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As rents push artists out, city seeks alternative space in houses of worship

Monday, March 6, 2017 by Syeda Hasan

In recent years, Austin’s creative community has been feeling the brunt of the city’s affordability crisis. As rents continue to rise, many artists have moved away, and studios and galleries have closed their doors.

Now, the city is looking to provide creative space for artists in some unexpected places, by partnering with local houses of worship.

On this quiet Friday morning, many of the rooms of the Congregational Church of Austin on West 23rd Street are empty. Pastor Tom VandeStadt makes his way through the sanctuary, which seats about 120 people.

VandeStadt said the sanctuary of the Congregational Church of Austin would be a great space for the arts.

“It’s kind of a nice, old style, nice stained glass, old, comfortable, warm feeling, an intimate environment,” VandeStadt said. “And this would be great space for a theater group.”

VandeStadt said the sanctuary is used only on Sundays; the church’s choir room and its Sunday school facilities also remain empty for much of the week. But he sees potential in this building and is interested in getting involved in a new partnership between the city of Austin and a nonprofit called Partners for Sacred Places.

The group is looking to connect artists with houses of worship that are willing to rent out space in their facilities. While churches may not seem like the most obvious artistic space, they offer some unique benefits. Houses of worship don’t pay property taxes, so they could potentially rent artists more affordable space.

“We’re not looking to rent as a way to make money,” VandeStadt said. “I mean, if we get some money, that would be nice. Really the motivation, again, is to support artists in the community, support their creativity.”

Karen DiLossi is the director of the nonprofit’s Arts in Sacred Places program. She said the group recently conducted a study on the need for creative space in Austin and found that some artists were hesitant about working in houses of worship. They wondered whether it would affect their creativity.

“I understand completely where that comes from,” DiLossi said. “We really do try to ask for permission, not for forgiveness, and so the artist can be completely honest with what their work entails, and the congregation can be completely honest with what they’re comfortable (with) or not.”

Meghan Wells, manager of Austin’s Cultural Arts Division, says the city is still in the planning stage, gauging interest from the faith community and taking inventory of how much space is out there.

“We hope it’s going to be a really symbiotic relationship between those two groups,” she said. “One really needs space, and one is hoping to benefit because of this immense talent we have locally that they can then tap into.”

The project is set to launch in the spring.

Photos by Gabriel Cristóver Pérez/KUT. This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT.

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