How Long Can Artists Afford To Live In Nashville?

Herb Williams sifts through a box of purple crayons. After cutting the ends off, he stores them in bins, shown to the right. Credit: Emily Siner / WPLN

Herb Williams sifts through a box of purple crayons. After cutting the ends off, he stores them in bins, shown to the right. Credit: Emily Siner / WPLN

On a recent Friday morning, Herb Williams opened the door to his new art studio in downtown Nashville. He moved in there the week before — and it already smelled like a Crayola box.

“Against this wall and these shelves and all of the cases in there, I’ve got over half a million crayons, about 540,000,” he says.

He uses the ends and the tips to make intricate, larger-than-life sculptures out of colored crayons, thousands of them. For the past seven years, he was doing this in a space near the public library downtown. Now, he says, that space turning into a day spa.

“All of the empty storefronts on the block became full, and some high-end tenants are moving in,” he says. “I could no longer afford to stay.”

One of Herb Williams’ larger-than-life crayon sculptures. Credit: Emily Siner / WPLN

One of Herb Williams’ larger-than-life crayon sculptures. Credit: Emily Siner / WPLN

Now, Williams wasn’t pushed out of the neighborhood altogether. He actually ended up a few blocks away, in a studio that’s a little nicer than his old one. But his story of getting priced out is familiar to artists around the country — including Andy Coppola, who was helping Williams cut up crayons at the studio.

Coppola recently moved to Nashville from Bed-Stuy, a neighborhood in New York. “It has, for 30 years, a reputation of being a grunge, hardcore section of Brooklyn. People I talked to in New York were like, ‘Why are you moving there?'” he says. “It was cheap.”

But then the artists started planting gardens and doing community work, Coppola says. That attracted foodie culture to the neighborhood — a Michelin-reviewed restaurant set up shop. Other people started coming to these new restaurants, home values went up, and by the time Coppola left, he says, “we were just barely getting by.”

A Cycle Of Development

Nashville’s music scene has long been on the national map, and within the past few years, the visual art scene has been gaining traction too. The number of galleries has skyrocketed, art crawls around the city are attracting thousands of people, and longtime Nashville artists say the talent here is booming.

But while Nashville artists are happy to see the growth, some are worried it could also push them out as it has in other cities.

“The artists make the neighborhood safe and fun and then the developers come and boot them out,” says Adrienne Outlaw, a Nashville artist working in the Wedgewood-Houston neighborhood. (Full disclosure: She freelances occasionally for WPLN.)

Outlaw works an old sock factory, along with dozens of other artists. It still has the concrete walls and floors, but now it’s full of art studios and thrift-store furniture. This is one of the stops on a monthly neighborhood art walk.

Adrienne Outlaw's latest works are made with sugar as the primary medium. Credit: Adrienne Outlaw

Adrienne Outlaw’s latest works are made with sugar as the primary medium. Credit: Adrienne Outlaw

“When I first came here, it was a very sketchy neighborhood,” she says. “We’d been broken into several times. Now for the art crawl, we’re all walking around at night, all of us, hundreds of us. It’s a crazy new development.”

And that’s exciting, she says, but there could be a downside. She points to what happened in Wicker Park, an artist’s enclave in Chicago.

“It got so hot that all the developers came in,” she says. “There are no artists in Wicker Park any more, and now it’s filled with Starbucks and the Gap.”

Nashville’s Timeline

Is Nashville going down the same path? On paper, the numbers don’t necessarily show it. There’s not good data on where artists are working and whether development has followed — or is pushing them out. We can look at the price of Class C commercial space — that’s the kind that artists tend to rent. But even in Downtown Nashville, where Williams has his studio, prices aren’t much higher than they were in 2011.

Jen Cole, the director of the Nashville Arts Commission, says artists still see the city as an attractive and affordable place.

“Right now, I get three to four calls or emails a week from people in other markets, saying, ‘I’ve decided to move to Nashville,'” she says. “I think the tipping point is when those calls stop coming.”

In order for the city to grow without reaching that tipping point, she says, it has to make a conscious effort to keep housing and studio space affordable.

Over in Wedgewood-Houston, Outlaw says she’s already seen studio rents rise dramatically in her neighborhood.

“I sort of figure the artists here have about two more years to be here, tops, before we have to start finding another place,” she says.

But in the meantime, she’s enjoying what she calls Nashville’s cultural renaissance.

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