Warehouse Arts Management Organization – Keeping Downtown Strong for Artists and the Community

August 29, 2013

by Bree Collins

The Warehouse Arts Management Organization (WAMO) officially formed in 2004, but it came from an arts community that has been revitalizing Downtown since the 80’s. And they’re doing a great job.

According to two studies done by the Tucson Pima Arts Council (TPAC) – the Arts and Economic Prosperity IV and the Local Arts Index, as cited in Creating Prosperity (2013) – the non-profit arts sector brings $87.7 million in revenue to the City of Tucson and Pima County annually. This is double the national county median. This number may surprise people, and it’s a great reminder of how much artists benefit Tucson.

The Toole Shed art space.

The Toole Shed art space.

Artists will often move into forgotten urban areas and revitalize them, bringing culture and City revenue with them. When Downtown’s industrial warehouses – now known as the Historic Warehouse Arts District – were abandoned by their corporate tenants, artists moved in and set up their studios. Then the Barraza-Aviation Parkway threatened to demolish the majority of these historic buildings, and many artists worried they would lose their studios to gentrification. The warehouses provided more than just reasonable rent – these artists had a community.

Then, finally, in 2002 the City of Tucson contracted with the Tucson Arts District Partnership to create a Master Plan for the Historic Warehouse Arts District. The Plan established public policy to protect the contribution the arts brought to the Downtown area. WAMO was born.

Today WAMO works to strengthen and preserve the artists and organizations (and buildings) already in existence Downtown, make new space for artists, and create a community for artists of all disciplines. WAMO owns or leases some of the key properties Downtown, including the Citizens Warehouse, the Steinfeld Warehouse, and the Toole Shed. Businesses like CandyStrike and Studio One are able to thrive creatively while not being bogged down by unsustainable rent. In turn, the presence of these artists maintain Tucson’s local culture and creative spirit.

And WAMO helps preserve Tucson history by restoring these historic buildings. While Downtown was waiting for construction on the Barrazza-Aviation Parkway to begin, the warehouses were neglected and fell into disrepair. A lot of these buildings need attention and WAMO is picking up the bill. WAMO President Alec Laughlin admits that only recently the Citizen’s Warehouse raised enough money to fix the leaky roof.

The Steinfeld Warehouse.

The Steinfeld Warehouse.

Restoration of the Steinfeld Warehouse, WAMO’s newest space, has been a collaboration of the community. Smith & Dale, a Downtown consulting firm that provides counsel to non-profit and philanthropy organizations, put together a feasibility and planning study to help WAMO establish fund-raising goals. WAMO hopes to announce these plans to the public soon. Eric Scharf, co-owner of local architectural firm Wheat Scharf Associates, funded the landscaping plan for the community courtyard. The courtyard will be a public space for concerts and other community events. There are plans for seven affordable housing live/work units, and artists are already signing up on the waiting list. Xerocraft, a non-profit hackerspace that provides resources, classes, and community so the public can complete their own DIY projects, is the only tenant so far. Their Kickstarter campaign to renovate the place was successfully funded.

WAMO also sponsors festivals in the Downtown area, including one planned for Toole Ave. on November 5th.

“We are excited to see new businesses moving in, like Proper for example,” says Laughlin. “But we are concerned about displacement of other valuable contributors to the community, namely the artists.” WAMO recognizes the challenge that comes with new Downtown development as some artists are getting priced out. The question is how to preserve the arts community while Downtown grows. Laughlin feels optimistic despite the considerable difficulty, and strives to effectively tap into the potential of the arts community. “Anything good takes work,” he says.

There are plenty of ways to support a great organization like WAMO. The non-profit organization is always gratefully accepting tax-deductible donations. There are several committees to involve yourself in, and you don’t have to be a board member to do so – check out their website for more information. WAMO’s greatest mission is to educate the public on the ways artists benefit our community. So get the word out. Educate people. And stay educated yourself.

Find out more about WAMO here. The TPAC stud can be found here. You can find out more about Xerocraft or donate here.