Charlotte artists struggle to find affordable studio space as property prices rise
Juan and Adriana Blanco grew up in two different countries — Juan in Venezuela and Adriana in the U.S.
But it was an art form from a third country, Brazilian Capoeira, that brought the married couple together.
Capoeira is an African Brazilian martial art. It combines dance, acrobatics and music and was created and practiced by enslaved Africans in Brazil.
“They used the arts, their martial arts and their music and their culture and their traditions from Africa,” Adriana said. “All the mixed people from different parts of Africa used that in a way to find moments of freedom within themselves when they couldn't actually free themselves.”
Juan and Adriana met at a Capoeira event in North Carolina. And in 2016 they launched their own dance company, NC Brazilian Arts Project. The group performs Capoeira, Samba, percussion and other Afro-Brazilian art forms.
“We dance together, we sing together,” Adriana said. “We train together and we learn about history.”
In 2017, Juan says, the former owner of Area 15, an arts and small business incubator in Charlotte's NoDa neighborhood approached him and offered NC Brazilian Arts Project a spot in the warehouse.
“He saw the work that we were doing," Juan said. "He was interested in and promoted and believed in what we were doing, so he offered to start a studio academy there.”
Juan and Adriana continued rehearsing with their dance company and eventually launched their second business, The Project Space. They started teaching dance classes and renting out their studio space to other artists.
“We were given that blessing of an affordable space,” Adriana said. “And so we wanted to be able to share that as much as we could.”
In 2019, ownership of Area 15 changed. Juan and Adriana say they negotiated with the new owners and kept their month-to-month contract. They paid between $800 to $1,200 a month.
During the pandemic, they turned to teaching classes online or outdoors in parks.
“When we were opening the classes back up, everybody showed up and we got new students,” Adriana said.
But soon after, they began getting noise complaints from their neighbors. By mid-August, Adriana and Juan received an eviction notice. Juan says he felt angry and anxious. He had 30 days to figure out what to do with his business.
“Scared, too, because they are taking your four almost five years of work,” Juan said. “And just with one letter, they're saying, ‘You cannot be here.’ Like, OK, where am I going to be?”
Juan and Adriana spent the next few months looking for a new space. In the meantime, they rented studio space from other artists. At times, they had to raise the price of classes because of the cost of rent.
“It's been very difficult since we got that letter,” Juan said. “It's been almost impossible to find a way to keep the culture or keep the work that we do, keep the kids' programs, adult programs and all that keep the art going.”
As performance artists, Juan and Adriana needed a space large enough to dance and soundproof enough to play the drums. But they also needed the space to be affordable. A combination that seemed unattainable.
But their experience isn’t unique.
Liz Fitzgerald works directly with artists at the Arts and Science Council. She says artists across Charlotte have been facing difficulties trying to find affordable studio space for years. The pandemic has only made it worse.
“With COVID, not only did people lose their livelihoods, their gigs went away,” Fitzgerald said. “But you also saw many of those spaces where they had informal agreements allowing them to utilize spaces that also went away.”
Fitzgerald says artists have been finding creative ways to stay afloat and share their art.
“The creative community has absolutely stepped up to the challenge,” Fitzgerald said. “I think in some ways led our community as a whole and found new ways of working and sharing time together.”
One way is through the creation of the Visual and Performing Arts Center.
The VAPA Center, which was started by 11 arts organizations, is repurposing the Mecklenburg County Hal Marshall building in uptown and turning it into a home for more than 100 artists.
Arthur Rogers is an artist and the center’s executive director. He says he was excited to take on the challenge of leading the project.
“What I like to say about the VAPA center and its existence is that Charlotte needs it,” Rogers said. “It really does. It needs it, but more than that, they deserve it. The artists and Charlotte deserve a space like this.”
Rogers remembers seeing the arts community booming in NoDa when he first got to Charlotte in the early 1990s. Then the artists started getting pushed out as property prices were rising, he says.
Keli Semelsberger, the VAPA Center's board chair, says this is common around the country.
“Artists come in and activate the space and get everything cool and wonderful looking,” Semelsberger said. “And big dollars come in and scoop it up.”
Semelsberger is also the founder of the Charlotte Comedy Theatre. The group has been performing for 20 years and has called around eight places home during that time. She says the pandemic wiped every single one of those out.
“I think the only reason we are still there is because we're human beings. My theater is actually people, not a building, you,” Semeselsberger said. “So our energy is not in concrete mortar. Our energy is in our art.”
That’s why she agreed to be a founding member of the VAPA Center. Rogers and Semelsberger have been involved in every part of the project. Semelsberger picked out the lobby’s paint color, and Rogers has been painting it himself.
So far, the VAPA Center is home to 125 artists. Each group pays $3 per square foot each year.
Artists apply online and the board reviews applications. So far, Rogers says there are 37 spots still available and around 125 artists on the waitlist.
It's a representation of how many artists around Charlotte are in need of affordable studio space.
“We have to be seen in order to make that living and doing it in our basement is, you know, or in our backyard studio or apartment studio,” Rogers said. “We need to be seen. We need to be out. And we need to be treated as small business owners and craftsmen. And we need to see ourselves as that.”
Rogers says the center is set to officially open to the public in 2022.
“Where they can come in and engage with the artists and see art being created live and in person — up close,” Rogers said.
Juan and Adriana submitted an application for the VAPA Center. But, the space they needed wasn’t available at the time.
“I feel like sometimes performance artists are the ones that have the hardest time because we don't have anywhere to go,” Adriana said. “We don't have anywhere to practice or craft stuff or to turn up our music. Like, there's just nowhere to go.”
Thankfully, in the first week of December, the couple took to Instagram to announce that, after months of uncertainty, they had secured a space on South Boulevard and their regular Capoeira and Samba classes would continue.