A troubled arts space

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First Friday and Second Saturday events at the Hungerford allow community members to interact with artists. (Building photos by Henry Litsky)

When Jason Ferguson first acquired an artist studio at the Hungerford building around five years ago, it was a dream come true.

“I knew about the Hungerford and the artist community here for years. Before, I’d usually come on holidays when there’s events and you can walk through a workspace and get to know other people in the community,” says Ferguson, who had to be on a waitlist before gaining the studio space.

In particular, First Friday and Second Saturday events at the building have offered a unique connection between artist and audience. Visitors are welcomed into artists’ studios to chat, observe how they create pieces, or purchase art.

Ferguson, who works with ceramic and tattoo art, was able to expand his fourth-story studio room and create a functional classroom space where he can teach pottery. In fact, the building is such a good fit, he also lives in one of the apartments at the Hungerford.

“The Hungerford magic was created only because artists made it their own,” says Adam Eaton, director of the Rochester Arts Collaborative.

That magic, created over decades by the artist community, was shaken last summer when a new owner took over. Rent and other charge increases, requests to move to other rooms in the building, no lease renewal offers—all were reasons given by artists as more and more moved out of the building.

To date, artists estimate, about 25 studios or spaces have been vacated, representing about 20 percent of the building’s listed artist directory.

Peter Hungerford, the new owner, believes these moves out of the building are premature and represent a small portion of tenants. He has said publicly he is committed to supporting and maintaining artist spaces.

Hungerford admits he has made mistakes in the past. Due to disrepair at Hungerford-owned apartment buildings in the 19th Ward, tenants of two buildings went on a rent strike in the summer of 2018. Soon after, the city of Rochester sued him over those violations and thousands of dollars in back payments for water services.

“What I faced as an owner/operator at (the Thurston Road apartment building) does not define me. I made mistakes then, which is why I do things differently now,” Hungerford says. “I did not communicate well with tenants, I wasn’t transparent in my actions. Those mistakes are not being repeated here. I’m not hiding, I’m not running from what’s happening here.”

A sometimes dingy complex of winding corridors and industrial layout, the Hungerford building for over 30 years had a special quality that drew artists to it. Though similar spaces exist in Rochester, the Hungerford has been a key hive for the local creative community.The tenant response to the ownership change has varied.

Some artists are attempting to create a new space like the Hungerford. Others have stayed at the building and are seeking to negotiate change instead.

Ownership change

Like many people during the lockdown period of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hungerford branched out into new hobbies, including family history research. Through that interest, he learned his ancestry traced to the J. Hungerford Smith company, which first used the building to produce fruit syrups and ice cream toppings in the 19th century.

Hungerford says his interest in the building has nothing to do with the name, however.

Peter Hungerford (Photo: PH Realty Capital)

“I am certainly no heir to Hungerford,” he says. “It’s a big, beautiful historical building. I love real estate, especially real estate I can make improvements on. It’s a great location with this brick facade and advertisements.”

Hungerford says he first toured the building, located at the end of North Goodman Street in the EMMA neighborhood, in 2017. A year later, he entered into a contract to buy it from owner Dennis Maguire of Maguire Properties

However, Hungerford says McGuire attempted to back out of the deal due to language concerning a 1031 tax-deferred exchange, which allows real estate investors to defer capital gains taxes by swapping one property for another. Hungerford then filed a suit to force the sale, which ultimately closed in 2022. (Maguire did not respond to a request for comment.)

The building’s previous owner was a very popular figure among tenants because of his openness and availability.

“Everyone just adored Dennis Maguire, which is rare,” says Jay Rowe, a Rochester artist and activist. “He’s a pretty well-known developer who held on to the property for like 30 years and treated all the tenants well.”

Added Ferguson: “If you got the building manager, it was just one guy, so if he couldn’t help you, he’d be like, ‘Call Dennis.’ Then you’d call Dennis, who owns something like 15 or 20 properties in Rochester, and he’d say, ‘That’s a good question, let me get right back to you.’ Then he’d call you back that day and send a crew out to help you.

“With Peter (Hungerford), you have to go to the management, and, I like the people working there, but half the time, they don’t know. It’s not as well put together.”

Building issues

Hungerford disagrees with that characterization of McGuire. He calls the previous property management “irresponsible,” citing as examples parking lot potholes that blow out tires, a roof with leaks in a dozen places, and fire code issues.

According to code enforcement data from the city, as of March, the Hungerford has one open case with two outstanding violations.

“I won’t even get into the elevators,” Hungerford adds. “All these issues were a direct function of (Maguire) putting Band-Aids on problems without addressing the root cause.”

He estimates he has already invested $1 million in the Hungerford building, including exterior video cameras and parking lot repairs, and expects to spend at least $1 million to $2 million more. Hungerford also says a project in the basement, which was mostly used as storage, will further increase the building’s capacity.

Hungerford says these repairs have resulted in rent increase. He also has instituted “common area maintenance” charges, which are new to tenants. CAM charges cover items such as cleaning up trash, shoveling snow, security for the property, or other maintenance. These charges pay for improvements that will make the building safer, Hungerford says.

“I recognize their concern, but I really don’t understand Maguire’s policy here or how they could operate the building without these policies,” he says. “The CAM charges are commercially standard to other buildings like this and we’ve been transparent about how the CAM is being spent, down to the penny.”

However, many artists paying for studios do not see things that way. In March, filmmaker Darien Lamen released a short documentary film, “Where Artists Should Be,” capturing the fear and uncertainty of artists in that moment. The screening was part of an Art Community Conversation, “Art Studios and Real Estate” organized by Rochester Contemporary Art Center (RoCo).

“(Since the ownership change), the feeling in the room is, ‘That feeling of community is gone and we’re not going to get that back.’ Even if you stopped losing tenants and kept the group they have now, it’s not going to come back,” says Rowe. “A lot of people that were really active in promoting the Hungerford, were there for a long time, are gone now. So, coordinating those bigger events is harder, which means people have to do more work promoting and not producing to meet those higher rents.”

“It’s sucking the soul out of the Hungerford,” he says.

Those who have stayed

Amid the changes, some artists chose to remain tenants. Ferguson is a leading member of the Hungerford Tenants Union, the main force organizing on behalf of commercial and residential tenants.

The group began forming even before Hungerford took ownership of the Hungerford, when tenants first heard rumors of a building sale. Ferguson estimates about 20 to 30 active members with biweekly meetings held to review concerns and desired actions for the building.

Jason Ferguson

“Honestly, it first started as a way to commiserate about the changes,” Ferguson says, with people sharing personal stories of how they were impacted. “Then, after you get past that stage where you’re griping about things, we got more serious about collective action and finding a way forward.”

Their main concerns are transparency issues, the rising rent, the variability of CAM charges, and the lack of long-term lease renewal agreements.

The latter two at least have seen some improvement over the recent weeks, Ferguson says. Longer-term leases, rather than month-to-month, have been more common and the option for a fixed-rate CAM charge appears to be an option both sides can agree on.

“It’s reasonable to want to know how much you need to budget for a year. I understand that and can adjust to peoples’ desires when it comes to that,” Hungerford says of the CAM charges.

There is a discrepancy on rent increases, however. Hungerford estimates a 10 percent increase, while tenants say the average figure is closer to 30 percent with some rising even more.

For example, the Rochester Art Club, which formed in 1877 and is one of the oldest continuously active art groups in the United States, left its space at the Hungerford building in March due to a combination of rising rent and CAM charges. Hungerford says he had no conversations with club members before they decided to leave.

“They made up their minds about me before I even did anything,” Hungerford says. “Anyone who says it’s my fault is full of shit. I didn’t give them a penny increase.”

Hungerford also says he has made strides in transparency and communication since 2018, sending out emails regularly to update tenants on upcoming changes.

Some tenants have not found that to be the case.

Metro Justice, the social justice organization Rowe worked with, was asked by the new management team to consider moving out of its space in October 2022 to a different location in the building. Rowe says it felt like they were being forced out of the Hungerford.

“We had a very public office; (it had) carpeting on the floor, everything looked nice and painted. They didn’t have anything close to our size and I think they wanted to stick us in the basement,” Rowe says.

“We responded, saying, ‘This isn’t going to do, we’re a business and we need office space.’ They just never replied to our messages,” he maintains.

Ferguson also says Hungerford has yet to fully appreciate the building and its tenants.

“He probably doesn’t even know how important this building is to the community even though he knows this building is an arts space,” Ferguson says. “I would love for him and his sales team to (come on) a First Friday. He would see what’s going on here. It could show Peter the amount of people that love this place and want to see it get better.”

While he has seen one representative from Hungerford’s company visit during those times, Ferguson says he has yet to see the owner at an open artist event. Hungerford says he has been to a First Friday and enjoyed it.

Still, Ferguson sees reason for optimism for negotiation between the building’s owner and its tenants. He appreciates the security camera upgrades and the positive developments with lease renewals, and hopes they are improvements to build on.

Those who left

Rowe was among the first searching for alternative sites nearly the moment they heard of the impending sale.

“We saw the writing on the wall pretty quickly. Peter Hungerford was kind of blacklisted in the community for years for a lot of the stuff that we over at Metro Justice and a lot of housing rights groups around town (worked to prevent). So we were very familiar with him,” Rowe says. 

“So, it was pretty obvious too that a lot of artists were going to be in need of new space very quickly, which started our search for this,” he continues, gesturing to the empty floor that will eventually become the Rochester Arts & Causes Collective, an artist co-op with space for about 15 different studios.

Jay Rowe

The now-empty building in the Plymouth-Exchange neighborhood sits next to the Refinery, a large, mixed-use complex that once was home to Foodlink before its move to Mt. Reed Blvd. Current tenants of the Refinery include furniture shops, nonprofit organizations, a moving company, and several artist studios.

The second floor will mainly be used by RACC, and the rest of the building will be shared by two other nonprofits: Greenovation, a thrift store and environmental group, and Keeping Our Promise, a refugee resettlement organization. All three organizations opted to relocate after rental increases or disagreements with landlords.

“This is really intended as a place for artists who, without affordable space, can’t otherwise produce their work and maintain their livelihood,” Rowe says.

Getting the studio space up to speed will take time. As members of a co-op, Rowe adds, participating artists will be expected to pitch in to prepare the area. Beyond the normal renovations to a building, options for specialized areas like a potter’s kiln or photographer’s darkroom will add more time to the preparation process.

In addition, an elevator is key, not only for artist equipment, but also to make sure the space is fully accessible. Rowe hopes the space can be functional by this summer, but acknowledges it will take a lot of effort.

When finished, the goal is to preserve some of the culture and magic that originally existed at the Hungerford building. Rowe envisions partnerships with Greenovation where visitors can thrift shop and then visit studios or learn how to upcycle refuse into artistic pieces.

“We want to work alongside the community and add to it. We’re not here to drive up rents or create a cycle of gentrification (in the PLEX neighborhood),” says Rowe.

Thanks to a supportive co-owner in the Refinery area, the organizations in this new building were able to negotiate for favorable lease agreements, with RACC locking into one for 11 years.

Rowe is aware of the potential for the cycle to begin anew if ownership—or the owner’s mind—changes in the future. Artists note that other arts buildings such as Anderson Alley, the Flower City Arts Center, or Writer’s & Books own their physical space and thereby have lasting power.

RACC represents one of the more successful efforts among tenants who left the Hungerford. Many other artists have sought out new studios individually (which they say are hard to find at affordable prices), set up home studios if they are able, or are still without a space for their livelihood.

The bigger picture

Some believe the Hungerford building saga illustrates how Rochester fails to support lower- and middle-tier artists.

“There’s a lot of support for performing arts in the community,” Rowe says, recalling the recent Rochester Broadway Theatre League restoration deal. “After you get past that top level, it’s like falling off a cliff.”

In June 2022, Monroe County Executive Adam Bello announced $500,000 total arts grant funding specifically for midsize arts organizations, or those with annual operating budgets of $100,000 to $1.5 million. The figure represents a 10-fold increase compared to $45,000 offered in fiscal year 2020.

The city of Rochester sets aside 1 percent of every capital infrastructure project’s budget to help fund public art in the area.

However, for those on the ground, it still feels like not enough support is given to artists who fall outside larger organizations. Rowe sees small projects here and there, such as Wall Therapy or other public arts initiatives, but it is not a concerted effort.

Eaton of the Rochester Arts Collaborative points to structural problems, such as the lack of an arts council. He believes connecting youth with the arts can create a drop in criminal activity.

Adam Eaton

“It’s not a coincidence that Rochester has some of the lowest art funding but some of the highest gun violence rates,” he says.

“When we talk about poverty, if you take a kid who’s struggling to keep fed and stay dry, the arts are a fantastic way to escape that. It’s a way to make a career and get yourself out of those cycles of poverty while also sharing your perspective,” adds Rowe. “When we’re looking at things to cut, arts programs are usually the first to go. They should be the last. Because without arts, we lose our ability to imagine.”

The Rochester Artist Collaborative wants to conduct a census of local artists to better understand their needs. Beyond youth development, Eaton says accessible systems for artists are needed.

He supports the concept of giving grant money directly to artists rather than through a nonprofit organization, making rentable equipment available and providing affordable gallery and studio space.

“People love to say how ‘We’re an arts city’ or ‘We love to support our artists.’ But then when artists speak up and say they need something, then it’s ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about,’” says Rowe. “Then it becomes unreasonable.”

Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

3 thoughts on “A troubled arts space

  1. It appears to be all about the money. Sometimes making a profit isn’t enough, greed takes a hold and then at some point those affected by that greed see it for what it is and move out and on. As I get closer to having to leave my personal wealth behind, I question greed. Just how many oriental carpets do you need? Just how big of a bank account are you willing to be satisfied with? There is no trailer hitch on a hearse. I have, over the years, thoroughly enjoyed paying it forward and giving back. At some point the “take” in one’s life ought to be or should become, how can I make things better, give people a break. This story is all about greed, period. That said, sometimes greed bites you in the ass. Some people get that and some buy a trailer hitch.

    • Rochester Artist Collaborative is in need of philanthropic support to continue advocating for and assisting artists in Rochester, NY. We would greatly appreciate your help. Would you be available for a meeting to discuss this further?

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