ArtsATL > Art+Design > A conversation with the Goat Farm’s Anthony Harper about the Beacons project, past and future

A conversation with the Goat Farm’s Anthony Harper about the Beacons project, past and future

Anthony Harper, in front of a mural left by a visiting graffiti artist.

It was 2014 when the Goat Farm announced they’d be taking a year off of programming in order to reassess their approach of invigorating Atlanta’s arts community. What came of those reflections was the Beacons project. Inspired by physicist Geoffrey West’s assertion that density begets innovation, the Goat Farm set their sights on helping generate an “arts nerve” as Anthony Harper, cofounder of the Goat Farm, calls it, for the city. The Goat Farm set their sights on helping build density, first on South Broad Street, and eventually in Castleberry Hill, by helping artists navigate lease negotiation on vacant spaces, assisting with renovations and helping generate extra income through studio rentals. Their aim was to eventually help the arts organizations, including Downtown Players Club, Mammal Gallery and Eyedrum, acquire their own buildings.

Of course, there’s an entire community on South Broad that goes beyond the arts organizations placed by the Beacons Project. Along with existing businesses and nonprofits, other organizations relocated to the neighborhood. For a time, it seemed ideal and full of promise — a pedestrian-friendly district, close to MARTA and Greyhound stations with space for growth.

In late 2015, artists were working to transform gritty South Broad Street into an arts district. (Photo by Allie Goolrick.)

Since then, many of the buildings have since been purchased by Newport Holdings, a Germany-based developer who at one point was in collaborative talks with WRS, the purchasers of Atlanta Underground. The developers instead elected to operate separately in the neighborhood, and while Newport’s involvement and support of the arts organizations calling South Broad Street home remain uncertain, many, including Mammal Gallery, remain optimistic.

What has since evolved downtown has raised a lot of questions within the community, and these lasting questions deserve exploration. Will these organizations succeed where so many others — developers included — have fallen short? How do arts organizations spur gentrification, and what can they proactively do to offset it?

As the Goat Farm reassesses their approach within South Broad and moves forward within Castleberry Hill, we touched base with cofounder Anthony Harper for a candid conversation about how the Beacons project has evolved and where it is heading. Below is an excerpt of our conversation.

ArtsATL: Since the Beacons Project was announced in 2014, South Broad Street has changed drastically. How do you feel about what’s evolved with the project? Where is the program going?

Anthony Harper: It was a little over two years ago, technically, that we started [the Beacons project]. Our primary objective was to try and help arts organizations become asset owners.

Atlanta is driven by real estate — it’s a real estate town. Our theory was that we could affect change in this city by changing who owns the property. So that’s what we were doing, trying to help arts organizations that wanted to own property do so, by helping guide them and assisting them through that process — for instance, helping them build studios to rent out so they could generate more cash flow.

Eventually, our plan was to bring them to our banks to see if they could get loans — based on that cash flow generated by programming and studio rentals — so they could buy their buildings. Simultaneously, we were bringing them in one at a time to meet with Invest Atlanta to see if Invest Atlanta could get on board with the overall mission and offer funding.

And that’s the point we were at when all of this started to happen — everything with WRS and Newport. We were making good progress, but of course, that put a halt on everything.

Invest Atlanta was on board, by the way.

ArtsATL: So how exactly did things go awry?

Harper: What we learned later — and when I say “we” I mean the Goat Farm and all of the arts organizations that are on South Broad — was that before Beacons became active in the area, many of the landlords were already in serious discussions with WRS about selling their properties. Nobody knew that. So Beacons continued to do what it was doing in the area, not fully understanding that there were already offers on the table for these buildings to be sold. When the buildings started to get purchased, it became clear to us.

It all happened so fast, there really wasn’t much anybody could do about it, because we hadn’t progressed far enough with the arts organizations that wanted to buy their buildings. We had not even gotten to a point where the arts organizations were ready to apply for bank loans and only in the very beginning of applying for funding from Invest Atlanta, T.A.D. Funding.

After that, our strategy, specifically on South Broad, switched. We got everybody together, the arts organizations and us, to begin forming a strategy together. It’s a group effort. The group is in communication with Newport, the new owner of the buildings. Right now, Newport is indicating to us that they see value in the arts activity and they’re at least verbally saying that they’re interested in finding a solution that will allow the arts organizations to stay there long term. So, the big question is, how does that happen? And that’s the piece we’re working through now. And we don’t know what will be acceptable to Newport. On the arts organizations’ side, as I told you, we did reach out to Wilson, Brock and Irby.

ArtsATL: Which is Tyler Perry’s law firm, correct?

Larry Dingle of Wilson, Brock and Irby.

Harper: Yes. Larry Dingle — the lawyer from that firm working with us — believes in the vision of an arts nerve remaining in South Downtown long term. He felt passionate enough about it to offer his services for free to us, which was very generous of him. When the time is right, Larry Dingle will help guide and lead this structure into place, if Newport is open to that vision.

ArtsATL: What have the steps been to engage in a dialogue with Newport?

Harper: Well, through no fault of their own, Newport wasn’t fully aware of what was happening on South Broad — they’re a large company based out of Germany — so that was the first step, allowing the arts organizations to collectively communicate and illustrate what was actually happening, why it was valuable and should be salvaged.

We set up meetings between Newport and all of the arts organizations individually. Everybody got a chance to meet each other, to talk and share information. We provided context to help Newport understand who these organizations are, help them understand what the programming spirit is of each of the organizations.

From what we can tell, it seems that Newport understands and sees the long-term value in the arts activity for their overall plan. They do wanna find a solution that’s acceptable to everybody that would allow the arts organizations to stay.

ArtsATL: And Larry Dingle will be leading that charge?

Harper: Yes, Larry will come in at the right time because of his experience structuring public-private partnerships.

Of course, we’re not sure how this will turn out, but the exercise will be: Can a public-private partnership be put in place between the city, Invest Atlanta, Newport and the arts organizations? Can a structure be brokered where everybody’s happy? Where the city gets to keep an arts nerve and the neighborhood? From what we can tell, Newport is open to exploring a public-private partnership. And Invest Atlanta still wants to help to make it happen.

ArtsATL: Do the arts organizations have representation at these meetings? How will they be involved in the conversation?

Cinema Soloriens (Marshall Allen of Sun Ra Arkestra) during a recent performance at Mammal Gallery. (Image by Modou Jallow courtesy the Goat Farm Arts Center.)

Harper: There are two different discussions happening simultaneously. One series of meetings is very arts-focused. Those conversations, this arts coalition, are more specifically about what is the strategy to help the arts organizations stay in the neighborhood long term — Mammal, Downtown Players Club, Eyedrum, Broad Street Visitor’s Center, C4, Goat Farm and Murmur are all regularly involved in this. Then there are ongoing conversations about the South Downtown Initiative. Those are led by Kyle Kessler from the Center for Civic Innovation. Those are where conversations about the neighborhood as a whole take place, more comprehensive and holistic conversations within the Center for Civic Innovation and the South Downtown Initiative.

ArtsATL: And the arts organizations have representation at those meetings?

Harper: They do, if they show up. Everybody’s on an email list and gets an email whenever these meetings are happening. It’s just whoever shows up.

A lot of the businesses show up. A lot of the stakeholders show up. It depends on what the agenda of the meeting is. A lot of the arts organizations will show up to those neighborhood-wide meetings as well.

ArtsATL: Has Commissioner Keane been involved in these conversations?

Harper: We have reached out to Commissioner Tim Keane. His office is aware of the fact that Larry Dingle is waiting in the wings and is ready to help implement the public-private partnership. Tim is on board with that, but there’s not much for their office to be doing currently.

ArtsATL: What kind of involvement would that be?

Harper: That’s a good question; that would have to be under Larry’s direction.

ArtsATL: So Beacons is moving forward with the assumption that these arts organizations are going to be able to stay in these spaces. Mammal is undergoing a huge fundraiser right now to stay in that building.

I can’t help but wonder why, if they’re raising so much capital, why wouldn’t they use that money to go do what their original objective was, which is buy a space?

Harper: That is a question for Mammal, but it’s my understanding that they’re primarily using the funds to help cover their cost of operations in case the new ownership structure makes operating more expensive over time. It’s not going into hard assets in the building.

They were effectively one of the organizations that helped kick off this whole spurt of activity — C4 as well. So there’s this sense of commitment on Mammal’s part. I think the thoughts have crossed their mind, moving to a different area or closing down. After a lot of soul-searching they decided to stay in.

They’re all sharing the same geographic location, and they’re all in one sense sharing the same cuts and bruises, and so there’s a sense of obligation that starts to emerge.

ArtsATL: There has also been controversy surrounding the fact that the arts organizations that were placed by Beacons in South Broad, a historically Black neighborhood, were white-owned and operated.

As Beacons moves its attention to Castleberry Hill, another largely Black neighborhood, what have you learned about equitability and inclusivity? Does Beacons plan to be more involved with the neighborhood before placing arts organizations in there?

Harper: I’ll just say that flat out that was a mistake that we made. We definitely learned a lot of lessons there throughout the process. It was our mistake to not realize, that sure, the buildings were vacant but the neighborhood was not. That was our mistake. The arts ecosystem quickly set us straight.

We realized that what we were doing was destructive, so we stopped filling vacant spaces. We continued to go down the road of helping the existing arts organizations by starting conversations with Invest Atlanta, and helping the organizations generate cash flow so they could buy their buildings one day.

Then we switched the other half of our focus away from filling more vacant space to talking to all the local businesses and see[ing] what we can do.

A good example was Giving Back to Humanity, which is right next door to Broad Street Visitors Center. They are a homeless services organization that has been on South Broad for a long time, since 2002. We talked to them and learned about their needs as an organization. Their founder had just passed away, and they were in disarray and in need of money. We found out that they really only use their space two days a week but were paying full rent. So we found a studio mate to share the space with them the other days, Streatery. It lowered their rent enough so they could stay in the neighborhood and open up a new location elsewhere in the city.

ArtsATL: What about the safety of the arts organizations that you placed in the area — what have you learned there? Not only in regards to violence but in regard to the condition of the buildings themselves. There have been at least three murders on South Broad since January. And a number of those buildings had been filled with animal excrement for decades and were not up to code when the tenants moved in, and still aren’t. Are you changing your approach toward that as well?

Harper: I guess I should make something clear first — what Beacons does is it offers labor but not materials to these arts organizations for repairs. That’s how we helped Mammal and the other arts organizations. So it’s the same thing in Castleberry, but everybody was impacted by the Ghost Ship fire, right?

ArtsATL: Yes. That’s why I felt obligated to ask these questions.

Harper: When that terrible incident happened, of course, we had our own internal discussions and meetings around the Ghost Ship fire, as a lot of arts organizations did, I think. So certainly our approach in Castleberry is different. In Castleberry, everything will be up to code.

ArtsATL: But the organizations have to acquire the materials and you lend labor, but . . . will Beacons be getting a general contractor involved, or are your laborers bringing them up to code?

Harper: It would depend on the condition of the building. The buildings in South Broad were in really bad condition.

ArtsATL: They were in terrible condition.

The Goat Farm Arts Center acquired Erickson Clock in Castleberry Hill before the recession, Harper says.

Harper: A lot of the buildings in Castleberry are in better condition. Again, it’s very early on and we’re still exploring what is, we’re still exploring where Beacons can even help in the neighborhood, but so far also what we’re learning is a lot of these buildings are just in much better condition.

With Castleberry, of course, we’re taking the lessons that we learned in South Downtown and we’re changing our strategy on every level. This time around, we’re focusing on businesses that are already there and have been for quite some time.

Our first participant in Castleberry is artist Miya Bailey. He’s had his business, City of Ink, on Peters Street for over 10 years now. We know Miya through his work with Nelson Street Gallery and Notch 8 Gallery. After some initial meetings, we have now successfully put Miya into the path of asset ownership.

This time, we owned the building first. We’re creating a low-barrier sell-back program specifically around Miya’s needs. In this instance, he doesn’t have to come up with a down payment, and he doesn’t have to pay interest.

He’s got great plans for the building. He’s got art studios planned and a little cafe planned and a little community library planned. Together with the businesses he already has on the block, he’ll have a nice little arts hub on Peters Street.

ArtsATL: Are you worried about another developer going into Castleberry, now that we know we’re going to have the Super Bowl in 2019? Are there plans to help other preexisting arts organizations in Castleberry acquire their buildings before that redevelopment happens?

Harper: We’re in early conversations with an arts hub called Snake Nation, which is Anthony Marshall and his crew. They’ve been creating content in Castleberry for a while. They already wanted to buy their building, they just haven’t done it yet. But we’re exploring with them how Beacons can be helpful — with renovations, building out studios and generating cash flow to ultimately help them buy their building. We’ve also met with Marcia Wood. Goat Farm also owns property in Castleberry, Erickson Clock, so we’ll be bringing our own arts concept to the neighborhood in partnership with MASS Collective, an organization we’ve been incubating in the neighborhood for a couple years already.

This time around, Beacons specifically wants to help in a way where the same thing can’t happen (laughs).

ArtsATL: Okay, so what are some of the other experiments that you’re thinking of for that?

Harper: The mistake we made in South Downtown is we did not go out and meet as many people as we could in the neighborhood to really get a sense of what the neighborhood already was. We regret that.

With Castleberry, the stage we’re in is going out and meet[ing] as many people as we can and try[ing] to get a sense of what the neighborhood is and where it’s at and where it wants to go. Hopefully, if we can get it right in Castleberry and then South Downtown, assuming that the public-private partnership actually works out, then maybe one day we will have an arts nerve that stretches from Castleberry into South Broad.

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