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.
If it works as it's intended to do, everybody wins with the arrangement: Artists get affordable studios and property owners are looking for people who can make a space beautiful, attract new renters, and keep people walking along Las Olas Boulevard.
Artist Rosanna Kalis recently set up a new studio space in the front corner of 914 E. Las Olas Blvd.
"The No. 1 thing that every artist craves but can't necessarily get is natural light," she said. "So these windows just really touched me. As soon as I came in, I set my easel up right next to the window."
Kalis is the first artist to join Zero Empty Spaces and rent 300 square feet in a storefront that had been sitting unoccupied for mroe than three months. Previously, the store housed The New River Fine Art Gallery, which moved last November to a different space on the boulevard for a number of reasons, including traffic flow, renovations and cheaper rent.
Kalis didn't take long to make the space her own. Just days after moving in, she was already customizing some fabric for a friend who's a fashion designer.
"I prefer to do large-scale acrylic paintings. I think the overall umbrella [of her art] would be abstract expressionism," Kalis said. "I also do a lot of sort of free-style, free-hand, paint marker, sharpie drawing ... very stream of consciousness."
She's loved to create art ever since she was a child in Washington, D.C.
Comic books and street art are some of the styles that inspire her.
"I grew up in a very traditional Korean household, which is part of the reason why I wasn't quite encouraged to be an artist on day one," Kalis said. "We had really elegant Korean calligraphy and traditional paintings around the house, and so those would be a lot of my influences."
Kalis moved to Fort Lauderdale, her husband's hometown, nearly 10 years ago. She worked in finance and commercial real estate until about a year ago, when she decided to make her art full-time.
At first, she tried painting and drawing from home, but then realized she needed to look for a separate space that could be dedicated to her work.
"I tend to take over the space and stain walls and carpet. ... So, my husband is really upset with that sometimes. So I'm so thankful to have a space with some freedom that I can do my thing in," she said.
Kalis is not paying market value for the space on Las Olas Blvd. As part of the Zero Empty Spaces initiative, she rents her section of the storefront for $2 per square foot — $600 a month.
The price for rent each month is cheap for the high-end tourist area. Yet, when you leave a corporate career, it’s still a considerable amount.
"It's a huge risk," Kalis said. "I am personally investing my savings to be in this space, so hopefully things will take off."
Evan Snow, co-founder for the marketing and consulting group called #Choose954, hopes Kalis's art business and the idea behind Zero Empty Spaces will take off, too. He's one of the people that started it.
"We use art as a problem solver," he said. "There is a shortage of safe, affordable artist studio spaces, but there is no shortage of vacant commercial real estate."
To bring people to the store to see what Kalis — and the other artists moving in — have been working on, Snow and #Choose954 are holding a grand opening on Thursday night Aug. 1.
Yet, there is a chance that Kalis — and other artists renting from Zero Empty Spaces — will have to pick up and move again.
Part of the deal with the property owners is that if a business comes along and wants to pay market rate for the storefront, they will get priority over the artists. However, if that happens, the Zero Empty Spaces team will move the artists to the next available storefront in the program.
"I hope I can be here for more than just a couple of months, obviously," Kalis said.
Snow sees Zero Empty Spaces as a way to mitigate gentrification of spaces and stop the process in which artists come into an area, make it attractive and then get priced out.
"Part of the bigger picture is if we can establish Broward County as a destination where artists can live and work ... they shouldn't have to go other places. They should be able to do it where they live," Snow said.
Leases for artists on the Zero Empty Spaces program are set on a month-to-month basis. For artists with fluctuating sales, Snow feels that's a good thing. And, Kalis said she appreciates the transparency.
"Obviously we'll see how this goes but, from the outset, I think there is an opportunity for artists and landlords basically to figure out a way to coexist," Kalis said.
She also said the opportunity to work with other artists in a highly-walkable area of Fort Lauderdale is worth the risks.
"It's a dream space on Las Olas," she said. "You know, honestly, I didn't have any sort of real hesitation about it — because I'm like, 'Are you kidding me? It sounds wonderful.'"
Since Kalis moved in, a couple of other artists have set up studios in the same space, just a different section of 300 square feet. Now it’s even less of an empty storefront.
Kalis hopes people will walk by her easel at that big window — all day long. And she hopes she can stay as long as possible.
"If it turns out to be six months to a year ... and I have the opportunity to create something amazing and also engage with people in the community — I mean, that's priceless," she said.