If you put enough talented, creative people together in a small space, chances are great ideas will blossom, eventually leading to economic opportunities.
This is the idea that real estate developers Anthony Harper and Chris Melhouse envisioned for a 19th-century cotton gin factory sitting on 12 acres of land outside downtown Atlanta.
Harper, an ex-investment banker, was inspired by physicist Geoffrey West's population density theories, which attribute population density as the secret to exchanging ideas. Harper had the idea of transforming the abandoned space into a model for arts and culture real estate development. He tells us that the brick buildings detailed with arched windows and doors reminded him of his former musician life when he performed in warehouses with bands.
"We thought a dense environment of creatives and arts programming would be a way to explore West-type theories," Harper says. "If we could attract artists and small creative businesses to the property, we wondered if our strategies could create a pseudo-city."
Since its inception in 2008, The Goat Farm Arts Center , a for-profit arts incubator located in West Midtown Atlanta, has become one of the most densely packed group of artists in the nation, with more than 450 artists and and more than 100 programs held annually.
How it works
All performances and exhibitions are chosen by a review board which is comprised of five people, including Harper and Melhouse.
It's a selective process with only about 10 events making it through the review board each month. If chosen, artists receive assistance for putting on a performance in the form of financial investments called the AIP (Arts Investment Package). Harper says about $150,000 is invested annually in AIPs, which includes direct funding, financial assistance and venue, marketing, management, logistics and aesthetics support that may be provided to performers.
This is all funded by rent received from the Goat Farm's residents, which ranges from $350 to $5,000 monthly depending on the space. However, artists aren't required to live at the Farm to use the venue for performances.
"The word 'investment' is key for us. We want [artists] to have a different mindset," says Harper. "We don't want them to think they're getting donations for free, because we actually do see a strong ROI in the money we invest in artists and performers."
Furthermore, Harper tells us that the Goat Farm also saves money on traditional marketing and advertising from the attention performers often attract from the local media.
"We don't spend our marketing budget on traditional ads...we spend it on presenting cutting edge artists and performers in our venues. This generates accolades, articles, radio interviews, social media chatter, buzz and word of mouth about the artists themselves, which creates a more robust marketing machine than traditional advertising without increasing our marketing budget."
So far, the model seems to be working. The Goat Farm operates at a zero percent vacancy rate with a recurring waiting list.
Life at the Farm
A "typical" day at the Farm is not so typical, says Andrew Tate, a native Atlantan who previously lived at the Farm. He currently works on the Special Projects Team, supporting the many diverse events and performances throughout the year.
"There are always new projects hatching, wrapping up, artists visiting from out of town and that's part of what makes it great. You can probably expect to be woken by roosters and put to sleep by the rumble and squeak of trains passing by — but everything in the middle is anyone's guess."
In a state where per capita arts spending ranks 48th in the nation , it's an unlikely place to witness an arts revival. But Tate says the results from the Farm thus far proves that the struggling art scene has a chance in Atlanta.
"We're just one developer of one property, but we're trying to show that the arts have more than just entertainment value," says Harper. "For us, artists are part of our mechanics. They're part of our business model. At the Goat Farm, they drive our business, they drive our revenue. Without the arts and cultural programming, without them, the business does not work."
Tate, now 27 and a matriculating law student, agrees that the Goat Farm is providing opportunities for artists to try things they couldn't normally afford given the city's limited grant money and philanthropic funding.
"It is a place to grow ideas. Collaboration and innovation need a degree of chaos to come about, and the random collisions of so many artists, engineers, entrepreneurs, and change-makers of all sorts foster an energy of possibility that has always been possible in Atlanta , but needed a place to regenerate itself," he says.
"The Goat Farm is a magnetic campus for the creative spirit."
And Harper is planning on expanding. He tells us the Goat Farm is currently developing another location called Erikson Clock that will focus on the co-mingling of artists with scientists and engineers. Harper is working with Mass Collective, a creative organization comprised of artists, musicians, and scientists, on Erikson Clock, which he hopes will continue the transformation of the South's art scene.
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