Mike Sodano and Nancy Sabino engage with Evan Snow, co-founder of Zero Empty Spaces, an initiative to activate vacant commercial real estate primarily in retail settings to make affordable artist studios at a low monthly rate.

After listening to the interview, check out Zero Empty Spaces on their website.

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Evan Snow: We’re really changing the way not only that people view and interact with space, but we’re also changing the way people view and interact with artists.
Welcome to the ArtsRule Podcast, proving insight, analysis and dialog highlighting the arts-vibrant landscape of small to medium size cities. Guiding you to consider where to visit, work and live with an arts-centric focus.
I’m Mike Sodano along with my partner Nancy Sabino and today we’re speaking with Evan Snow from Zero Empty Spaces.
One of the challenges of any arts-vibrant city is to maintain the balance between market rate space and the ability to utilize that space to create and sell their work. That walk down the aisle has historically been bumpy between the artist and developer but in Sarasota Florida, Evan Snow and his business partner Andrew Martineau are providing a solution.
MS: Evan, welcome to ArtsRule. Thank you for speaking with us. You and your partner have a unique initiative called Zero Empty Spaces. Why don’t you explain to our listeners what Zero Empty Spaces is all about.
ES: Sure, thank you very much for having me. Myself and my business partner are arts advocates, community builders, creative problem solvers and creative entrepreneurs that among other things that we do came up with an initiative to activate vacant commercial real estate primarily in retail settings, to make affordable artist studios at a low monthly rate. This has provided a myriad of benefits for all the parties involved. For the artists I’m sure you can imagine but for the property owners to support the viability and the walkability of their shopping centers, lifestyle centers or mall centers and then also for the general public at large to be able to discover and hopefully and ultimately support local artists in settings they normally would not be able to discover a local artist studio. So it’s been a great win-win-win initiative that’s led to 26 locations over the last three years.
NS: Going back a little bit why don’t you tell us why you chose the first city you did and how that first workspace came to be.
ES:  I’m born and raised in Broward county which is where Fort Lauderdale’s located. And my business partner lives in Fort Lauderdale. We started an art fair using the unique elements of Fort Lauderdale which have these amazing luxury waterfront homes and intercostal waterway systems AKA the Venice of the Americas and a water taxi, we wanted to utilize these unique elements to put Fort Lauderdale on the art world map and particularly the art fair world map so we started an art fair inside of luxury waterfront homes that are for sale. Then commercial property owners, developers, brokers a lot of different people, property managers started coming to us and asking if we could do art in their commercial space but they ultimately really didn’t want to pay for it so we were leaving a meeting in Broward county unfortunately Broward county was and is one of the least affordable counties for housing at the moment and we were looking at all these storefronts and said to ourselves what if we were to make this one of the most affordable areas for artists to create in and we took that idea to the mayor of Fort Lauderdale, mayor Dean Trantalis. He was a big arts advocate, he attends our art fair, he’s a supporter of our initiatives and he suggested we reach out to a gentleman by the name of Mike Weymouth, who owns the Las Olas company which is Las Olas is effectively our more or less our Main Street, our Rodeo Drive it leads to the beach its high priced per square foot real estate and um he didn’t have to do it, it took him two to three minutes and Mike Weymouth after we presented the opportunity to him said ok. And he gave us our first space on Las Olas in downtown Fort Lauderdale and it had been vacant for a few years. And we were in there for three months and low and behold, a gentleman came in I like the buzz and energy in this place took out a long term lease. They moved us to another space around the corner we were in there for three months a gentleman came in liked the buzz and energy he took out a long terms lease and we realized we were on to something and that’s how the program started here in Fort Lauderdale, Broward county.
MS: Give us a rough idea of how your plan develops. Are you approached or do you go out and seek a space?
ES: Thankfully, property owners and developers have taken an interest in the initiative and all the space have been acquired through groups that have reached out to us. But our initial space as I mentioned came from the Mayor of Fort Lauderdale endorsing us or suggesting that we reach out to one of his large property owners. We’re had multiple city commissioners, mayors, community redevelopment agencies, economy managers and other people in city government suggest to their property owners who pay them taxes that they could or should do this initiative at no cost to the property owner and that endorsement is how we’ve acquired the majority of our spaces.
MS: On average does it take you to go from an idea and approach to an actual opening?
ES: There are a lot of steps obviously in the process. We have to have the initial conversation and make sure there’s mutual interest. We have to determine that there are artists in the area that will be able to fill the space.
ES: We do site surveys and visits and we try to visit the local community and connect with the local arts and culture board or the cultural council, whatever it may be in that area and try to check their pulse. Thankfully the areas we have selected there has been a need and a thriving arts community in Sarasota and obviously the Boston area and now we’re going to the St. Pete Tampa area and we’re glad to support the artists and creative community in those spaces.
NS: Who have you found to be your biggest supporters? Are they individuals, investors, city officials, artists, realtors?
ES: Our biggest supporters have been the mayors and the city commissioners that endorse us to their property owners and not that the property owner wouldn’t have done it without that endorsement and it certainly goes a long way. We have fortunately been able to forge relationships with the large property owners the Simons and the Brookfield’s and that thankfully has led to multiple spaces.
NS:  What is key to your success in an area. Is it PR, is it more artists than you have space for them, is it positive cash flow sooner rather than later? What helps you label a particular site a success story for you?
ES: So, art has a myriad of benefits as we all know. Art is history. Art is storytelling. Art is communication. Art is placemaking. We have found that by making art more accessible in the mall settings for example it does add life, color and vibrancy to what otherwise might be just a mundane shopping experience and it also from a placemaking perspective changes the way people view and interact with art by the artist being creative in the spaces, we’ve had artists work on caricatures in the malls, we’ve had artists collaborate with other stores to add murals or public art or improve signage in their space from a more artistic approach. And there’s also other in-studio benefits of workshops, talks, pot lucks, and other ways the community is able to engage and interact with the artist in the space that traditionally wasn’t there previously.
I would love if we were able to help every single artist in the community. Unfortunately there’s only so much space and there’s only so much time in the day. But we do what we can with what we have and we’re fortunate that we’ve had almost 300 artists come through the program now in just a little under three years. Just the fact of them working outside their homes making friends with their peers who were initially third party strangers who have now become friends and even collaborators I like to think that that’s a success. And then you know in all reality our property owners when we are able to help them take a space that was formerly vacant and stark for many years and help drive the traffic visually, physically leading to them getting a full permanent tenant that is a success and that is part of the program. We do want to have a deal a win-win-win for everybody and thankfully in the current iteration of the program it is a win win-win and we’re going to continue growing that if it makes us you know this program doesn’t make us a ton of money but it provides more for us in terms of fulfillment and helps to serve as our life’s mission as arts advocates to make art more accessible and i think we ‘re doing a pretty good job at that and I think that’s a success.
NS: We’re trying to use this site as sort of a best practices so that what we learn from you and others we can pass on to others who might be interested in starting some like this for themselves. If somebody were to come to you and say we’re looking to start something like this in our own location how would they start. How would you recommend they start the process for themselves?
ES: Well, I can’t tell you the how but I can tell you the why. And if you do it altruistically because it’s the right thing to do the how becomes a lot easier and you don’t find these things being as much about work as they are about service to the community. There is no playbook we’ve had to figure it out on our own and as I mentioned to you previously we’re very resourceful. We have an agency that Andrew and myself operate the UNITAS group that literally facilitates every part of the process from the ideation of the concept to the logo creation to the website creation to the branding the social every single part. We do the leasing, we do the build out of the actual space, we do the events, we do the bookkeeping, we do all of those things. It’s just not really worth it unless you’re really doing it altruistically. So, I would just say if it’s part of your why, if it aligns with your why and this is the mission that you’re on then you’ll figure out how to go about it your own way.
NS: So if somebody was interested, say in Asbury Park, and wanted you to be interested in Asbury Park to do something like this, how would they approach you. What would they need to make you say hmm, I need to come to this city to see what they have to offer.
ES: I do ask the people who reach out from smaller cities or smaller markets, which we’re not opposed to but you know, what is the studio space landscape in your area. How many studio spaces are there. What is your relationship with the arts alliance or the cultural commission or whatever it might be in your community. And then also, is there a city commissioner or public official that is art friendly or an art advocate that would endorse the project because if you have a connection to a property owner or developer if you have some time of relationship there that could at least introduce the program that’s generally a good starting point. In lieu of that relationship if you are interested in the program and you have a relationship with the city commissioner or mayor or public official that has a relationship with developers or property owners that pay taxes then that’s another good starting point. And if you’re hopefully interested, you’re in the creative community you’re familiar with the cultural division or the arts alliance whatever it might be in your area and you can put us in touch with somebody there who generally the director of those organizations have relationships with the public officials so on and so forth, than that will help expedite the process.
MS: So what would you say to someone who says are you crazy? Why are you doing this? You’re not making any money and how are you surviving?
ES: I would generally like to say that’s our problem for us to figure out, but um. This is why I was put on this planet, this is my mission.
MS Interesting you say that because in our previous life we ran movie theaters and people would often ask us how do you make any money here? on selling kernels of popcorn and tickets to the movies. We would just say, that’s our job how to figure out how to make money, your job is to come in and be entertained. That’s what we do. We provide an entertainment service and that’s where we got the joy, hearing people having a good time at the movies.
ES: I derive more rewarding fulfillment from doing this project and this initiative and we have a lot of other initiatives that these kind of feed into. We started an art-fair, we started an art week. We are working to get more places to consign art and sell art and exhibit art and by having this initiative while it doesn’t you know, it’s not helping us retire tomorrow it does actually help us accelerate our other missions of putting Fort Lauderdale Broward County on the art world map as a place to interact with art which we set out to do and as evidenced by the press we’ve gathered and as evidenced by a lot of the success stories that I’ve outlined its helping us to succeed in our overall mission which, I know that might not make a lot of sense everybody but if you’re a community builder if you have an altruism gene inside of your DNA, I hope that will resonate with you a little bit.
NS: You’ve said that from start to finish is particularly labor intensive. What do you like the most of this environment because it sounds like you’re involved in almost every aspect from start to finish.
ES: I do find reward in the feedback I receive from the artist. When an artist comes up to myself or Andrew and they tell us they sold a painting whether it was $5 or $500 or $5,000, that feedback is certainly rewarding and that would not be possible without all of the legwork and all of the grunt work.
One success story I always like to mention is in our Palm Beach Gardens location which is a suburb of West Palm Beach. Somewhat of a retirement area, an affluent area. We have a few older artists that had been painting in homes for many years and one of them had told us she had never called herself or considered herself an artist although she had been painting at home for 30 years. She was making her family and keeping up the house but she never showed in public, she never did an art fair, she never did an exhibit. And by her husband reading the story in the local paper and then encouraging her to join Zero Empty Spaces, it had changed her life. Her artwork is amazing, she definitely has the technique and the skill but by being able to collaborate and ideate and converse with somebody else besides your spouse and partner the feedback has helped her have a resurgence in her practice and to me that’s a success.
ES: We’re kind of hoping that we can inspire the next wave of people and I’m not anti-capitalism or anti people being successful but there’s a lot of people that have a lot of means and a lot of resources that can do a lot of good in the community that where is all that money going to go? Is it going to go to your kids? What if you don’t have kids. And I don’t have a lot of disposable income that I can just donate you know to all the causes I want to support but I do have time, I do have some knowledge, I do have some skills, I do have some assets and connections that I’m able to leverage to do good in the community and that’s what I‘m hoping to kind of inspire is this next wave of altruism, community building, placemaking and the point I really wanted to make is that we’re changing the way not only the way people interact with space, but we’re changing the way people interact with artists.
NS: You’re creating a template as you go but you already have a lot of the pieces in place. Hey Evan we thank you so much. This has been so educational for us and our listeners as well.
MS: Evan Snow from Zero Empty Spaces we truly appreciate your time your talent and your treasure, we think that you’re really on to something and can be an inspiration for others to jump in and either donate to you or help fund you or just be a silent partner. I think it’s great what you’re doing and certainly for the audience we’re trying to build – those who are looking for arts vibrant cities – you’re definitely someone to follow. We appreciate your time.
ES: We appreciate your interest. Feel free to give us a follow on the social medias at Zero Empty Spaces. Don’t hesitate to reach out and we look forward to seeing you at one of the studios.
ES: Thank you guys.
And that’s how ArtsRule for this episode. The ArtsRule podcast is produced, directed and edited by Mike Sodano and Nancy Sabino for ArtsRule.com. If you believe arts rule in your city nominate it on our website and we’ll consider taking a look. Please follow us on social media and sign up for our newsletter at ArtsRule.com
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