In a packed room at York's City Hall, Wendy Holmes began with a simple question.
How many people, she asked, are artists?
Dozens of hands shot skyward. Holmes went for the follow-up: Who generates all of his or her income from art?
Three hands crept slowly toward the ceiling, no doubt conscious of the lonely company.
"We need to do more as a society to help artists be able to make a living from their art," Holmes declared.
Enter Artspace, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that has developed artist housing all over the country during the past three decades. Holmes, the group's vice president of consulting and strategic partnerships, visited Wednesday to evaluate York's potential for an Artspace project.
A day that began with tours of empty buildings ended with a public forum that attracted dozens of community artists, developers, philanthropists and city officials. The question-and-answer portion of the forum covered topics as long-term as the group's fundraising strategy, relationships with higher education and smoking policy in apartments.
But, for now, Artspace has agreed to do just one thing for York: Produce a $12,000 market study about York's artist-housing possibilities.
Hoping to capitalize on some building momentum, the city's economic and community development department is hoping that study concludes that York does, in fact, have the potential to join the list of 32 cities where Artspace has left its mark.
That list includes Santa Cruz, Calif., where Artspace transformed a "highly contaminated" former tannery into an eight-acre art center that took 10 years to complete. There, artists waited in line for days to apply for housing, Holmes said.
In Buffalo, N.Y., she said, the group turned an old car factory into 36 units of artist live-work space. In Houston, Texas, Artspace created an art center from a former hospital that had been built on a cemetery - once considered one of the world's most haunted places.
And, in New York City, the group is currently spearheading a project to create 90 units of artist housing from the bones of a former school in East Harlem that had once been slated for demolition.
It's not unusual, Holmes said, for Artspace to take a chance on buildings in rough condition where other developers have tried but failed to make a change.
Because Artspace projects are partially funded with tax credits, the housing is available only to artists who make less than 60 percent of the area's median income, as determined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Residents are also required to pass credit and background checks. A committee of local artists makes the final selections.
"What they're looking for is a commitment to art," said Roy Close, Artspace vice president of special projects.
Once a person moves into an Artspace home, he or she is not required to produce art or continue to meet the income-eligibility criteria, Close said. But, he said, artist communities tend to "self-police" so that productive artists remain, and others leave.
Artspace communities also tend to be diverse in terms of crafts and skill levels, Close said.
"We define 'artist' as liberally as possible," he said.
- Erin James may also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.