My main gig as a freelancer is graphic design, but I also love doing interactive public art projects, that mostly live as installation art – I’ve been working out of my own house and backyard for the past three years, but working out in the yard was tricky. It was tough to keep these big plywood pieces clean, out of the elements, and nice enough to continue to bring to events. This year I took on a new project that called for an even higher quality of presentation, and I felt that it was finally time to graduate to a studio space in my neighborhood. After 4 months, it was so bad I had to break my lease early and move out.
Before signing the lease, I tried to gather advice from fellow artists on what I should keep in mind when reviewing a studio lease, or look for during the tour, and came up short. You would correctly guess that there is a lot of overlap with a residential lease, but, as a decision that can control your livelihood, there are some things you should consider. In the hope of helping future artists avoid bad situations, here is my own advice on what to look out for:
1. Is the space climate controlled?
I thought that indoors was enough – that a room with four walls, a ceiling, and a concrete floor would keep my projects out of the elements. Unfortunately, a lot of my projects involve paper, and were routinely getting damaged in the warehouse’s humidity. I had to change several project strategies at the last minute, coming up with a solution that was not what the client requested and ended up being a little less fun than the idea I’d pitched. The first week I was there, the ceiling leaked all over a piece of a project, I moved it out of the way, and then this puddle appeared the next day.
It was wildly too hot in the summer – even with two fans and a mini fridge full of ice cold water, it was very tough to get work done. There is a big difference between a studio being inside and a studio being climate controlled. For a lot of people, the former is fine! But, if this is your first time renting a studio space, consider what you need.
2. What is the landlord/owner promising you?
When I was on the tour, the landlord told me about their monthly open studio events – he said that “hundreds, usually 300-500 people” attend these events, and said it would be such a great opportunity to get my work in front of potential customers. In reality, 30-50 people attended these events over 4 hours.
I was shown a really beautiful space on the main hall, across from the gallery, with tons of natural light, and was told it was the only available unit. When I came back the next morning to sign the lease, the landlord told me that space was no longer available and I needed to sign a lease for a very dark, very dirty unit way in the back corner of the warehouse. Ask yourself: do you need anything specific? If you’re a photographer, is natural light important?
He told me about a TV show being shot in the space, and suggested I might be able to be featured on one of the segments. I never heard about that again. Can the landlord back up their sales pitch, and is there any incentive for them to do so?
Is this 2PM on a Tuesday or during an open studio event? Only the sun knows.
3. What is the community like?
If you’re moving to a studio space to do your work, you are most likely also leaving your house so that you can join a community. I loved getting to know my fellow artists in the space, but found that it was difficult to meet them (no central directory) and no main channel for communication (“hey, does anyone want this extra paint?”) There was no way to learn about community events, no way to support the other artists in the space.
Additionally, I learned that the owner of the space was relying on unpaid labor from members who were renting space, without even a break on their rent. It felt strange to hear them describe the job as a volunteer role, when events and community building activities that brought more people to the space ultimately led to increased visibility, increased rent, and increased profit for the owner. I felt uncomfortable being part of a space that took advantage of the artists it claimed to support.
My advice here is to ask during your tour how the community is managed – is it a Google Group? A Slack? An Instagram group? Do members often cross paths, know each other, and do many studiomates renew their lease when it expires?
4. What are your day-to-day expectations?
As someone who builds large installations (and who is trying to save her joints), I need access to a loading dock – a place to back up a truck and seamlessly load my projects in. I was told I had access, but it ended up being a game of telephone with whoever was onsite and had the key at the time, sometimes resulting in long waits when I was supposed to be en route to a client’s event.
Ask yourself: do you need space to spray paint? Is that space always open to you when needed? If you need to do something messy, or loud, are you renting a place that makes that accomodation?
Additionally, how does it feel to get to your studio with your hands full, at night, in the cold? This is something I couldn’t have predicted: when I didn’t have access to the loading dock, I often had to push these giant projects roughly a quarter of a mile to the nearest spot I could park a truck. I remember doing this test in college – before I signed a lease on a new apartment, I would drive there at night, ideally when it was rainy, and see how it felt to walk to the bus stop with my backpack. Was it too far? Too cold? Too dark?
5. What are your leasing terms?
This is a big one, and I think especially tough for artists who tend to skew more right-brained than left-brained. Legalese isn’t our specialty, and while we’re used to the terms of big residential rental leases that use heavily vetted legal language, small studio spaces can sort of put whatever they want. Be extremely wary of someone who won’t let you take a copy of the lease home to review with an attorney.
Being an artist is a risk, financially – ask yourself: can you afford the rent if you have no sales one month? If a second month comes and goes and you still haven’t really been able to sell enough work, is it possible for you to scale back your committments and move out? What will you be on the hook for if you need to break this lease early?
Additionally, what is the landlord responsible for providing? If the ceiling leaks, or you have a bug problem, or construction debris falls into your space and junks up a painting, is there any liability for the owner of the space?
How does this square with your experience in renting a studio or office space? Anything you would add?