Design 9-1-2005

The Tilsner: Responsibilities, Benefits, and a Whole Lot of Light

Amanda Vail writes the first in an occasional series of profiles of artists' spaces: The Tilsner Cooperative, an Artspace project in St. Paul.

the Tilsner

The Tilsner Artists’ Cooperative shines a lovely brick-red in the summer sunlight; in spring and autumn it proves equally attractive to the crowds of people attending the Art Crawl. The building is a converted warehouse with a history dating back to the early 1900’s; thinking of the lives that have passed by and through the building on its corner of Broadway and Kellogg is humbling. Historical imaginings aside, the reconstructed space of the building gives one pause, especially the atrium that runs through the building from the basement to the roof. Massive exposed wooden beams precisely gird the space, expanding the perceived size of the atrium. Standing in the couch-infested meeting area in the basement of the building, looking up and out the skylights seven floors up, it is easy to fall in love.

This is especially true during the energy of the Art Crawl, where one is greeted at the doors by not only a throng of the public but by smiling artists handing out maps of the building and information on the cooperative. There are always a handful of people in each open studio, some taking a quick glance around at the walls, the artwork and the artists before moving on, some lingering over a painting on the wall or a piece of sculpture in the corner. Still others enjoy a drink with the artists, chatting about anything under the sun, but usually about art in one form or another. Some of these apartment-studios have a full-fledged party going on, spilling music, laughter and occasional odd lighting into the hallway.

While much of this is true for many buildings on any given Art Crawl, few of them make as much of an impact as the Tilsner. Not only are the people friendly, but the space is as well. We visited the atrium; also, the halls are open, nicely lit, and clean (very important). It is not a maze, as so many older warehouses tend to be, but a straightforward series of floors centered on the atrium.

The studios look large and airy thanks to the huge windows and high ceilings. Exposed brickwork and beams and wooden floors add character and history. The floor plans show variety and flexibility, ranging from one-bedroom flats to two-bedroom units with room for a third in the loft. Artists being who they are, each studio has its own current flavor: funky carpets and hangings, decorations scrounged from the Ax-Man surplus store, brightly painted walls, hammocks and swings suspended from the open beams… almost anything goes. The views are nothing to sneeze at, either. Looking south, the Mississippi gleams an apparent stone’s throw away, and to the east the bluffs near Mounds Boulevard stretch green against the sky. Even the northern and western views aren’t bad, looking out upon other historical buildings and the farmers’ market just down the block.

But space isn’t everything, however. One of the largest aspects of living in a cooperative is, of course, the community. When Artspace Projects was breathing new life into the building, they didn’t ignore spaces that would encourage a cooperative identity; there are several large areas for common use and a playroom for the children of the families that live there. Over the years, I’ve talked with a number of artists from the Tilsner; recently I spoke with David Wyrick, Rurik, and Jeff Sherman, past and present residents of the Tilsner who have all, it turns out, held the office of president of the cooperative at one time or another.

It seems that said community is both boon and bane of living in the building. As everyone was quick to point out, living in such close quarters can be enormously beneficial. Aside from being able to “feel integrated [into the community] even as a mildly social person,” as Sherman put it, collaborative projects and meaningful arts connections emerge as some major benefits. There are also, of course, the parties, barbeques, beer tastings, and other fun events that residents decide to throw for themselves and their neighbors. Wyrick, despite having moved out a number of years ago, is still in contact with many of the people he used to live with and in fact visits the building, and his friends, on a regular basis. Over the years, of course, many people have passed through the rooms of the Tilsner; its community still operates in and through the art scene in the world outside of the building.

On the other hand, there’s what Rurik referred to as “Tilsner 90210:” the inevitable drama that occurs among a group of people required to work and live together. Wyrick lists this as one of the reasons he left after living there for four years, in addition to the fact that, as lovely as the studios are, it’s hard for a sculptor to keep them as neat as management would like. Sherman, as current president, grimaced only a bit when our conversation took its turn toward the subject; for him, it seemed, balancing the different wants and needs of the residents, and the disagreements that arise, is just part of the package.

It remains true, though, that all need to do their part, be flexible, and be willing to discuss things. “No ‘prima donnas,’” says Rurik, laughing but serious. Participation (about five to ten hours per month) within the community is mandatory and, although some do escape into their hidey-hole apartments, never to be seen again, Sherman insists that the board is becoming more strict about this policy. There are many tasks to choose from; one need not mediate disputes or be president if that’s not suitable. General maintenance, gardening, fund raising, and event planning are just a few of the duties up for grabs.

Rurik stresses the importance of this participation because, without it, the building is not truly a cooperative – legally, that is. As a lease-hold cooperative, the Tilsner gets property tax breaks that allow the rent to be lower than it normally would – one of the perks of living there; without sufficient resident participation, Artspace could theoretically shut down the cooperative and this benefit, along with others, would go out the window.

Due to this cooperative status, getting into the Tilsner does require a bit more rigmarole than your average apartment building. There are income guidelines that, upon entry into the cooperative, one cannot be above or below. In addition to the usual application fee and form, there is an interview with a selection panel. One must attest to a willingness to participate within the cooperative as well as demonstrate that one is indeed an artist. In general, this proves to be no big deal; I imagine the threat of these measures, as well as the 15-page application form, keeps most of the half-hearted crowd at bay. Those that do succeed, said Sherman, show a keen interest and take the process seriously, as if they were applying for a job. The procedure has also become much easier since these forms have been available on the Tilsner website,, which is actually a wonderful resource. News about the cooperative and its artists, upcoming events, the building itself, and the forms with informational legal mumbo-jumbo are all readily accessible.

In return for the work required to get into and continue living at the Tilsner, the cooperative provides a number of advantages over a standard apartment or studio. Lower rent has already been mentioned, although it is not, perhaps, as low as one might like. But being able to live and work in the same place can save quite a bit of money – paying on two locations is an often necessary but hard-to-afford part of being a working artist. Sadly, many homes do not have the right spaces for the creation of art and many studios are simply not livable. The rentals at the Tilsner manage to do both, although, as Wyrick pointed out, not for every type of artist.

Another ostensible advantage is that each resident has the opportunity to participate in negotiations and decisions that would directly affect the quality of life in the building, as, for example, choosing a management company. Wyrick, however, felt these promises to be rather hollow. As one of the first residents of the building, he also participated in early panel discussions on the renovation of the Tilsner. Upon moving in, however, he was disappointed to find that few, if any, of the suggestions made by the future residents were implemented – for example, the floors are actually made of a soft wood, instead of the hard wood he expected. Sherman, however, didn’t seem to feel Wyrick’s level of disappointment; he simply shrugged, as if to say things are as they are and they’re workable.

The Tilsner may not be everything that, in an ideal world, it could be, but it’s a great effort. The cooperative system, however effective or ineffective, places a measure of power into the hands of the residents for them to do with as they wish. The more ambition and drive a person possesses the more that can be done within the cooperative in both a managerial and a communal sense. As in everything, you reap what you sow. For some, what’s growing at the Tilsner is exactly to their taste. Rurik sums it up: “It’s not just another rental. There are frightening responsibilities, but there are great benefits, too.”