Darla Jackson

Empty industrial spaces get a second life as innovative art studios

Darla Jackson is a woman who can’t pass up a good deal on a band saw - or a drill press, or a welding set, for that matter. The collection of heavy machinery that she and her husband, Justin Grant, use to fabricate sculptures out of clay, plaster, metal and wood has grown so large that they can’t set all of it up at the same time.

That will change in January when Jackson and Grant move into a 7,500 square foot industrial space in Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood and begin work on their new business, the Philadelphia Sculpture Gym. Like a fitness club, they plan to offer up their equipment and workspace to artists who buy memberships.

As manufacturing declined in America, many cities went through a "condo conversion craze," turning left-behind warehouses and industrial spaces into living spaces. Now that the residential market has peaked, industrial arts centers "are very good anchor projects for neighborhoods," says Michael Sturtz, who founded The Crucible, one of the earliest industrial art spaces of its kind in Oakland, Calif.

"When The Crucible started in January, 1999, there really weren’t many of these types of places around,” he says. “Now there’s tons of them.” He estimates there are over 100 in the U.S. and has consulted on dozens more around the world.

Above: A glass-blowing demonstration at Oakland's The Crucible, one of the earliest industrial art spaces of its kind.

Indeed, now that Jackson and Grant have pledged to the fraternity of industrial creative re-use, they’ve begun to hear from their new brethren in Philadelphia. Organizations like The Resource Exchange, which salvages material from film sets to reuse or recycle in a former munitions factory in North Philly, and The Hacktory, which salvages parts from discarded electronics equipment for reuse.

"Previously no hacker would have had any reason to contact me," Jackson says.

Sturtz says that when The Crucible moved to its permanent location in 2003, then-Mayor Jerry Brown dedicated the building by breaking a flaming bottle of champagne over an anvil. Back then, Brown’s visit to the Crucible meant he had to trek out to a relatively desolate stretch of Oakland.

He'd never presume to take all the credit, but "the neighborhood is up-and-coming compared to where it was," Sturtz says, with a new streetscape, more housing and businesses and a steady flow of patrons and students.

Jackson poses next to a giant boot in the future Philadelphia Sculpture Gym space.

Jackson says the zoning for her building will work for the activities they plan to start with. That's good news, according to Sturtz, who says he's seen zoning problems and "public occupancy issues for classrooms or theater productions, fuel, hazardous material classification." And classes with kids can lead to a whole new set of problems.

Still, he says, "right now is a great time because there’s so much industrial space available at a decent price."

As the industrial community arts facility becomes more common, cities are beginning to embrace them in their zoning codes. Arista Strungys, a planning consultant helping Baltimore rewrite their zoning code, says that industrial mixed use for heavy arts is something the city will be making room for in the new code, a move she's seen in other cities, too.

The combination of public interest, industrial stock and more lenient zoning may even make for some competition. After Jackson got rolling on the Philly Sculpture Gym, she got word that 3rd Ward, a similar outfit based in an old garment factory in Brooklyn, has plans to open a branch in Philadelphia this summer.

"When we heard that we went, 'eek!'" she says. "But I think there can be some working together-ness. We’re trying to find a way to be beneficial to one another, rather than be, like, well I have that too, you know."

Top photo: Darla Jackson among her tools. Courtesy Philadelphia Sculpture Gym.

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