By Jean Cole
The hope of bringing art and culture to downtown Athens year-round instead of just once a year has fueled a plan to turn an old cotton warehouse into an incubator for local artists.
For several years, Athens has hosted an annual September art show called Art on the Square.
While the event is popular, local art advocates have hoped for more.
Trisha Black, executive director of Spirit of Athens, a nonprofit organization dedicated to revitalize downtown, said she has watched over the years as local artists, unable to afford downtown rent, take their business elsewhere. Several have gone to Lowe Mill in Huntsville, an historic building that leases work and display space to more than 100 area artists.
But a door opened for local artists when H.C. Blake Co. of Huntsville recently bought W.E. Estes & Son plumbing and electrical services business on West Washington Street in Athens. Behind the store is an old cotton warehouse. H.C. Blake President Jim Batson needs only a portion of the warehouse.
“Jim initially thought of using it as a farmers market, but we already have one on the pavilion on Green Street,” Black said. “So, I knew an artist incubator would be a good fit for this space.”
The plan is to renovate 7,500 to 8,000 square feet — about three fourths — of the wood-beamed, brick warehouse for use as work and display space for artists, she said.
“Not many cities have this kind of opportunity to do something like this,” Black said. “We’ve had artists comes to us but they can’t afford the space downtown.”
Main Street Birmingham has already developed a much larger version of an incubator for businesses with an artistic bent at 55th Place Arts in downtown Woodlawn.
Because the Spirit of Athens is part of the national Main Street Program, Birmingham Main Street told Black how to get started.
Members of the AOTS committee would determine what type of space and utilities are needed to serve local artists, including paint sinks, etc.
“We will soon be looking for an architect to draw plans for the renovation so we can get an idea how much it would cost,” Black said.
On Tuesday, she hopes to meet with City Planner Mac Martin to identify with what city codes the renovation must comply.
Once SOA and AOTS have an estimate to build out the warehouse, then they will seek funding for the project, Black said.
Among the trees they may shake are various foundations in the state and the Alabama Arts Council.
“We will see what opportunities are out there,” Black said. “Birmingham raised all of the money for its build out, so they will be a lot of help in helping us identify funding sources.”
So, too, will members of the AOTS Committee who know how to write grant applications, she said.
When will it arrive?
It could be a year or more before the incubator is a reality in downtown Athens.
Before the space can be renovated, a committee must determine how to divide and supply the space. For example, the space needed by a painter is different from the space needed by a potter. A painter may need a sink in the general area but a potter may need water right inside his or her individual space, Black said.
Athens State University Professor Gail Bergeron, an AOTS Committee member who works in all mediums, will be a great resource in helping determined what is needed in the warehouse space, Black said.
Security is another issue. At Lowe Mill, chain-link fencing separates artist spaces. This allows the artist to use the space and display work but still keep materials and creations secure.
Who will be chosen to rent the space is another consideration.
Artists would probably be selected through a jury process, Black said.
“Artists would apply and be selected based on what kind of work they do and what their needs are,” she said.