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Tipping Point

Albany Barn’s residential and work space for artists is almost ready to open, and the surrounding neighborhood is on the verge of a revival

by Shawn Stone on November 27, 2013 · 4 comments


Kristen M. Holler, executive director of Albany Barn, Inc., loves giving tours of The Barn. The former St. Joseph’s Academy, a more than 40,000-square-foot landmark at the southwest corner of North Swan and Second streets in Arbor Hill, is a busy construction site these days. Workers are hammering away at various points all over the building, from the first floor workshop and performance spaces to the upper floors, where artist residence lofts are nearing completion.

loft at The Barn, photo by Erin Pihlaja

The artist lofts, which will have a monthly rent in the $600-$675 range, are now in the process of being rented out; they’ll be ready for occupancy in mid-December. Holler shows off two lofts on this tour. Both have soaring ceilings, impressive views—they’re bathed in natural light—and have been designed to make optimum use of the compact space. Each incorporates artifacts preserved from the building’s days as a school: blackboards in one, and a neat row of kid-scaled coat hooks in the other.

Usually Holler is showing the space to prospective artists and artist-residents; on a recent afternoon, she’s leading an Albany Barn staffer and a journalist on the tour. The transformation of the former school, she says, has been striking. What was once an abandoned neighborhood anchor littered with dead pigeons and garbage, and facing an uncertain future, will soon become a part of the surrounding neighborhood’s ongoing revitalization.

The goal is, says Holler, to foster “a Renaissance in this neighborhood.”

A decade ago, this part of Arbor Hill was in rough shape. North Swan Street between First Street and Livingston Avenue, once a commercial hub, had become notorious for open-air drug markets (which offered drive-thru service for slumming suburbanites) and late-night joints where violence was likely to erupt. The bars are gone and the drug markets have moved on, but the small businesses haven’t returned. That’s where the Albany Barn projects come in, both the soon-to-be-opened Barn, and Stage 1, the gallery and Barn headquarters at 46 N. Swan St.

Stage 1, site of numerous art shows and special events, has integrated itself into the fabric of the block. Holler says that neighborhood children visit the gallery at Stage 1 everyday. “It’s become a regular hangout.”

The Barn is designed to build on this. The artists who make it through the selection process are expected to be active members of the community—both within the building and outside, as part of Arbor Hill. Part of the criteria is financial—there are income criteria—and part is philosophical.

Holler says that applicants are asked 10 questions about their “creative trajectory”—where they are as an artist—and about the importance of community engagement: “How do you see your art getting outside these walls?”

Though a few of the lofts have been rented out, they’re still encouraging artists to apply. So far, Holler says, most of the applicants have been visual artists; she suspects this is because of the well advertised descriptions of the lofts’ large windows and abundant natural light. Performing artists, she says, would find these spaces a good fit, too.

This neighborhood, says Holler, “is at a tipping point.” She adds, “This is not the neighborhood [people] may have heard it was.”

Artists interested in applying for residential lofts should visit www.albanybarn.org/apartments. Those interested in renting workspace in the Barn should e-mail info@albanybarn.org or call 935-4858.