Eight months ago, Julia Woli Scott was on an artistic high: The painter was one of the stars of the acclaimed "Breakthrough" exhibition at the Fresno Art Museum highlighting promising younger artists; and she was gearing up to complete her master of arts graduate exhibition at Fresno State.
Yet she wondered if she wanted to live in the city as a professional artist after graduation. She thought about leaving Fresno to pursue greener artistic pastures.
That was before Scott and her partner, conceptual artist Christina Rea, got involved with the M Street Arts Complex downtown.
When the impressive facility at M and Tuolumne streets opens its doors with a celebration and reception Saturday, it will provide a major jolt to a downtown arts scene already showing impressive signs of expansion in terms of gallery and studio spaces. The first phase of the renovated building, a project of the GV Urban division of Granville Homes, boasts 10,000 square feet of new options for artists. Included is a large storefront gallery, five galleries with attached private studios, seven studios of various sizes and three warehouse-style spaces with roll-up doors.
If all goes as planned, there's more to come: In a partnership that will greatly expand Fresno State's presence downtown, the university's College of Arts and Humanities wants to lease 6,000 square feet, or about half the 12,000 square feet in the project's undeveloped next phase, to provide 16 studios for painting and multimedia graduate art students along with other facilities.
"We hope to use the space to have a presence downtown," said Vida Samiian, the college's dean. "I'm very committed to that. We're working on it, but we don't yet have an agreement."
Fresno State's art department has a critical lack of studio spaces for students. Samiian estimates the yearly cost for the university for the M Street space at about $120,000 a year, half of which would be picked up by the college. The rest will need to come from fundraising, with hopes that donors will "sponsor" individual studios at $3,000 annually.
If you go: M Street Arts Complex grand opening, 3-6 p.m. Saturday, 1419 M St. mstreetarts.com, (559) 438-8200. An artists' reception for "Spectacle: A Closer Look at Fresno" will be held 7-9 p.m.
The M Street complex joins other prominent gallery and studio spaces in the downtown area. The major players on that list are 1821 Calaveras Gallery & Studios, which opened in 2012 and features five artist studio spaces; Broadway Studios, which opened in 2005 with space for 25 artists; and the Chris Sorensen Studio, which opened 23 years ago, slowly expanding over the years to about 40 studios and galleries.
The M Street building represents a $2 million investment for Granville, including $1 million for the renovation, said president Darius Assemi. Years before Granville purchased the empty building, it housed an auto parts store and a print shop.
Rents range from $300 to $1,500 monthly. Seven of the spaces, or 45% of the space, have been rented.
"We think at full build-out this will become an attraction and a key part to revitalizing downtown," Assemi said.
Scott and Rea got involved in the project earlier this year after meeting Darius at the art museum's "Breakthrough" show. As working artists, they had plenty of ideas of what an upscale studio complex should include. Assemi asked them to join the project as volunteer "project curators," offering advice on floor plans, design decisions and collective amenities.
They also curated the complex's opening exhibition, "Spectacle: A Closer Look at Fresno," which features 13 local artists.
In exchange for their work on the project, Scott and Rea got first pick of the available spaces, rent-free for a year.
"It's been a labor of love for us, and I know that's the same for Granville," Scott says.
In many ways, her new gallery and studio space is a dream place for Scott to paint. With such amenities as air conditioning, gated parking and a staff person on site who can greet customers during business hours, the complex is positioning itself as a higher-end option for artists who value privacy, comfort and security but who want to remain part of a vibrant community.
Rents run higher at the complex compared to, say, the Sorensen studios, where they range from $65-$150 a month.
Still, there's demand for artist spaces downtown -- likely in all price ranges, said Kerby C. Smith, artist liaison at Sorensen. The waiting list for the studio is usually between 15 and 20 people, with waits up to a year for available space.
"The concept of having more galleries and studio spaces for artists is a win-win for all of us if we can identify Fresno as a place where art is important," Smith says. "I see it as making the entire arts community in Fresno more vibrant."
See a video tour with Julia Woli Scott at FresnoBeehive.com.
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6373, email@example.com and @donaldbeearts on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.