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Affordable housing to help with musician, artist shortage — in Music City

By   /   October 15, 2012  /   Comments Off

By CHRISTOPHER BUTLER

Nashville officials worry that the city, which people worldwide refer to as “The Music Capital of the World,” has a sudden shortage of creative talent, whether in music, art or literature — so government must intervene.

In other words, even though it is Nashville, too few of the city’s residents are members of the performing arts.

Members of one taxpayer-financed agency are taking action and offering affordable housing to people who fall below a certain income — provided that (1) they are artists and (2) their art meets a certain progressive standard.

Officials with Nashville’s Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency (MDHA) do not explain why they feel the city lacks enough artistic talent. They only say that affordable housing is needed to accommodate people who will contribute to a more diverse arts scene.

To offer this type of affordable housing, the MDHA is overseeing a new project called the Ryman Lofts, an apartment complex scheduled to open in 2013. Interested tenants may find the Ryman Lofts on land that the MDHA acquired nine years ago, in close proximity to the live music scene downtown. Not coincidentally, the property is also a short distance away from various art galleries (video of the facility’s groundbreaking event is available here).

City officials expressed their concerns in a press release last year:

“MDHA, through its facilitation of the development of Ryman Lofts, is committed to nurturing the city’s creative human capital, which can otherwise be lost when quality affordable urban housing is unavailable to emerging artists.”

Furthermore, “MDHA’s approach is to cultivate the city’s culturally rich and diverse community by creating affordable, urban housing opportunities for area artists.”

Not every artist, however, will qualify.

The Ryman Lofts, still under construction (photo by CHRISTOPHER BUTLER)

Only seven members of a specially selected Artist Committee, in addition to the building’s property manager, can decide who may live there and who may not. Potential tenants who wish to live at the Ryman Lofts must satisfy Committee members’ standards on whether their art is “unique” and “progressive.”

Representatives from the city’s arts and legal communities make up this Committee, which will review the tenants’ work at the end of any 12-month lease, said Mark Drury, MDHA spokesman.

“Each applicant will not only have to show artistic merit to get an appointment at Ryman Lofts, they’ll have to demonstrate artistic merit to stay in a unit at Ryman Lofts,” Drury said.

What constitutes an artist?

Would an exotic dancer, for instance, qualify to live in the Ryman Lofts under the Committee’s subjective standards?

Drury would not say.

Two Nashville artists, one a musician, the other a painter, react quite differently to the Ryman Lofts concept. The painter believes city officials must do more to stimulate the local arts scene. The musician disagrees and said, at the very least, Nashville has entirely too many musicians as is. The MDHA’s efforts to lure even more musicians to the city are a complete waste of resources.

A COMPETITIVE CITY

Nashville is a competitive city for any musician.

Nobody knows that better than singer and songwriter Heath Forbes, who left his home state of Louisiana seven years ago to make it in Nashville.

“It’s as competitive as can be,” Forbes said.

Because of the fierce competition, Nashville is currently in no danger of losing any musicians, at least not any talented ones, he said.

Heath Forbes (photo courtesy of Heath Forbes)

If anything, Nashville currently has too many musicians, so much so that Forbes joked about Nashville needing a checkpoint to test a musician’s talent before he or she may enter the city.

“So many people come to Nashville. They stay here for a year, and then they go home. A lot of extremely talented people are overlooked because there are just too many musicians. Untalented people are here and they are clogging up the lines. It may sound arrogant on my part, but I believe those people should step aside and let the rest of us have some room. I think I’m talented. You have to think of yourself as really talented if you want to survive here.”

Nashville needs affordable housing for artists the same way Las Vegas needs affordable housing for blackjack dealers. People will find them in the city, regardless, Forbes said.

“Why is government involved in something like this? Why is this just limited to artistic types? I have college-educated friends who aren’t artists, and they are only making $20,000 a year.”

MDHA’s Drury told Tennessee Watchdog that the Ryman Lofts is only one part of a much larger effort to establish affordable housing in Nashville, but he would not say if those plans include affordable housing for people in other career-specific groups.

When Forbes is not making music, he makes ends meet by selling commercial gym equipment part-time. He and other musicians in the city find a way to thrive on their own, provided they have enough initiative.

“I guarantee that if you look at some of the artists who have made it and are legitimate stars or artists, I’m willing to bet that at least 80 percent of them did a lot of stuff they didn’t want to do just to survive. I doubt the ones who make it were lazy.”

Nashville painter Mitchell Chamberlain, meanwhile, favors the Ryman Lofts idea.

“It is difficult to argue that one group is more deserving than another, but artists create a public presence for the city, not unlike a successful football program does for a university. Investment and support for our creative people will benefit the whole community in the long run,” Chamberlain said.

Having said that, Chamberlain told Tennessee Watchdog that the number of artists living in Nashville has grown throughout the past several years, thanks to various arts initiatives.

“In the 42 years that I have lived in Nashville, I have observed tremendous growth in the area of commercial art galleries, establishment of the Frist Center For the Visual Arts, and a number of other art organizations — but there is so much more that could be done.”

Despite that growth, Chamberlain said Nashville’s artistic community struggles to sell locally produced art.

Regardless of the Ryman Lofts, and regardless of market demands, Nashville will never experience a shortage of visual art, he said.

“Artists are quite irrational. We keep producing new work even if we sell little or no work.”

FINANCING THE PROJECT

MDHA officials acquired the land where the Ryman Lofts is located in 2003. Using agency resources, they then developed a site plan for the property, Drury said.

Taxpayer dollars, however, are not subsidizing the facility itself, where construction is still ongoing.

City officials oversaw a competitive bidding process, which resulted in Nashville-based apartment

A sign marking the construction of the Ryman Lofts (photo by CHRISTOPHER BUTLER)

management company Freeman Webb, Inc., winning the right to manage the Ryman Lofts.

Ryman Lofts operates under the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program. Most of the $5.3 million in construction costs, about 85 percent, comes from equity related to low-income housing credits. The rest comes from private bank financing.

“Section 42 of the IRS Tax Code of 1986 allows for the issuance of tax credits for the purposes of financing low income housing,” Drury said.

“That law contains language detailing the ability to add preferences, including those for artists.”

LIVING IN THE RYMAN LOFTS

The facility will consist of 60 one-bedroom and three-bedroom units.

The first tenants meanwhile, are scheduled to move in sometime in 2013, MDHA Executive Director Phil Ryan said in a statement.

Artists who are interested in living in the Ryman Lofts may send their applications starting this week.

Applicants must establish that they make no more than $27,000 a year and also submit other materials, which requires thorough attention to detail, per MDHA’s stated requirements.

Among those requirements, each artist must provide:

  • A statement, not to exceed 250 words, detailing how he or she plans to develop art in Nashville during the next 12 to 36 months.
  • “Artistic samples, clearly labeled with title, dimensions and medium, or, if the artistic sample is too large, a digital photograph sampling his or her art.”
  • Programs of events where one’s work is detailed and/or formal reviews of one’s work, if available.

For musicians, the instructions are so detailed that they specify the following:

Audio.   Limit: minutes of recorded material. Samples should be submitted as MP3 files. List each different track as one work sample. Place each selection to be reviewed on a separate track. Indicate the track number(s) or time code of the segments to be reviewed. Please be aware that the entire sample (not just the selected tracks) may be reviewed. To ensure that only the proper tracks are played, an Applicant must edit the audio sample to include just the tracks or segments to be reviewed. Audiocassettes will not be accepted.”

Applicants who make the final cut will live in a complex that has perhaps more luxuries than most professionals in Nashville currently enjoy. Focus groups comprised of musicians, dancers, actors, and visual artists helped develop the Ryman Loft’s final look and design.

A press release also highlights the buildings indoor and outdoor art display areas, ample common space, security buzzer access system, laundry facilities, central heat and air, and dishwashers.

MDHA officials have tried to attract potential tenants by advertising the Ryman Lofts on its Twitter and Facebook pages. The agency has also reached out to the city’s various arts organizations to make artists aware of the project, Drury told Tennessee Watchdog.

Phil Ryan

In addition to all of the other requirements, applicants must also complete a check of his or her criminal background, credit, and rental history.

That type of background check will pose certain problems, at least for a few artists, Forbes said, likely in sarcasm.

“The criminal, rental history and credit check will weed out a lot of musicians right there. They might not be able to find enough qualified musicians, so they might have no choice but to open it up to teachers only anyway.”

Christopher Butler is the editor of Tennessee Watchdog and the Director of Government Accountability for the Beacon Center of Tennessee. Contact him at chris@beacontn.org

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