Repurposed spaces: the cotton gin factory

A handful of visionary developers are reclaiming forgotten hinterlands, creating arts venues out of disused factories, churches and coal mines. In the second instalment of our three-part series on unusual spaces that are being repurposed for the arts, Claire Ramtuhul meets the property developers who turned a factory into an arts hub

Two creatively-minded real estate developers have built a thriving arts hub in a 19th century cotton gin factory in Atlanta, Georgia. The Goat Farm is an expansive complex housing studio and rehearsal space for artists and performers. Where there was once machinery and an ammunitions production line, exhibitions, performances and rehearsals now fill the renovated venue.

Developers Anthony Harper and Chris Melhouse purchased the factory for USD8m (€5.77) in 2010, after securing a USD10m acquisition and development loan. The pair initially envisaged an entirely conventional rental development, with residential and commercial usage, but soon realised that developing the site into an arts hub, and constructing an artistic environment around the studios and apartments, would make the spaces highly sought after.

The Goat Farm
The Goat Farm

Harper and Melhouse set about renovating the factory’s 12 buildings on the 12-acre site. Whilst the site’s new loft apartments and creative studios would still be rented out, artists would be invited to use the other repurposed spaces (two auditoriums, a dance studio, education and rehearsal spaces) free of charge.

Read: Repurposed spaces: the abandoned church

Revenue generated through apartment rentals is invested in nurturing the work of creatives. Artists wanting to use the venue submit an application for approval by The Goat Farm’s programming committee, the majority of whom are artists and performers themselves. Successful applicants then receive an Arts Investment Package, which covers free use of the space, financial assistance, graphic design, marketing, equipment, and teams to help with programme management, production and aesthetics.

‘We act as a cost reduction mechanism for artists that helps them generate more revenue. The artists also act as our marketing department, which helps The Goat Farm generate its revenue,’ says Harper.

It seems the quality of arts on offer creates so much social media buzz that the team simply doesn’t need to invest in direct marketing. ‘We spend the same marketing budget as we would on traditional projects, but we just invest that budget in presenting public art and performance rather than print ads. We have not advertised residential space for lease in several years, but we run at 0 per cent vacancy rates with roughly 500 on our waiting list.’

‘For us artists are not something to just support, but rather something to invest in that has a strong return on investment. Artists are the best business partners we’ve ever had.’

With an estimated annual turnover of USD1.2m, and more space to refurbish and lease, programming is not limited by what is deemed financially viable. More conventional events like film festivals and art exhibitions run alongside experimental, interdisciplinary events from the fringes of the city’s new arts makers.

The Creatives Project exhibition © Teka Photography
The Creatives Project exhibition © Teka Photography

Recent programming includes Tanz Farm, a season of contemporary dance and performance (featuring discussions and workshops from prolific choreographer Fabien Prioville), the Atlanta Food Swap (a regular event where visitors swap homemade dishes), and a performance by the Georgia Tech Laptop Orchestra and New Music Ensemble (which creates pieces from algorithms and video game themes).

The fact that The Goat Farm’s programming isn’t limited to a particular style or genre is also reflected in the name for the site, which was often referred to locally as ‘that place with the goats’ in the days when much of it was empty.

‘We kept coming up with horrible names that sounded too utopian or too hip or too intentional, so we decided to go with something that was in no way related to art, science or tech,’ says Harper. ‘I think this method allows the name to be timeless…and there also are a few goats to help keep the grass trimmed.’

The Goat Farm
The Goat Farm

For Harper and Melhouse, the artistic underpinning of their for-profit, hybrid business model means they will probably never return to traditional real estate development. ‘Artists are part of our business,’ says Harper. ‘For us artists are not something to just support, but rather something to invest in that has a strong return on investment. Artists are the best business partners we’ve ever had.’