Artist Jennifer O’Kelly has watched downtown’s Arts District go through a metamorphosis since she first moved into a studio space in 1996. Thinking of those early days, one memory quickly stands out: the time someone stole her bike in front of the studio, and then tried to sell it back to her.
Others who were around at the time describe the area as a sort of no man’s land, a playground for the creative underclass, drunks, and petty crooks. Anyone who’s walked down North Trade Street in recent years can see the difference, which is especially obvious on adjacent streets where new buildings, businesses, and murals bloom.
In some ways, these are welcome changes. Winston-Salem — as a community and a city — has prioritized the arts, investing in an art park and countless cultural organizations and efforts. Five years ago, city council officially adopted the “arts and innovation” moniker.
But it’s also meant displacement for artists like O’Kelly, who was forced to move out of her longtime studio space due to an increase in rent. That’s part of what pushed her to open Sixteen Over Six, or 16/6, as a shared space for artists about six years ago.
Other artists who’ve subsequently moved in were also priced out of their studios in surrounding neighborhoods, she says. At Electric Pyramid on the northern fringe of downtown, the story is much the same; expansion at Krankies pushed out a collective of artists who responded by launching their own venture inside a former funeral home.
At 16/6 — so named because it consists of 16 studio spaces inside a building on West Sixth Street — there are currently 18 tenants. O’Kelly coordinates the project, and most tenants hold separate leases, making things easier to manage. Many of the tenants, like Beth Murray, are visual artists.
Murray studied studio art at Salem College, but she only started painting for herself again in the last few years. Now that her youngest is a junior in high school, she has more time to devote to her abstract paintings.
“It’s good to get out of my home,” she says. “I’ve found I’m a lot more creative when I can just block everything else out.”
The combination of a good price and a new friend who agreed to be her studio-mate pushed her to take the plunge and sign a lease at 16/6. She appreciates the sunlight that streams into her studio, as well as the benefits of being around other people who are also pursuing creative outputs.
“It’s a really relaxed vibe down there,” Murray says. “It’s nice to see what everybody’s up to. It’s nice to be around other people who do what you do, and know the struggles and how huge the accomplishments can be.”
Collaboration & community
The other tenants boast an amalgam of trades, including an art therapist, an architect, and a software developer.
Chris Smith, a songwriter and musician who splits his time between Winston-Salem and Nashville, moved into 16/6 after the Community Arts Café closed in 2015. He’d been renting space there for a couple years. Smith was the last remaining when the café closed, citing financial struggles.
“I’m one of those guys that has to leave the house to get work done,” Smith says. “Anybody that’s got kids knows that the idea of working at home is not as easy as it sounds. For me, being able to get away is imperative.”
Smith — an Army veteran, father of two, and the coordinator for the local chapter of Nashville Songwriters Association International — appreciates that 16/6 offers a dedicated, private space as well as the perks of a co-working facility with a shared kitchen and meeting room, where he’s hosted occasional association meetings.
He’s grateful a space like this exists. In Nashville, he has a similar setup, operating out of shared spaces that are specifically designed for songwriters. Given Nashville’s booming music industry, it’s not surprising it boasts a variety of options, the likes of which don’t exist here.
“A traditional co-working space would not be suitable to someone in the music industry,” Smith says, noting that while he tries to be a good neighbor, it helps that he’s primarily on headphones. One tenant used to lug a drum set up to 16/6 for after-hours band practices, but it can be hard to accommodate musicians in a space not built for noise.
Both O’Kelly and Smith agree that if affordable shared spaces existed for musicians in Winston-Salem, people would fill them. The same goes for other artists, many of whom are currently stuck working out of their homes, they say.
“I wish there were more spaces like this because I know there’s a lot of creatives out there,” Smith says. “I think there would be more if there were more spaces dedicated to that kind of thing.”
It’s not that 16/6 is the only shared space for artists. Venues like Art for Art’s Sake, which has 10 studio spaces, help keep working artists downtown. Beyond art, co-working and shared spaces have proliferated locally. From newer spots like 1001 — designed for “techies,
foodies and makers”— to the more established West End Mill Works, small businesses and independent creatives have an increasing variety of options. Those laboring with their hands might opt for MIXXER, while more cerebral folks might spring for Flywheel, a co-working space that’s relocating this year in order to double in size.
It’s part of a wave of development, centered in and around downtown in particular, that’s shaping the city’s future. But it isn’t always accessible. Flywheel for example, costs $200/month if you want daily access. That doesn’t include an initial $55 fee, and it doesn’t secure a specific desk, either. (That costs an extra $100/month, with a few added perks.)
As far as Smith is concerned, there are plenty of opportunities for “business-minded entrepreneurs,” adding that Winston-Salem may have innovation covered, but “the arts sometimes fall by the wayside when it comes to spaces,” especially affordable ones.
The issue isn’t a lack of artists or creatives, O’Kelly says; 16/6 has a waitlist, and she regularly refers people to other studio spaces when she can. Instead, the two missing ingredients are willing landlords and people like her willing to coordinate it all. O’Kelly’s been approached about running other spaces, but she doesn’t have the capacity to take on another project, she says. She knows at least three artists who might play the role though, if given the right opportunity.
“There’s a matchmaking that needs to happen,” she says. “It helped that I knew some of the people who had been involved in [this] building, and that I had been around so long.”
Her advice to anyone wanting to follow her example? Be willing to talk about money, have the guts to follow through, and bring some interpersonal skills to the table. And it wouldn’t hurt to be willing to put in some sweat equity; 16/6’s tenants redid the bathrooms themselves, and they’re in the process of painting the place.
Her advice to landlords? Be willing to set up separate leases, keep prices affordable, and work with artists if possible — especially in the Arts District, but really anywhere in the city of “arts and innovation.”
“Anybody who’s got a space that has an exterior entrance that they don’t know what to do with,” O’Kelly says, “they should seriously consider providing collective space for artists.”