Vista Studios celebrates 25 years of anchoring arts district
From The State Article by Erin Shaw; photos by Matt Walsh
[caption id="attachment_23493" align="alignright" width="300"] Laurie McIntosh works on a piece at Vista Studios[/caption] For 25 years, Vista Studios has been a place for art, where art was talked about, created, and spilled out into the community that grew around – and because of – it. This month, Vista Studios is celebrating its artists and the vital role they’ve played in revitalizing the Vista. The thriving arts hub that Columbians know today, which was just designated a state cultural district, would not exist without the early action of pro-arts visionaries – and might not exist in the future without safeguards against commercial encroachment, the artists say. “Vista Studios really helped establish an arts presence in that area when it was trying to create an identity for itself,” said Harriett Green, director of visual arts for the S.C. Arts Commission. The story starts in the late 1980s, when a group of artists, arts administrators and city leaders began searching among the defunct warehouses in the Vista for a spot to house affordable artist studios. Several artists already had trickled into the former industrial neighborhood, but there still wasn’t much going on. Hardly anyone lived there, and you could count the number of restaurants on one hand. The group first set its sights on the old Confederate Printing Plant – now a Publix – at Huger and Gervais streets. Construction and financial issues prevented that project from moving forward, but eventually, the warehouse behind Molten-Lamar Architects on Lady Street was selected for the studios. Through a joint partnership of the S.C. Arts Commission, the Columbia Development Corp. and Molten-Lamar Architects, which owns the building, Vista Studios was born. The opening exhibition of the original 13 studio artists took place in February 1990. “We used to keep the doors locked all the time. You didn’t want to be here at night at all,” said Laura Spong, a longtime artist at Vista Studios. “The whole area has changed completely.” Today, there are nearly 30 arts organizations, galleries and performing groups in the Vista, along with 12 arts-oriented festivals a year. The area is also home to more than 80 public pieces of artwork including paintings, sculptures and monuments. That art couldn’t have been created if artists didn’t have space to work. “For years, the biggest need artists had was for studio space – affordable studio space,” said Kirkland Smith, an artist at Vista Studios. Smith used to work in a spare bedroom that she converted into a studio. Moving to Vista Studios has given her visibility that she didn’t have working from home, she said. For artist Michel McNinch, Vista Studios was a place to be inspired by other artists. McNinch came to Vista Studios 10 years ago because she loved the work of fellow artist David Yaghjian. “I wanted to be around people creating that kind of work. It’s made me a better artist,” she said. “And I think it’s made Columbia a better art town, to have this kind of collaboration around.” The gallery space is an invaluable addition to the 13 studios, which any artist in the community can rent for a nominal fee. Rather than squeeze their art into a working studio, artists can properly display their work in a well-lit space with enough room for viewers to stand back and observe it. “We probably have some of the best exhibition space in town besides the museums, and that’s a jewel that people need to know about,” artist Sharon Licata said. The Vista Studios artists say they’ve done their job helping revitalize the area. Maybe a little too well. Businesses are attracted to the Vista because it is funky and artsy. Yet the explosive growth of business has raised the property costs so much that artists fear being forced out financially. “You’ve got to be careful not to kill the goose that laid the golden egg,” artist Laurie McIntosh said. “Artists are sort of like priests. They’re supposed to bring something to the community … because they’re driven to,” added artist Yaghjian. “They offer insight and inspiration. And when a country or community doesn’t value that, it’s in danger of going all the way to commerce, all the way to business.” One alternative is to create a new artist colony on Pendleton Street down by the Congaree River, Columbia Development Corp. Executive Director Fred Delk said. Plans already are underway for Stormwater Studios, a space where only artists can own the studios. The development follows artist Clark Ellefson’s move to the Vista’s western fringe several years ago. “The idea is to create additional activity near the river, next to the future riverfront park,” Delk said. S.C. Arts Commission director Ken May said he hopes the Vista’s recent designation as an arts district will act as a sort of check on the increasing bar and restaurant scene in the core of the district. “Part of the reason for doing that is to remind people the roots and focus is still as a cultural and entertainment district. An entity like Vista Studios is very important to the identity of the neighborhood,” he said. But is it enough? More safeguards need to be put in place to maintain the Vista’s cultural heritage, said Vista Studios artist Stephen Chesley. “Do that, and we will stand alone 50 years from now. If we don’t do it, we will just disappear.” Image above: Kirkland Smith displays a piece she made for the Richland County Library at Vista Studios.