What's the role of the Riverside Artist Lofts in Reno's art community?
Rich VanGogh describes the Riverside Artist Lofts, the building where he lives, as “The Riverslide Artist Laughs,” among other names. He's lived there since 2011, and although he describes it as the “greatest building in Reno,” he's frustrated with the management of the building, which provides low-income housing for artists. He said that the building lacks some amenities that working artists might need.
“We don’t even have a community workspace,” he said. “If you want to saw a piece of wood, you’ve got to either drag it out into the parking lot or saw it in your loft. … I want to see the artists’ lofts have an organization and some really decent space, some decent signage, and create a 501(c)(3) where we could do something for this town that apparently Sierra Arts doesn’t care to do. I want this building open to the public, and I will not rest until I achieve that.”
The Riverside Artist Lofts is south of the intersection of Reno’s most central road, Virginia Street, and the city’s most central geographic feature, the Truckee River. According to Historic Houses and Buildings of Reno, Nevada by Holly Walton-Buchanan, the Riverside occupies the site of the first building in town, Myron Lake’s hotel, built in 1868. A larger hotel in the same location was completed in 1907, although it later burned down. The current building was commissioned by prominent Reno businessman George Wingfield, designed by famous Reno architect Frederic DeLongchamps, and completed in 1927. For decades, the Riverside Hotel was a destination for folks looking to establish Nevada residency during Reno’s heyday as the nation’s divorce capital. But the hotel closed in 1986, and was slated for demolition in the same short-sighted wave of destruction that claimed the iconic Mapes Hotel in 2000.
The Riverside was reprieved partly through the efforts of two nonprofit organizations, Sierra Arts, a local foundation that supports the arts, and Artspace, a Minnesota-based nonprofit real-estate developer that specializes in artist housing. The two organizations worked with the city to repurpose the building as low-income housing for artists. It reopened as the Riverside Artist Lofts the same year that the Mapes was destroyed.
Considering its historic location and legacy, and its geographic centrality, some residents believe that the Riverside should be a hub for the Reno arts scene. Other residents feel that the purpose of the building isn’t to put the artists on display but instead to provide them with a place to work without external pressures—and that the low rent is there to encourage them to focus on their creative practices rather than full-time day jobs. This difference in perspectives has led to some bickering and griping over the decade and a half since the artist lofts opened. A major point of contention has long been who gets to live in the building—should successful artists who no longer qualify for Housing and Urban Development low-income housing be allowed to stay? What about elderly, sick or just disinterested artists no longer producing work?Open house
VanGogh is an artist, and he also manages and curates a gallery, Liberty Fine Arts Gallery. He said he started that gallery in 2012 partly in reaction to a lack of exhibition opportunities at the artist lofts. He describes the Riverside as a “black hole” in downtown Reno and said he’s heard prominent local politicians and business leaders say the same thing.
“It should be open to the public,” he said. “It should be the cornerstone of the arts district, which this is not. People look at this building and say, ’What is it? What’s going on in there?’ They don’t even know there’s an artist loft.”
He wants to open up the building on a monthly basis for studio visits. And although he acknowledges the key role that Sierra Arts played in saving the building from demolition, he said that the presence of an external arts organization in the building has actually impeded the ability of resident artists to create their own identity.
“There really is no Riverside Artist Lofts,” he said. “There’s 35 apartments above Sierra Arts. If you look at the building from the front, there isn’t even a sign that identifies it as the Riverside Artist Lofts.” (There is a sign for Sierra Arts.) “It’s like a conflict of interest. Sierra Arts has nothing to do with the lofts. So the artists are up there, just spinning in the wind. They have no organizational ability or power or say in the building whatsoever.”
Three years ago, VanGogh led an effort to open up the building to the public once a month, on the second Saturday of every month, the same day that the Nevada Museum of Art offers free admission. After a couple of attempts, VanGogh said the building manager and several tenants shut down the effort. He said he’s often confused why an artist would want to live in an artists’ building and not be willing to open up their loft and exhibit their work.
“Obviously, if you don’t want to open your loft, I’d never try to force anybody to open their loft,” he said. “Keep your loft shut, but let the rest of us show our work and introduce ourselves to the community.”
The inexpensive rent is part of the appeal, but there are other HUD housing opportunities. And although residents have to initially qualify for HUD housing, they don’t have to remain poor.
“The reason that Artspace claims that they want to do that is that they want to provide housing for emerging artists, but retain successful artists, so if I become successful, which I plan to do in the next couple days, and make a million dollars a year, I can stay here. They just adjust my rent to the max,” said VanGogh.High Sierra
Stacey Spain, executive director of Sierra Arts, said her organization is actually very invested in the Riverside Artist Lofts—literally and figuratively. The foundation owns a fraction of 1 percent of the building. (Artspace is the majority owner.)
“Sierra Arts Foundation sold our building and invested in the Riverside,” she said. “All of the funds from the sale of that building were invested in the Riverside. That’s really why we’re housed here. And we’re the local arts agency, so our job is to educate, nurture and support the arts in Northern Nevada. We have strong relationships with lots of artists in the building. Many of the artists in the building actually work for Sierra Arts in our arts educational program.”
She said that although no special consideration or privilege is granted to resident artists during exhibition programming or curation, the resident artists are encouraged to apply for exhibitions.
“The artists who are in the building are invited, as are any artists in the community, to have their work exhibited in our gallery space,” she said. “Their work has to go through our normal procedure. We have a panel that chooses work for the space. We’ve also, through the years, had several little pop-up exhibitions specifically for the artists who live and work here. … We want our artists to be working at the highest level, and if their work is submitted, and it goes through that process, we’re delighted when we’re able to have artists in the gallery from the building.”
“I’ve had a very good experience with Sierra Arts,” said Erik Holland, a painter who lives in the Riverside and exhibits his work regularly all over the community. “Sierra Arts has been a huge support for me. They’ve been very engaged with me and other people in the building. They love it when we apply for this or that. I would say Sierra Arts is extremely supportive of the artists in the building. I would caution that they might not seem overly supportive because you don’t want the favoritism thing going on.”Space is the place
Jeff Babcock, the building manager of the Riverside, is an employee of Performance Property Management, Artspace’s subsidiary property management company. He’s worked for the organization for four years. He’s in charge of maintenance and repairs of the building, along with any tenant issues, including administering the income qualifications, background checks, and organizing the five-person Artist Selection Committee panels that approve the residents.
According to the residency application, “This committee [is] made up of fellow artists and/or owner representatives. The committee will talk with all members of your household and will ask questions about your commitment to the arts and your interest in living at the Riverside Artist Lofts. The committee will also review the enclosed Artistic Questionnaire that you will have completed. The Artist Selection Committee screens applicants to determine their participation in, and commitment to, the arts; they do not judge the content of an applicant’s artistic work.”
“That’s been the biggest farce since before I got here,” said VanGogh of the selection committees, which he said suffer from cronyism. “Since I’ve got here, there have been people let into the building that have absolutely nothing to do with the arts. … We have way more people here who don’t do art than who do art. About one-third are real troublemakers who don’t do art at all, and about one-third are retired artists who maybe used to do art, but don’t do any art at all anymore.”
VanGogh claimed to know at least one resident who showed a family member’s art portfolio in order to get residency in the building. Rumors of similar deceptions—artists padding their CVs or lying about their income—have abounded in the building since it became an artists’ residence.
Babcock is dismissive of any rumors of fraudulent artists in the building.
“We’ve always been 100 percent low-income, 100 percent artists in the building since we opened it up in 2000,” he said. And the list of current residents includes some high-profile, well-known local names, and not just visual artists, but also artists associated with other artforms, like music (Jammal Tarkington of Keyser Soze) and theater (Mary Bennett, producing artistic director of Brüka Theatre). But there are also plenty of less recognizable names living in the building.
Freddie Houston, the director of Performance Property Management, said that the committee selections are not qualitative evaluations. “We don’t judge a body of work. You just need to have one. … In your interview, you need to talk about yourself. Say I’m an actor. ’I act. This is my portfolio. I perform once or twice a year, and I’ve been doing it since I was 10.’ I could be a horrible actor. But I keep going to casting calls. I’ve done some local plays, but I’m not going to make it to the big time.”
Babcock and Houston both said that resident artists are encouraged to engage with the public individually, as far as hosting open studios.
“We welcome that 100 percent, and we always have” said Babcock. “We support anything they do. If they want to have … open studios, we’ve had it during Artown in the past. There’s been some interest in having it more often, but nothing has been presented. The only concerns we have is that we have a secure property here, so we just want to make sure that the people coming in and out are monitored so that the tenants in the building aren’t in any way in danger.”
Houston said that safety and security concerns have halted previous efforts at organizing open-studio events. “When they did have their open studio, open to the public, they did not provide the proper security, and we’re not going to do that for them. The building is secure, but they needed to maintain that, and they did not have enough participation to do that.”
He said that Artspace itself doesn’t engage in any exhibition programming or event planning. “It’s up to the individual group to come up with a collective idea of how they want to portray themselves out to the community. If they choose not to, that’s great. If they choose to, that’s even better. All we do is pay the bills, make sure it’s a clean facility, and those kind of things. We don’t step in and do any programming. … We just want to facilitate the creative process, in terms of giving them an environment that’s affordable, and they can do their passion.”Artist statement
“I think that the artist lofts is a place where people should go and live and make art, and that’s its primary purpose,” said Holland. “I’m leery of downward commandments, if you will, that we should do this or that. That said, I would love to have open houses here.”
He said that he’s going to participate in open houses of the Riverside for Artown in July and will also open his loft for the Reno Open Studios event. But, despite his willingness to open up his own loft, he doesn’t think these kind of events should be compulsory for residents.
“I think that any tendencies toward setting a self-imposed higher bar, once the artists are in, are wrong-headed and almost Orwellian,” he said. “I do not think that people in the building should be subjected to scrutiny nor do I think they should be told they need to live this or that certain way once they’re in the building. … In order to get into the building, you have to demonstrate that art is an important part of your life. It is the job of the committee that allows people into the building to make those judgments Once those judgments have been made and people are let into the building, they should be left alone.”
That attitude puts a lot of faith in the committees, and more than one resident has expressed the perception that the panels are not as transparent as they once were.
“Years ago, when we got in there, we had to sit in front of a panel and then present them with our portfolios and say, ’Hey, we’re working artists, and here’s what we do,’” said theater director Mary Bennett. “They did an interview process, and that’s continued on over the years—I’m going to say—sporadically. There have been times when different people—people from Sierra Arts and residents—have sat on a panel, and then there have been times when the manager has let people come into the building.”
Bennett, who has lived at the lofts for 14 years, said she use to serve on the committee panels often but hasn’t been invited to serve on any in recent years. “I’d love to see those panels happening—I guess is a really nice way to say that—and to know they’re happening. If they are happening, I think that would be a really positive thing to share with at least the Riverside community so that people knew that and felt like they were part of an artistic community.”
According to Bennett, the Reno arts community benefits from the Riverside Artist Lofts even without open house studio visits, and the city benefits from the presence of the landmark building even if every door is not always open to the public.
“I think we do beautiful art in this community. It’s helped us to remain residents. It’s helped us to remain professional artists in the community. … I haven’t experienced a bad thing at the artist lofts. I’ve experienced an ability to work as an artist, and that means the world to me. … I think most of the art that people do from there, we do share with Reno.”