove him from Jackson’s pulse.

Kincaid is among a pool of artists who may apply for a new housing opportunity through Jackson Hole Community Housing Trust and Center of Wonder. In a first of its kind partnership, one of the Redmond Street Rentals units has been reserved for an artist.

The unit is one of four dedicated for employees of area nonprofits. In addition to Center of Wonder, the Housing Trust partnered with Teton County Library Foundation, the Sheriff’s Auxiliary, and Teton County Search and Rescue/Fire/EMS to raise funding for the Redmond Street project. Each nonprofit used donor dollars to purchase one unit. The partnerships have been in the works for 18 months.

An anonymous donor secured one of the units for an artist. The artist does not have to be employed by Center of Wonder, the arts funding organization selected to administer the partnership with the Housing Trust.

But unlike that donor, some people don’t see artists serving a critical community need.

“There were significant public funds put into the Redmond Hall project from both the Town and the County,” said Barbara Allen, Wyoming State House candidate and a former Teton County Commissioner. “Critical service workers should have priority in housing when said housing is funded to that extent by public monies.”   

Allen believes the Sheriff’s Auxiliary, Search and Rescue, and Teton County Library do employ critical service workers. But she still had concerns that the nonprofit partnerships with the Housing Trust gave the employees of those organizations an unfair advantage over other applicants.

“What about employees at nonprofits that can’t afford an expenditure like that?” Allen said.

She is also concerned for applicants who do not work at nonprofits. “Think about the implications if you have a bunch of master leases on publicly funded housing,” she said.  

Four of the 28 units available are reserved for the nonprofits in partnership with the Housing Trust. All others will be available to the general pool of applicants. Each of those applicants has to meet Housing Trust criteria that includes community service.

For Anne Cresswell, Housing Trust executive director, finding creative solutions to funding affordable housing is key. She stressed that more than half of the Redmond Street Rental project is funded privately.

“For 15 years, every affordable housing project I’ve worked on has required collaboration, flexibility and ingenuity,” she said. “Redmond is no different—except that it takes more capital to get rentals in ground than ownership in the ground.”

Forty-four percent of the construction of Redmond Street Rentals was paid with public dollars. The Housing Trust secured the other 56 percent of the $13 million.

Teton County resident William Gale worried artist applicants are getting a kind of free pass. “How can a donor come in and secure housing for a select group of people and avoid the lottery process that everyone else has to complete?” he wrote in a letter to Teton County commissioners.

Artist applicants, though, will not bypass the lottery or any application procedures. They have to go through two vetting processes, filling out applications both through the Center of Wonder and the Housing Trust, and they must meet Housing Trust income and asset requirements. The housing opportunity is open to artists in range of disciplines, including visual arts, performing arts, and literary arts.

Artist applicants must also submit evidence of a body of work. “We want to see a strong commitment to advancing and supporting the arts community here,” said Lyndsay McCandless, Center of Wonder’s director of creative resources.

On the Housing Trust end, applicants to the Redmond Street Rentals will be ranked based on several criteria: years in the valley, employment “that contributes to the unique characteristics and critical infrastructure of Jackson Hole,” and community involvement through volunteer work. Bonus points are given to those working in emergency or medical fields, education, nonprofit or leadership roles and public sector programming and infrastructure.

By these terms, the Housing Trust is not only seeking applicants in critical services, but in other community-making fields as well.

Still, Why Prioritize an Artist?

Though artists may not be rescuing people off mountainsides or pulling over drunk drivers, they do contribute to community. Kincaid, for example, has brought a unique art conversation to Jackson. Opening receptions at Holiday Forever regularly draw dozens of viewers, many who would not otherwise be exposed to the conceptual art the gallery favored, a kind of art found nowhere else in town. If Jackson loses Kincaid, it loses that conversation.

Artists often wear more than one hat, and do provide important services to the community. Many artists are teachers, heads of nonprofits and community placemakers.  

In the case of painter Emily Boespflug, who owns an affordable home in East Jackson, she does double duty as an artist and an arts instructor. In the past 13 years she has taught art at the Art Association where at least 1,000 kids have passed through her classroom doors. She has also taught outreach classes at area schools and the Senior Living Center.

The opportunity to buy an affordable home in 2011 “kept me from leaving” Jackson, Boespflug said. She has also volunteered in the community to meet the Housing Trust community involvement criteria.

Other longtime valley artists have not been so lucky. Painter Alison Brush moved from Jackson to Victor four years ago after she was priced out of the valley. She and her partner, artist Dave McNally, could not afford to buy a home in Jackson.

“I had to leave,” Brush said. “Housing was unavailable and unaffordable. In Victor, we got something for a fraction of what we could get in Jackson.”

She is adamant that artists play a critical role in the places they call home.

“Artists’ contribution to community has to do with community identity, and community spirit,” Brush said. “Jackson inspires and embraces creativity. It wouldn’t be what it is today if it weren’t for all the artists who call it home.”

The Redmond Street Rental unit represents a drop in the bucket in addressing artist housing. However, it is a start and part of a national effort.

Cities like New York, Dallas, Nashville, New Orleans, and San Francisco have already made a commitment to their artists as critical community members and art piloting new housing initiatives aimed at retaining artists. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio plans to build 1,500 new affordable live/work units for artists by 2025, with half of the funding coming from private donors.

Addressing the Pew Research Center, Craig Watson, California Arts Council director, said the arts have historically been a way for cities to stand out. Yet artists themselves are frequently living near the poverty level.

“Cities should not sit passively by and lose their artists because they’ve failed to address the very real concerns that artists have.”

About Meg Daly

Meg Daly is a freelance writer and arts instigator. She grew up in Jackson in the 1970s and 80s, when there were fewer fences, but less culture. Follow Meg on Twitter @MegDaly1

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