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Homes, sweet homes for Austin arts

Artists and allies get creative with new art spaces

Michael Barnes
Austin Waldo, left, of Austin School of Furniture and Design, and Mark Maček, of Maček Furniture, pose for a portrait at their expansive warehouse that will serve as an arts space for the woodworkers of Splinter Group and others. [NICK WAGNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

These days, Austin artists and their allies have found increasingly creative ways to land affordable art spaces.

After a few years of dismal news caused by rising real estate values — a trend that affects almost everyone in Austin, not just artists, and is far from over — more than two dozen arts groups, which represent potentially hundreds of artists, have recently planted flags in new or reconfigured locations downtown or in East Austin.

The studios, galleries and performances spaces, opened in older industrial, commercial and other nonresidential districts, serve a longtime goal of including arts, music, film and literary havens in new or renovated developments.

Several of them, like the Splinter Group, a huge woodworking space in a converted warehouse on East Cesar Chavez Street, demonstrate the value of grassroots collaboration and innovation.

Others, such as the gargantuan new 15-building complex called Springdale General on Springdale Road, house non-arts charities and businesses along with arts groups. This year, this impressive compound is also the physical headquarters for the enormously popular East Austin Studio Tour, which continues Saturday and Sunday.

The Pop Arts District is a collection of large tents going up atop a former parking lot on South Pleasant Valley Road. To organizers of the project, the temporary homes are precursors to permanent spaces for its arts tenants in the East Riverside Corridor.

The Waller Creek Conservancy recently renovated several structures in Symphony Square on Red River Street. They too will host local arts groups and currently serve as the final stop on the "Creek Show" light art procession.

Some of the new arts spaces are within established communities, such as Canopy, a five-building complex on Springdale Road that has welcomed waves of artists from lost spaces such as the old Pump Project.

Another spot, Mass Gallery, is a new stand-alone anchor for a 12-year-old nonprofit collective that was walloped by the arts space crunch.

These new workspaces will not help artists with the other demands related to the city’s climbing cost of living, but there is a good deal more hope for the future than there was, say, a few years ago, when news of the space crunch was unremittingly dismal. 

Splinter Group

(3508 E. Cesar Chavez St.; 512-385-7220)

Some creative workers need a lot of space. Furniture-makers and allied woodworkers at the increasingly crowded Delta Millworks factory on Springdale Road — along with teachers and students from the relatively new Austin School of Furniture and Design — have joined forces to negotiate a seven-year lease on a 22,000-square-foot warehouse that has served many previous functions on East Cesar Chavez.

“The Splinter Group is a cooperative in action,” says Mark Maček, the president, designer and craftsman of who also teaches furniture design to architecture students at the University of Texas. “Craft is a calling, and that knowledge is meant to be shared.”

In December, about 20 makers will move in with their equipment. Additional spaces are available in the building for jewelers and other smaller-scale makers. More than 3,000 square feet also will be designated for special events.

RELATED: What to see, where to go on East Austin Studio Tour

“By joining the Splinter Group, our school not only plans to expand its physical footprint but also its presence in the woodworking community in East Austin,” says Austin Waldo, whose teachers offer night classes to dozens of students. “This new space will open the door to us hosting local woodworking association meetings, more classes, woodworking events, private groups and even renting out our space to other makers.”

Springdale General

(1023 Springdale Road;, 512-273-3744)

This project is stunning. It spreads over 15 two-story buildings on land that for a long time sprouted a few scattered sheds in weedy lots. Designed by Michael Hsu, the new steel-and-plywood structures — accessed through a simple but monumental entryway — recall an industrial park, but with far more class.

Among the arts groups already on site: Co-Lab Projects, Iona Handcrafted Books, Metropolitan Gallery, Austin Center for Design, Broad Studios, Settle Ceramics, Sky Candy and the Eli Halpin Art Studio and Gallery.

“I’m a proponent of development in general, as I think the city benefits from more density and less sprawl,” says Kheili Hiller, who leases out the spots for the Central Austin Management Group and also handles the Canopy complex down the street. “The other side of that coin is there appears to be a lot of development happening that has little regard for the existing communities. One of the reasons East Austin is so cool is because of the community that has always been there, the businesses that exist, the artists who live there and work there and have brought even more interesting dynamics to the area.”

Artists share the complex with unrelated but congruent nonprofits such as Latinitas and Austin Parks Foundation, as well as assorted food, beverage and media companies. The Center for Social Innovation groups many of the nonprofits in the back five buildings.

“We could have gone the normal route and built as much as possible and leased the spaces at market or above-market rates,” Hiller says, “but it’s important to us to do what we can to keep the creative class here in Austin. It’s getting more difficult with the rising cost of everything in Austin, but that just means we have to work harder and get more creative.”

Pop Arts District

(1600 S. Pleasant Valley Road)

Remember El Gran Mercado, the giant Mexican-style market that once rose prominently on South Pleasant Valley Road? It is long gone. As are the mini-golf course, auto repair shop and sports bar just south of the market. 

Thanks to business and community leaders, such as the Presidium Group, an Austin-based property management, development and investment firm, and John Riedie, CEO at Austin Creative Alliance, the area should become active again very soon.

Some tenting is already up in what will be a pop-up village of temporary structures that will include performance and rehearsal spaces, artist studios and a radio station south of the old Mercado site.

Among the groups that expect to move into the district in December are Tapestry Dance Company, Sun Radio, the Pump Project, Almost Real Things (ART), the Austin Creative Alliance and Soundwaves, some of which lost their homes in the recent space crunch.

How did this all come about? Two years ago, Roy Mullin, financial adviser, philanthropist and actor, gave a gift to Riedie at Austin Creative Alliance to spur the idea of a multiuse theater space.

“He specified that his gift be used to free up some of my bandwidth and use it to build relationships in the development industry,” Riedie says. “So I set out to do so by making the value proposition to developers that arts and music create vibrancy and customers for the housing, food and retail around it.”

Riedie used the example of how Salvage Vanguard Theater and the Vortex helped transform Manor Road.

“But we have other examples from around the world,” Riedie says. “Presidium was one of the first developers to really get it. In the beginning, we were only looking at the long-term play for a community-owned arts district at the heart of their Riverside Corridor plans. As we began talking and they learned about the recent closures around town, they proposed the Pop temporary district.”

Presidium is a large landowner in the East Riverside Corridor, which has developed quickly and could expand even more quickly, although plans seem vague at this point.

“Development plans could include one of the largest affordable housing developments in Austin's history, educational assets designed for the benefit of Austin Community College as well as assisting the cultural arts’ creative class,” David Wallace of Presidium says. He wants to work with “existing residential and commercial tenants to stop displacement by creating an equitable Right to Remain Policy.”

Waller Creek Conservancy at Symphony Square

(1111 Red River St.;

This new-form nonprofit has taken on one of the most ambitious projects in Austin history: creating a string of signature parks along a key waterway newly protected from floods by a mammoth tunnel. The group promises to maintain, program and operate the parks in a way that is inviting to the whole city, not just to the increasingly high-end denizens of downtown.

Already, its 5,000-seat Moody Amphitheater, which will be available for a great variety of shows, is underway in Waterloo Park at the north end of the conservancy’s area of responsibility.

Its Symphony Square complex now contains five main components on Austin parks property, not including the corner building, which the Austin Symphony is retaining for ticket sales. The conservancy’s offices will fill out one of the 19th-century stone structures. Available to share with arts and other community groups are the 1980s-era pavilion, a 19th-century building that once held the New Orleans Club, a broad new tree-studded deck and a small creek-side amphitheater.

RELATED: Free "Creek Show" will bedazzle a new section of Waller Creek

“The renovation of Symphony Square represents our first permanent construction project and will enable us to significantly increase our activation of Waller Creek as a vibrant public space,” Peter Mullan, CEO of the conservancy, said while construction was still in progress. “Austinites have long and strong associations with the place, and we look forward to creating more fond memories there. We're reaching back into our past to bring it roaring into the future.” 

Canopy Arts Complex

(916 Springdale Road;, 512-939-6665)

Canopy is not new.

And even before it became known as Canopy, the cluster of industrial buildings hosted arts groups such as Blue Genie Art Industries and the Blue Theatre, along with Goodwill Industries.

Redesigned by architect Michael Hsu and leased out by Hiller of Central Austin Management Group, these days Canopy includes 45 small studios, three galleries, several creative offices and a café/coffee shop.

It is also home to Big Medium, the breakthrough arts group that generates the East Austin Studio Tour, West Austin Studio Tour and the Tito’s Art Prize.

The news: Canopy has taken in more artists who had no home or who were scattered from lost complexes like the Pump Project.

Among the initiates are Atelier Dojo, Icosa, the Black Mountain Project, Betelhem Makonnen, Tammie Rubin, Alyssa Taylor Wendt and Rachel Wolfson Smith.

The artists at Atelier Dojo, for instance, had hoped to land at Springdale General, but a delay in the project’s completion led them to a spot in Canopy’s Building 2. The atelier’s artists, Jennifer Balkan, Denise M. Fulton, Karen L. Maness and Karen Offutt — all figurative painters — needed a place to hold classes and open studios and to host national talents.

“Being an artist is a pretty solitary thing,” Fulton says. “So this space helps create community.”

Representational art is not widely encouraged in Austin, so Atelier Dojo has given figurative artists a place to go.

Despite their obvious delight in their new Canopy slot, they are not giving up their home studios.

“They are close to home,” Maness says. “We are all moms.”

Fulton: “They can’t take away our garages.”

Atelier Dojo holds its grand opening on Nov. 17.

Mass Gallery

(705 Gunter St.;, 512-535-4946)

Mass Gallery is 12-year-old all-volunteer nonprofit art collective that was particularly hard-hit during the recent space crunch when they lost their gallery space. 

Its former home at 507 Calles St. contained a 1,500-square-foot gallery and five studios. The new anchor, on Gunter Street just off East Seventh Street, is smaller, including a fully operational 800-square-foot gallery and one artist studio. When we visited, work was underway on a largish side yard.

“We were fortunate to find a fantastic space and to successfully raise funds to transform the raw warehouse into a beautiful gallery,” says Aaron Dubrow, collective board member. “Our collective added excellent new members, organized shows for the 2018-2019 season and almost doubled our grants from the city and state. We're embarking on a newly energized mission, with plans for enhanced engagement and collaboration with community arts groups and greater utilization of our new outdoor space.”

The opening show, “Staycation: Thresholds,” which features works in a variety of media from 10 Austin-based artists, runs through Dec. 8. Artist Andrew Hulett will perform a live manipulation of his centerpiece work, “Sounding Objects,” from noon to 6 p.m. Nov. 17.