In Albany’s Arbor Hill neighborhood, an old brick school has become a place where artists can live together, work together and inspire each other. It’s also a community arts center.
Called Albany Barn, the unique arts-oriented urban renewal project became reality after a non-profit arts group, the Albany Housing Authority and the city of Albany partnered to redevelop the former St. Joseph’s Academy into 22 low-cost residences and 14 studio work spaces.
In December 2013, the first artist moved in, and the building formally opened in April 2014.
All the apartments and studios are now occupied, and children and adults in the neighborhood have joined West African drumming circles and taken free art classes at the facility.
On this month’s calendar, there are improv workshops, yoga, open mike nights and Afro-Caribbean dances and fitness classes.
Kristen M. Holler of Schenectady, a founding board member, is Albany Barn’s first executive director.
Holler holds a bachelor’s degree in community and human services administration from SUNY Empire State College and has worked at Schenectady County ARC and Bethesda House of Schenectady.
She recently talked to The Gazette about Albany Barn.
WHAT: Artists’ residence, studio space, community arts center
WHERE: 56 Second St., Albany
UPCOMING EVENT: “A Steady Rain,” produced by Creative License, a dark thriller about two Chicago policemen who experience a tragedy. The play will be staged at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday; and Nov. 13-15. Ticket information to come on Albany Barn web site.
MORE INFO: www.albanybarn.org, 935-4858, Facebook
Q: What kind of artists live there?
A: We have a really great diverse group of artists. We have a number of visual artists in a variety of mediums, from collage to photography to painting and drawing. We have a few musicians. We have a stand-up comedian, a sculptor and several writers.
Q: Do they interact with each other?
A: People are really branching out because they are exposed to people who are working in different mediums. They are able to get feedbacks, critiques, tips and tricks.
Q: So the Barn truly is an incubator?
A: Yes, that’s the whole point of the building: to help artists develop themselves. We’re selecting people who have a sense of what they want to do. We’re really trying to connect them to opportunities, tools and resources to help them get there.
Q: Are they generally young or emerging in their fields?
A: It’s across the board, really. Our oldest residential tenant is in his mid-60s and is retired. Art is kind of his second career. He studied art in college. He got out of college and did something else for many, many years and now is returning to art. And then we have individuals who are in their early 20s, just out of college, who are trying to establish themselves, get their name out there, develop their skills. And we have everything in between.
Q: Did any of your visual artists have work selected for the Artists of the Mohawk Hudson Region Exhibition that’s now at Albany Institute of History & Art?
A: Oliver Peters is a resident here and has a piece in the Mohawk Hudson Regional. There was a definite buzz around here when submissions were being taken. There was a great sense of collaboration. We had these visual artists who wanted to submit pieces and we had a photographer in the building who offered to take great, high-quality shots of work for submission.
Q: Is there a waiting list for the apartments?
A: We probably have about 65 people or so on the waiting list. We’re continuing to interview because we haven’t really seen yet what the turnover is going to be. I still encourage anyone who is interested to apply.
Q: How about the studio spaces?
A: We have about a three-to-one ratio of demand to availability of space. We have some very large studios and we have some very small studios. In some cases, we have 15 people in line for a certain studio.
Q: Is Albany Barn modeled after another art space?
A: We did model the idea after a space called AS220, down in Providence, Rhode Island. However, the way we executed this was very different from the way they did. AS220 was a small collective of artists who found an abandoned warehouse building, took out a traditional mortgage and had a couple of anchor tenants on the ground floor.
Q: How is Albany Barn different?
A: What makes this project extremely unique is our partnership with the Albany Housing Authority. There are certainly other creative place making projects. It’s becoming a very popular movement and it is sparking revitalization in a lot of areas. But I have not necessarily found any partnership between a private non-profit and a municipal housing authority.
Q: Who owns the building?
A: It’s owned by the Albany Housing Authority. The property is managed by them as well.
Q: How much are the rents?
A: The rents for the apartments or live/work spaces are based on the tenant’s income. So they pay 30 percent of their gross monthly income towards the rent. The ceiling rent on a studio is $605, and the ceiling rent on a one-bedroom is $613. The work studios are not subsidized through any federal program. But the rents land at about roughly a dollar a square foot per month. That includes all their utilities and other amenities.
Q: What was the building like before renovation?
A: It was in bad shape, as any building would be if it was left to sit for more than a decade. The top floor was all open, with broken windows and holes in the ceiling. It was inhabited by pigeons. After the pigeons came, the hawks came to eat the pigeons. The entire fourth floor had a nice layer of bird droppings and skeletons. On the lower floors, in some of the old classrooms, you could see that people had been living there. There was surprisingly little vandalism. A little bit of graffiti here and there.
Q: Is the architecture notable?
A: It is. The state historic preservation office did have a lot to do with how the renovation was handled. A lot of details have been either re-created or maintained. Each of the apartments, which were former classrooms, has a chalkboard that was original to the building. Several of the apartments have the existing coat closets or cubbies for the classrooms.
Q: Why is it called Albany Barn?
A: The name came before it was affiliated with any building. It came from the idea of an actual barn raising, the community coming together to raise a structure that ultimately benefits everyone, not just the folks who inhabit it. This was very much a grassroots effort, a lot of sweat equity by volunteers.
Q: What’s on your goal or wish list?
A: We really want to develop as a hub for creativity activity, for cultural activity, in this neighborhood; to equally serve the artist population and connect them to opportunities for development and exposure and serve the neighborhood that we’re calling home. We have a great stage. It was named the best new stage in Metroland’s Reader Poll this year. But we are in need of a permanent sound system and lighting. We also have space for a teaching kitchen and a community cafe. We have plans for a digital media lab, where we can offer classes in everything from general computer literacy to graphic design, digital arts, audio-video editing and offer services like large format printing and things that would help an artist promote their work.
Q: Where did you grow up?
A: I’m a lifelong resident of Schenectady. I think it’s really important to give where you live. While I had a lot of friends who were going off to do Teach America or the Peace Corps, I really saw that there was a great need in my own backyard. I went to Schenectady High School until my senior year, but graduated from Mohonasen in 2004.
Q: You worked at The Costumer?
A: I started working there when I was just 15 years old. I worked there until right up until I took this position at the Barn. Most of the time I spent in their theatrical rental department.
Q: And your family had a business in Schenectady?
A: It was called Grand Prix Model Raceway. It was a slot car track and hobby shop. When my Dad opened it, they were in downtown Schenectady on State Street and then they were in Rotterdam for a number of years before they moved out to Rotterdam Junction. They closed their business after Hurricane Irene.
Reach Gazette reporter Karen Bjornland at 395-3197 or [email protected]