By Michelle Fitzsimmons
City on a Hill Press Editor

Bohemia will be alive and well in Santa Cruz once the vacancies at the brand-new Tannery Arts Center (TAC) are filled.

Two pristine apartment buildings, distinctly resembling barnhouses, stand at the now-defunct tannery site, which operated continuously for 150 years until 2001. They will house at least 400 painters, sculptors, welders, weavers and performance artists who meet the TAC’s strict income standards.

Individuals looking for a spot at TAC cannot make more than 30 to 50 percent of Santa Cruz’s median income. A single person in the 30th percentile, for example, cannot make more than $18,270 a year.

Residents began moving in March 1, and a steady stream of applicants flow through the main office daily.

“I just moved in. It feels … new,” resident Abbie Rabinowitz said. “I was drawn to the affordable living and work space. Hopefully the energy here will encourage my own art.”

Rabinowitz is a painter, multimedia artist, Web designer, and massage therapist. For her, TAC fills a void in the city’s arts community and the city as a whole.

“There is so much art going on in Santa Cruz, but no central collective for them to gather,” she said.

In addition to housing, the old tannery buildings will undergo an extensive renovation, providing 35,000 square feet of studio workspace. The final phase of construction will be the completion of a performing arts center.

For many in the arts community, TAC is a dream come true.

“I think it’s fantastic,” said Shannon Potts, a weaver and potential resident. “It benefits the community by keeping artists in town. I’ve lived here for 22 years and I have a lot of friends who left town because they couldn’t afford to raise their families here, do their art. I think it’s the die-hards that are left.”

Kirby Scudder is the creator and curator of Dead Cow Gallery and caretaker of the site when the buildings were under construction. According to Scudder, no single person claims TAC as their brainchild. Rather, a collaboration between the city and arts community allowed the concept to come to fruition.

“In 2001, the tannery stopped operating as a tannery,” he said. “Pretty soon after, the city and some members of the arts community came together and started thinking of what could be done with this space.”

The city bought the land and handed it over to Artspace, a Minneapolis-based, nonprofit real estate developer for the arts. Artspace goes around the country and globe transforming disused industrial spaces into vibrant, artistic work communities.

“Artists have a history of moving to industrial spaces, creating a community, and making it hip and cool,” Scudder said. “People want to go there and hang out. Then, rich people come in and artists get kicked out. This place is artist-proof.”

Part of what makes the compound “artist-proof” is the 100-year lease, guaranteeing that TAC will house artists for several generations.

Some Santa Cruz residents have doubted the viability and necessity of providing affordable living for artists.

Concerns about toxins left from the site’s cow hide tanning days, flooding, and funding have been launched at TAC, and resolutely deflected by its planners and supporters. An environmental impact report was completed in 2008, and the site was deemed safe to live on as any residual toxin levels were below dangerous levels.

As for the funding, Scudder warns not to be fooled by misinformation.

“People are asking, ‘Why is so much money going to the arts?’ But most of that money is coming from the state and very creative funding sources,” he said.

He went on to explain that while some fear money for other city projects is being diverted to TAC, the money coming from the city is designated solely for low-income housing.

“What do you call this?” he asked.

Despite the flak, the supportive residents of Santa Cruz and the artists are looking forward to integrating TAC into the community at large. TAC, many hope, will not only revive the arts in Santa Cruz, but will inspire other cities to step up and support the traditional creators of culture.

“We are setting an example for smaller regions,” Scudder said. “This sets a precedent for smaller communities everywhere. Santa Cruz should be applauded for taking a chance on the future.”

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