City Turns Empty Retail Space into Artist Studios
FORT LAUDERDALE – At their one-bedroom Fort Lauderdale apartment, artists Khadine and Robert Spruce constantly jockeyed for studio space. The bedroom? Off-limits (except to store paintings, of course). The garage? Way too cramped. So the couple often traded off in the dining room, with Khadine painting mermaids on the table while Robert, a 12-year Air Force veteran, painted American flags on the floor.
Now they’re painting side-by-side in a swanky art studio on the touristy Las Olas Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale. But they’re not paying Las Olas’ sky-high prices: Their combined monthly rent is $600.
“This is awesome because there are no more arguments about who gets the dining-room table,” Khadine Spruce says with a laugh.
Their Las Olas digs are part of Zero Empty Spaces, a project that takes vacant Broward shops and fills them with artists who pay dirt-cheap rent. The program, which began Aug. 1, moved seven artists into the former New River Fine Art gallery, a 2,100-square-foot space that sat vacant for three months. Now it houses tiny studio workspaces, 150 to 300 square feet each, separated by wall dividers.
For the past week inside their studio at 914 E. Las Olas Blvd., Khadine and Robert have been greeted by a near-constant flood of Las Olas pedestrians. During business hours, they’ve chatted with executives in suits strolling by after lunch down the block at Italian eatery Louie Bossi’s. Other shoppers gaze at artists dragging brushes across the canvas. Mostly, they hear visitors applauding the idea of turning an empty storefront into a thriving artist enclave on Fort Lauderdale’s busiest, sleekest restaurant row.
“They’re coming up to us and saying, ‘Wow, it’s cool!’ and ‘I didn’t see this coming for Las Olas,’” recalls Khadine, who shares her 300-square-foot studio with Robert. “I view it as a golden opportunity.”
The couples’ Las Olas gamble has already paid off: Khadine earned her first art commission last Thursday during a grand-opening party for Zero Empty Spaces, which drew more than 500 visitors.
“This mother saw my paintings of mermaids and she was like, ‘My daughter’s name is Ariel and will you paint her as a mermaid?’ “ says Khadine, pointing to “Mermaid Morph,” one of her mixed-media portraits in the studio. “It happened that quick.”
Idea to reality
Andrew Martineau, whose company UniteUs Group co-founded the program, is a Broward arts advocate who helps organize the annual downtown fair Art Fort Lauderdale. The need for affordable Broward studios for artists is crucial, Martineau argues.
“Broward County is really far behind Miami and Palm Beach as far as investments in the arts. And I was like, ‘Enough is enough.’ We can’t just wait for benefactors to come along. If we don’t show people we have a thriving arts culture, businesses won’t want to relocate there.”
He struck on the idea after spotting rows of vacant storefronts along Las Olas.
Zero Empty Spaces relies on simple logic, Martineau says. Property owners hate empty shops, so why not, until a renter is found, let artists move in? Artists benefit with premier studios on a heavily trafficked street. And for property owners, a busy storefront is better than an empty one.
So Martineau approached Las Olas Company, which owns 914 E. Las Olas, with a deal. UniteUs Group would fill the empty space, and cover the cost of utilities and insurance. In exchange, Las Olas Company offers the space for free.
“Las Olas Company didn’t have to commit any money. We just handed over the keys,” says Pam Zirkle, property manager at Las Olas Company, which owns 50 Las Olas storefronts.
The rent Martineau collects from artists – about $2 per square foot, or about $300 to $600 per month – covers utilities and property insurance. Artists pay on a month-to-month basis.
“If you give artists short-term leases, it’s low-impact, no pressure for landlords, and everyone wins,” says Martineau, who created Zero Empty Spaces with Evan Snow of marketing-consulting group #Choose954. “This lets us get in the game by being an attractive place for artists to move to without needing big investors.”
It’s only temporary
Cheap rent sounded like a square deal to Fort Lauderdale artist Phoenix Niewidok. Her pop art-infused fabric shop Skirtzophrenic occupies a 150-square-foot room that was previously a back office. Niewidok’s micro-studio is adorned in what she calls “upcycled couture fashion,” with dresses decorated in “Star Trek” character Mr. Spock and denim jackets emblazoned with Tupac Shakur lyrics.
“They said this office might be too small, but all I need is my jukebox, a sewing machine and quiet,” Niewidok says. The Fort Lauderdale artist moved in last week and began collaborating at once with studio mates, including abstract painter Rosanna Kalis and muralist Surge. “We’re turning into a proper funky-cool artist colony. Who knew all these Las Olas people loved brand-new art?”
Still, there’s a strong chance Niewidok, along with other Zero Empty Spaces artists, may need to pack up paintbrushes and move again.
Here’s why: If the property owner finds a tenant willing to pay full price for rent, the artists will have to move on.
Once Las Olas Company closes a deal, artists must vacate in “30 days at least,” Zirkle says. “Then we would find another space on Las Olas so they have the ability to do what they were doing at [914 E. Las Olas],” she says.
For his part, Martineau also has been scouting places to expand Zero Empty Spaces. He wants to take over empty storefronts on Harrison Street in downtown Hollywood by September. There are already 50 artists on the waiting list.
In the meantime, Martineau intends to keep Zero Empty Spaces packed with visitors using pop-up mixers, including a coffee-fueled Aug. 9 talk with author-retired surgeon Dr. Harold Reitman.
Still, do business owners, scouting locations for their high-end Las Olas restaurant or sunglasses boutique, actually care that artists are morphing empty storefronts into bustling colonies? That’s Martineau’s gamble.
“[Las Olas] has a lot of vacancies,” Martineau says. “Restaurants do an incredible job but don’t last very long. But a studio with seven artists working collaboratively is a magnet for foot traffic, and property owners don’t have to spend any money activating the block.”
Rosanna Kalis, another Zero Empty Spaces artist, doesn’t mind the month-to-month lease – or the size of her 300-square-foot studio. She appreciates the transparency and shares Martineau’s wide-eyed idealism that artists attract business owners and visitors.
“You need attractions. You need something interactive and different,” says Kalis, who paints large-scale acrylics and collage drawings inspired by Korean calligraphy. “This is not some static studio. You can stop by in the morning and find a painting half-finished, then come back later and see it complete. You get to see the soul of the art.”
Besides, Kalis says, Las Olas has already spoiled her. “Where am I ever going to find these high ceilings, this natural light, this atmosphere again?” she asks.
Sergio Quinonez, a Plantation muralist who goes by “Surge,” also bemoaned Broward’s lack of affordable art studios. After 25 years of painting eye-popping street murals for big clients (Miami Dolphins, rapper Pitbull’s Super Bowl LIV hype video in February) the artist needed a studio to sell his works on canvas.
“You don’t get much better than Las Olas,” Surge says. “If I’m in here a month, a week, a year, I’m gonna bust out as much work as I can.”
Zero Empty Spaces is open to the public noon-5 p.m. Monday-Sunday at 914 E. Las Olas Blvd., in Fort Lauderdale. Go to ZeroEmptySpaces.com.
© 2019 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.), Phillip Valys. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.