By Tracy Z. Turner
Columbus’ core downtown neighborhoods each have their own distinctive character, but they share a common denominator: the arts have emerged as central to their identity. New art walks, projects and grassroots organizations emerge almost daily proving that though these communities are bustling they are also ripe for transformation. Here’s a quick look at the present and possible future of three of Columbus’ major arts districts, poised to shift the landscape of the entire city.
What it is today
The riverfront home of COSI and three large membership-driven creative institutions, Franklinton is emerging as Columbus’ explosive, alternative neighborhood. Situated on the western edge of downtown, it has become a place where those who are inclined to make art or innovative design are most likely able to afford and readily find space and resources, discover new collaborators and take more risks. The arts are, quite deliberately, the linchpin of economic development here, and there have been enough early indicators of success to make it a repeated subject in The Atlantic magazine’s City Makers: American Futures series.
The Idea Foundry, 400 West Rich, and Glass Axis are three organizations that have introduced a wide number of creators to the neighborhood. Those institutions, which often host their own large, individual events, are now participating in a regular neighborhood art walk, dubbed “Franklinton Fridays,” which takes place on the second Friday of each month. The walks also include new additions to the neighborhood, like the Ethical Arts Collective, Vanderelli Room, Second Sight and Magic Brush Arts Studio.
“What we are looking at now is a very sort of grassroots, organic, fluid environment building all around us,” said Jim Sweeney of the Franklinton Development Association, noting that the industrial nature of most of its structures give it a different kind of flexibility than many of the other city neighborhoods. “It allows us to steer and grow the area in a very environmentally conscious way and also one that’s fair and equitable.”
How it could evolve
“Franklinton is kind of a blank slate,” said Alex Bandar, founder and CEO of the Idea Foundry, which is becoming a benchmark space nationally for the booming “maker” and DIY culture. “It has that gritty feel that artists love, beautiful loft spaces with lots of high ceilings.”
The Foundry has 250 members as it approaches its one-year anniversary of relocating to Franklinton, a move that was buoyed by a $350,000 grant from Art Place America (www.artplaceamerica.org), a national organization that promotes the philosophy of “creative placemaking.”
“That building has made us the largest maker space in the world,” said Bandar.
The convergence of new businesses and membership organizations has drawn a wave of interest from other existing creative organizations and start-ups.
“We have all this very good space and all this interest in bringing more people here,” said Sweeney. “I think we have a community here where people feel like we’re all part of something, like we’re building something together. It’s hard to say what the future will hold. What we’re hoping to achieve is an arts community that’s permanent, where people have a stake in it.”
The goal of the Franklinton Development Association over the next five years is to begin building more affordable housing so that people can live close to their work, says Sweeney.
The varied nature of all the artists, craftspeople, inventors and makers who are putting in both work and social time in Franklinton also makes its future excitingly unpredictable. There are strategies at hand to continue to make it an appealing neighborhood to people in their 20s and 30s, with walkable bars and restaurants and public internet access.
“Deals often start in the office and finish over a beer or a meal,” said Bandar who says that the creative energy of the district has drawn comparisons to Austin, Texas before it became the innovative center it is today. “Either by grand design or serendipity all of those factors have come together in Franklinton in the past two or three years.”
The Ohio State University Campus
What it is today
In 2010, OSU adopted a framework plan for the university’s entire physical space that was developed by Sasaki Associates, which designated the area around 15th and High as a potential arts district.
Many of the university’s arts departments were already in that area, including dance and music, along with the Wexner Center for the Arts and Mershon
Auditorium. The very first piece of the plan has been finished with the renovation of Sullivant Hall.
In addition to some grand aesthetic architectural changes, the change brought the departments of dance, arts administration, education and policy, the Advanced Computing Center for the Arts and Design, the Barnett Center for Integrated Arts and Enterprise and the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum together under one roof.
The creation of an on-campus arts district represents more than an aesthetic change, according to provost Joseph Steinmetz.
“The improvements are not only within the facilities that are there—they reflect what is happening within programs that are in the arts,” he said. It’s a physical reflection of the university’s growing number of interdisciplinary opportunities for its students.
How it could evolve
OSU submitted a plan in February to develop nine acres across from campus, which would include the creation of a public square at 15th and High Street, bounded by a hotel, shops and apartments.
“We’re looking at getting the approvals from the city and the neighborhood to be able to build what we imagine there,” said Keith Meyers, associate vice president of physical planning and real estate at OSU as well as chair of Campus Partners’ board of directors. “We can’t lose sight of the fact that 15th and High is Main and Main for the Ohio State University. There is no place more important to the DNA of the university.”
The plan, which may take up to a decade to fully shape and execute, doesn’t include any additional arts facilities or organizations.
“With respect to an arts district, I think what the east side of High Street will likely do is support the arts venues on the west side with things like a hotel and restaurants.”
According to Steinmetz, the next project renovations on campus will occur in the facilities of the school of music, specifically Weigel Hall and Hughes Hall, but further developments will be done incrementally over time.
“The big issue in my mind is that somehow we have to get the department of theater into that district as well,” he said, that will likely involve the construction of a new facility. “The timeline is fairly long for this project. I see it done serially as funds can be raised. ”
Ohio State’s role in the city arts landscape is also something that is bound to change, says Steinmetz, noting that partnerships with the symphony, ballet and opera and new opportunities for faculty and students are also actively being looked into.
“The view here is that first of all were in a unique position in Columbus,” said Steinmetz. “As a community we have an opportunity to have something that connects us from campus to downtown—not only facilities, but programs and organizations.”
What it is today
The city’s stalwart arts district began to emerge in the 1980s. It was, at first, a byproduct of residential architectural preservation in the neighborhood that inspired a few pioneering developers to invest in High Street properties and seek out art galleries and other inventive businesses. Its origins as an arts district had a decidedly more bohemian feel (more like today’s Franklinton in many respects), with greater numbers of vacant spaces and wider gaps between its clusters of
Today the last of the neighborhood’s blank High Street spaces seem to be filling in rapidly, and the monthly Gallery Hop has exploded from its modest beginnings to a massive event that continues to draw consistent crowds in the thousands. The emergence of some chain businesses; however, has elicited questions about whether or not the Short North will maintain its integrity as an arts district.
“I think there is a perception gap because we used to have a lot of art galleries and not a lot of other things, and now we have a lot of art galleries and a lot of other things,” said Betsy Pandora, executive director of the Short North Alliance, noting that three new galleries have opened within the past year and nearly every business, from banks to restaurants to insurance offices also create gallery space. “The Hilton and the Joseph Hotels have made a practice of grounding and founding the identity of their businesses in art.”
While the district may be attracting more upscale galleries than it used to have, “they are very diverse and doing different things,” said Pandora.
“We have one of the oldest artists collectives in the country with Studios on High, galleries that showcase emerging artists, galleries focused on working with people with developmental disabilities, mid-century art, art restoration… we have the Pizzuti Collection, which shows people how to really enjoy encounters with art.”
What it could evolve into
The Short North’s future appears to be firmly grounded in the appreciation of its history and further cultivation of its existing arts resources.
“What’s exciting about now is that the neighborhood has really come full circle,” said Pandora. “People are relocating here because they are creative and want to live in a place that is really about consuming and engaging with art.”
The Short North Alliance recently launched a “Start With Art” celebration of the district’s 30-year history (www.shortnorth.org/startwithart) with a series of short films that talk about the district’s past and future, the first of which is available online.
There are also public art and street-scaping projects in the pipeline for the neighborhood.
“From an external, visible perspective, I think you’ll see these great transformations in the physical realm that will add vitality,” said Pandora, who is optimistic about the city’s ability to support three arts districts.
“We in Columbus, as a community, have grown,” she said. “We can have more than one arts district and it speaks volumes about who we are and who we are going to be.”
To help stimulate the arts and culture and economic growth in our neighborhoods, the Greater Columbus Arts Council has created a new grant program, Community Impact, using funds provided by the city of Columbus. The grant program supports long-term, sustainable projects or activity by arts and culture organizations and/or non-traditional arts and culture organizations that is intended to affect the economic development and growth in the targeted geographic areas. This program is open to all artistic disciplines. Projects should foster and include collaboration, innovation, and accessibility and should promote cultural tourism. To learn more about the Community Impact grant, go to gcac.org/grants-services/for-organizations/community-impact/.
Top photo courtesy of the Short North Association.
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