It's Hard To Make Art Happen

A blog about business and economics.
Feb. 14 2012 12:02 PM

It's Hard To Make Art Happen

I've often enjoyed Hill Country Barbecue near my house but been annoyed and baffled by their insistence on frequently adding annoying live music into the restaurant mix. It turns out that as is often the case with urban retail mysteries, there's a regulatory explanation. Back in an earlier phase of that portion of downtown's gentrification there was, as is often the case, an effort to use the zoning code to specifically encourage "arts" uses of space in the area. And now:

Escalating rents forced many galleries out, notably such longtime commercial galleries as Zenith and Touchstone, which moved north, their spaces usually replaced by eateries. The zoning definitions of “arts” allow broad retail uses. For instance, Hill Country Barbecue — in a building that once housed five galleries — is considered “arts” because it features live music. Such commercial operations as the Museum of Crime &Punishment, the International Spy Museum and the Riot Act comedy club also qualify.

Take this as a reminder that the fundamentals dominate. It's difficult to come up with an adequate regulatory definition of what constitutes a bona fide arts district. But we all know a cluster of art galleries when we see it. And the moral of the story is that while art galleries need proximity to prosperous people to thrive, it's inherently a pretty low-margin enterprise that needs cheap rents. For now, galleries have simply dispersed to lower-rent portions of the city but rents are rising there too. The best way to ensure that galleries and other low-margin enterprises are an economically viable use of space is to try to ensure that retail space is plentiful citywide. d

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.