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Arts & Culture

'Zero Empty Spaces' Keeps Opening Artist Studio Spaces During Pandemic — And Artists Keep Coming

Artist Jillian Blake paints a Marine Corps emblem in her Zero Empty Spaces studio in Hallandale Beach's Gulfstream Park.
Caitie Switalski Munoz
Artist Jillian Blake paints a Marine Corps emblem in her Zero Empty Spaces studio in Hallandale Beach's Gulfstream Park.

A little more than two years since the initiative set out to open more affordable studio space for artists in empty retail storefronts the pandemic hasn't slowed the program down. Zero Empty Spaces opened its 21st location in Flagler Village last weekend.

In July 2019 — a pre-pandemic world — WLRN looked at a brand-new initiative for artists in Broward County called "Zero Empty Spaces."

We described it this way back then:

"Cities don't like empty storefronts. They aren't good for business, and tourists notice when there's a dark shop in a row of otherwise bright stores and restaurants. A new initiative in Fort Lauderdale called Zero Empty Spaces is inviting artists to move in to some of those empty stores, acting as an intermediary between artists and property owners. The initiative is just getting started, and it's in a trial period on Las Olas Blvd."

Two years and 20 more spaces later — the pandemic hasn't slowed the program down.

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Next to the horse racing track at Gulfstream Park there's the rows of shops and restaurants. In the back by a Williams Sonoma, an empty store was turned into a cluster of arts studios during the pandemic.

Jillian Blake rents 136 square feet in the shop with tall walls to hang her paintings.

She and 17 other artists each rent part of this store. And she's one of about 200 South Florida artists who have taken advantage of Zero Empty Spaces in the last two years, according to the property managers that run the program.

Under the initiative, artists rent space for $2 per square foot — regardless of where the empty store is. The average rent someone pays is about $240 a month, for 120 square feet.

So, the artists are not paying market rates.

Before Blake moved into her art studio in Gulfstream Park, she was working out of her garage — with no A/C.

"And then I was like kind of creeping into another room. And then I would like creep into another room. And my husband's like, 'OK, how many rooms in the house do you get?'" she said. "And I said, you know what? Let me try to seek out a space for myself."

She started renting this space in October 2020, after trying out a few other Zero Empty Space locations and waiting for the one that felt right.

On Blake's easel, just before the in-person grand opening reception in August 2021, is a painting an emblem of the U.S. Marine Corps: an eagle, globe and anchor in the colors black, white and brown.

"These are a little bit messy because I needed the white to be perfectly white. And then where all of the brown is actually going to be gold leaf," Blake said.

Her father was in the Marines, so she's thinking about him as she works on this one.

You could say it doesn't really look like any of her other paintings but Blake's signature style is kind of that — she doesn't have one.

"If I want to create a rabbit because I was going down a rabbit hole tonight, I'm going to paint 17 of them," she said. "If I like Ruth Bader Ginsburg because she is kind of a dope lady, I'm going to paint her."

Zero Empty Spaces has opened a total of 21 studios for artists over the past two years — mostly in Broward but now Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties have locations, too. There's also a space in Sarasota. Of all the spaces, 12 are currently open and have working artists.

That's actually one more studio than the leaders behind the initiative planned to open in that amount of time — the sixth studio opened in March of 2020.

It goes to show the pandemic didn't hurt the project, and maybe even helped. People have been really craving their own space.

"Just ... you feel like a human. You feel like you're part of society and you're doing something where you can step foot outside of your house and call a space your own," Blake said.

Evan Snow co-founded Zero Empty Spaces with his business partner, Andrew Martineau.

"Artists were really demanding and yearning for the opportunity to get out of the house and create again," Snow said.

In addition to the Zero Empty Spaces initiative to create affordable studio space, Snow also helped start the marketing platform #Choose954 as well the group that puts on the annual Art Fair on the Water.

The $2 per square foot fee artists pay Snow and his business partner goes towards covering the liability, insurance, utilities and things like artist receptions and marketing.

If a more permanent renter does come along for a space — a property manager gives 30 days notice and the artists have to move.

Artists who use the spaces agree it's better to know up front that you might have to up and move — rather than to help make the area more attractive just to get priced out.

"Thankfully, as we continue to open more and more space, we are able to transition artists if and when the space does get leased," Snow said.

And that approach can present some upsides.

"So maybe they take a space here in Hallandale [Beach], but they live in Fort Lauderdale. And then as we open a next Fort Lauderdale space, they're able to be closer to the house — a shorter commute," he said.

And unfortunately — or, fortunately for the artists — there's story after story and a national trend of the pandemic creating more empty storefronts.

"Art has given me more in terms of fulfillment in my life without ever being an artist, without ever picking up a brush, and without ever actually creating art myself. It's changed my life," said Snow. "And I really wanted to have these experiences in a place like Broward County, where I am still proud to be born and raised from."

Caitie Muñoz, formerly Switalski, leads the WLRN Newsroom as Director of Daily News & Original Live Programming. Previously she reported on news and stories concerning quality of life in Broward County and its municipalities for WLRN News.
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