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CoRK Arts District is located at 2689 Rosselle Street, Jacksonville, Fla.

CoRK Arts District is located at 2689 Rosselle Street, Jacksonville, Fla. Photo: Doug Eng.

CoRK Arts District is Turning a Historic Neighborhood into a Hotbed of Contemporary Art

By Daniel A. Brown

Creativity and community meet at CoRK Arts District. In the past three years, this Jacksonville, Fla., studio and gallery space located on the corner of Rosselle and King streets (thus CoRK) has energized the Northeast Florida arts scene. In early 2011, artist Dolf James was looking for a larger studio space. Real estate developer Mac Easton approached James about the possibility of renting out sections of a 1920s-era warehouse complex as artist studios. “I waited for a long time to actually come and look at this place,” says James. Surrounded by his sculpture work in his current 7,500-square-foot studio space, James admits that he was initially skeptical about moving into the empty and neglected warehouse. “When I finally came down and they opened up the door, it was spooky; this was my vision of what I was looking for in a studio.”

Over the past 80 years, the complex of buildings that is now the headquarters of CoRK has been a home to many businesses, including a lumber planing mill, a wholesale grocer and a furniture factory. It also sat vacant for long stretches of time, attracting more dust and cobwebs than networks of creative visionaries.

Artist Dolf James. Photo: Jensen Hande.

Artist Dolf James. Photo: Jensen Hande.

James has been a longtime participant in community-based art. In the past decade alone, the 58-year-old has been involved with public art projects such as “Art in Strange Places” and the creation of “pop-up galleries” in parks in downtown Jacksonville. In 2010, James and fellow artist Christina Foard created “Imagination Squared,” an open-call project that culminated in a grid composed of 5″ x 5″ paintings featuring the work of more than 900 local artists. The opening reception for “Imagination Squared,” held at the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville (MOCA Jax), drew a record crowd of more than 5,000 people. While James is reluctant to take credit for his role as the de facto leader of CoRK (”by default,” he says), his credibility and ability to gather artists together was certainly a factor in CoRK’s immediate success. In a matter of weeks, eight artists had rented spaces in the warehouse. “Then we went to the next section [of the building], drew out some plans and before it was done, all of those were rented as well.” Seeing this overwhelming response, Easton’s company made plans to buy the building; those additional spaces were rented out before the purchase was even finalized.

CoRK Art District installations

CoRK Art District installations. Photo: Doug Eng

Fast-forward to present day and CoRK is now home to 60 artists in a network of three buildings that collectively create a 100,000-square-foot complex of working studios and three separate galleries totaling more than 15,000 square feet of gallery space. And CoRK is still growing. The biggest problem now is meeting the demand of artists wanting to rent a space. The studios range in size from roughly 150 to 2,400 square feet with an average monthly rent of $300-$400. “One artist asked who you had to murder to get a space!” James laughs. He explains that what CoRK really provides is four walls and a ceiling, air conditioning and the complete freedom for the tenants to make art. “The really basic core idea of CoRK is to provide serious working studio space for artists free from outside distractions.” While the artists at CoRK work in every imaginable form of visually based media, it is also home to those exploring non-visual arts. “In this experience, we found out that the art community in Jacksonville was far greater than we even realized.” Along with notable visual artists like celebrated naturalist painter Jim Draper and multimedia artist Jeff Whipple, the CoRK roster also includes playwright Jennifer Chase, and spoken-word artist and NPR-radio host Al Letson, in addition to other writers and filmmakers. “The cross-pollination between a photographer and a painter or a printer and so forth goes on all the time.” James explains.

CoRK Art District installations

CoRK Art District installations. Photo: Doug Eng

Key to CoRK’s success has been its effectiveness in providing a focal point for the arts in Jacksonville. The Northeast Florida city boasts a population of a million-plus people and is the second largest city by area in the contiguous United States. Yet, Jacksonville is also spread out into distinct neighborhoods that can suffer from an almost provincial mentality. A half-hour drive is common to simply visit a shopping mall, let alone a gallery opening. In a few short years, CoRK has succeeded not only in centralizing the art scene by uniting the community of artists, but also in hosting events that have been well-received by art lovers and the curious public alike. “The attendance we have at shows is big. It’s not unusual for a single show to attract 700 to 800 people and there have been times when we’ve had over 1,000.” CoRK also hosts events by outside artists and cultural entities. “We thought that it would be a good idea to allow other people to buy the wine and cheese,” James laughs, explaining that with a simple application process CoRK’s gallery spaces can be rented out for various happenings. “They do the promotion, they get a different crowd to come, and the artist has the right to be here and have their studios open; which, most of the time, is the very reason the person wants to have their event here to begin with.” The Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville, The Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens, and MOCA Jax have all hosted successful events at CoRK. Smaller events ranging from performance art, theatrical productions, workshops, and even yoga classes have been equally well-received.

CoRK Art District studios and working spaces.

CoRK Art District studios and working spaces. Photo: Doug Eng.

CoRK also features an artist-in-residence program that focuses on visiting emerging artists. They are provided with a large studio space for two to six weeks, a weekly stipend and money for materials. Their stay culminates in a show in one of the galleries. Past participants have included installation artist Rachel Rossin and the multimedia work of Casey James. “The idea was to create a dialogue between our art community and other communities. So we bring them down here so that we can find out more from them about what is going on out there; they can learn about us and we can create even more relationships that sustain.”

Artist Jim Draper. Photo: Staci Bu Shea.

Artist Jim Draper. Photo: Staci Bu Shea.

While CoRK has been an undoubted success in fostering unity and activity in the Northeast Florida visual arts scene, James is humble about those accomplishments. “I don’t by any means want people to think that this is the art scene of Jacksonville. We’re doing the best we can to promote the greater scene.” In that regard, CoRK Arts District has succeeded, turning a crossroads of an older neighborhood into a springboard of new and innovative ideas. “We’ve gotten together 60 of the most creative people in the city and now people can have access to them and focus on that. And I think that brings attention to the larger community as a whole.”

CoRK Arts District is located at 2689 Rosselle Street, Jacksonville, Fla., 32204. While CoRK features regular gallery openings and events, it is primarily a studio space for working artists and closed to the general public. For a schedule of upcoming events or to make an appointment to visit an artist, check out http://corkartsdistrict.tumblr.com/ or contact corkdistrictevents@gmail.com.

Daniel A. Brown is a musician and freelance writer currently living in Jacksonville Beach, Fla. A onetime bassist for Royal Trux and ‘68 Comeback, Brown is also a former arts and entertainment editor for Folio Weekly.