Durham County

The arts drove Durham’s downtown renaissance. But did artists’ success seal their own doom?

Laura Ritchie, director of The Carrack, a modern art gallery, calls gentrification “a complicated topic” and “one of the biggest civic issues of our time.” She knows because she and her organization have experienced its effects.

Gentrification brings higher rents and taxes, forcing people to move. In Durham’s now prospering downtown, those being displaced include artists, visual and otherwise, many of whom first moved into the central city before it became a place that attracted diners, theatergoers and music fans.

In some cases, artists are feeling left behind. The city made arts and entertainment the catalyst for downtown redevelopment. In planning documents, the city also made support for artists a policy goal that has not been fulfilled.

“We are on both sides of it,” Ritchie said of artists. “We are the gentrifiers and the ones being gentrified out.”

Ritchie co-founded The Carrack in 2011, a non-profit gallery that allows artists to keep everything they make from their shows. The gallery was on the second story of a building on Parrish Street, across from the Major the Bull sculpture, around the corner from the recently opened Unscripted Hotel and a few doors down from where One City Center is being built.

For a number of reasons — the need for better access, space, dust and debris from nearby construction, and rising rent — The Carrack moved in 2016 to a building on East Main Street in the Golden Belt district, with cheaper rent.

Other arts sites, both non-profit and retail, have also moved from downtown.

Alizarin Gallery, formerly on Main Street, closed. The Bull City Arts Collaborative (BCAC) ended its 11-year run on Foster Street earlier this year. Filmmaker Kenny Dalsheimer of BCAC found space with affordable rent at another place on Foster Street. Dave Wofford of BCAC found a more affordable space for his Horse & Buggy Press and Friends on Broad Street.

Dalsheimer and Wofford both said higher rents caused by nearby construction forced BCAC to close.

Wofford tried to stay downtown. “I looked for a place for two years,” he said, but said he could not find more than a three-year lease. A longer lease is crucial given the letter presses and other heavy equipment he uses to make hand-made books and other works, Wofford said.

“I don’t know whether we would have moved if rents didn’t double” in the last few years, Dalsheimer said. “That was a factor for sure.”

In the first quarter of 2017, the average rent for downtown office space was $28.77 per square foot, according to figures from Colliers International real estate company.

Other artists who have left downtown are Revere La Noue, who once operated a space on West Main Street. Pleiades Gallery, though still located downtown, converted to a non-profit in May, in part so it could raise money in hopes of remaining there. The Living Arts Collective, a more recent arrival on Geer Street, recently started an Indiegogo campaign to raise money to pay for its new dance floor so that it could keep the rent affordable for dancers and other artists who use the place.

Arts and downtown redevelopment

Some may argue that displacement is the natural result of free-market forces. However, the early revitalization of downtown Durham was based on its transformation into an arts and entertainment district. The Carolina Theatre renovation, paid for with $7.8 million in bond referendum money, was the first significant public money spent on the arts in that process, followed by Durham Bulls Athletic Park ($16.1 million) and the Durham Performing Arts Center ($48 million).

The 2008 update of Downtown Durham Inc.’s Master Plan acknowledges the importance of the arts. At the time of that report, downtown was “beginning to emerge as a major regional entertainment destination.” Entertainment venues “are important in Downtown revitalization efforts because they ‘lead’ retail back into the urban core,” it stated.

Durham’s Cultural Master Plan, which city and county officials approved in 2004, goes even further in language related to support for artists. The plan urges “(considering) a range of support mechanisms for individual artists, including subsidized live/work space, property tax breaks, incubator space, group health and disability insurance, and low interest loans.”

Some arts organizations, both for-profit and non-profit, have taken on some of that task. Since 1996, Dan Ellison, an arts advocate and attorney, has operated Durham Arts Place, which rents spaces at affordable rates. Living Arts Collective has a similar business model, and The Carrack as a non-profit allows exhibiting artists to keep anything they make.

The Durham Arts Council provides support through its Emerging Artist Grants program, and several arts groups have offices in the space. The city owns the Arts Council Building and will pay it $685,715 in the next year as part of a management agreement.

But to date, no government action has occurred to implement the kind of support in the Cultural Master Plan.

Driving out the pioneers

Artists fear that the gentrification process is driving out the artists who went downtown in the first place and made it a more inviting place.

By being on Parrish Street, Ritchie said, The Carrack “participated in the very wave of development that made it impossible to stay there.”

“I moved to Durham from New York City almost 10 years ago with the idea that it was a place one could afford to be an entrepreneur and working artist,” La Noue said in an email. In the last decade, “it has become increasingly difficult for artists, musicians, and dancers to find affordable work space downtown, which is unfortunate because I think we'd all like to be near each other,” La Noue added.

Wofford fears that pharmaceutical companies and tech start-ups in downtown will drive out smaller enterprises. “The micro-size stuff is part of the fabric of what makes downtown interesting,” Wofford said. About Durham Central Park, Wofford said, “I was hoping it would be a more diverse mix in 2017.”

Possible solutions?

Is there a third way?

Ann Woodward, Scrap Exchange executive director, whose nonprofit was one of the first arts organizations in Durham Central Park, supports a more pro-active role from government.

“I feel like a broken record at this point,” Woodward said. “I think that if you’re really going to have a city that supports arts and culture that you need to invest in that. That has to come from the city or the county,” perhaps with a department of cultural affairs and a line item budget. “Once you have that infrastructure, you can develop programming and funding and support using that infrastructure.”

The Durham Cultural Master Plan encouraged a larger government role. Implementing the plan “must fall to one organization or entity to serve in the primary role of coordinator and facilitator,” it states. “Without this responsibility being assigned to a single entity, it is likely that some elements of the plan will move forward but that the bulk of the proposals will fall by the wayside.”

The Durham Cultural Advisory Board, which advises the city Office of Economic and Workforce Development on administering the Public Art Fund, has long advocated for a point person or department for the arts, said Angela Lee, Hayti Heritage Center Executive Director who also is an advisory board member.

“It’s a necessity,” she said. “It’s hard for artists to know what resources there are to support one another without doing it on their own.” Referring to the recent Arts and Prosperity report, Lee said, “Maybe we need to be a squeakier wheel .... Maybe we need to restate the argument.”

Wofford would like to see “more focused boosterism for the micro-size endeavors.” Ellison said he likes the Durham Community Land Trustees model that has helped provide affordable housing in the West End neighborhoods. Perhaps a similar model could be found for artist spaces, he said. The long-term goal is to help artists become sustaining businesses, “to pay artists a value that is legitimate for the work they do and what they create for society,” Ellison said.

On the other side of the issue, arts organizations who move into more affordable neighborhoods “need to be participating as citizens. ... We need to know our neighbors and advocate for their rights,” Ritchie of The Carrack said. That means advocating with government and attending neighborhood events.

“There’s not a magic formula,” Ritchie said. “It’s about building trusting relationships.”

Cliff Bellamy: 919-419-6744, @CliffBellamy1


Gentrification, according to Webster’s, is the process of “[converting] a deteriorated or aging area in a city into a more affluent middle-class neighborhood ... resulting in increased property values and in displacement of the poor.”