If You Build It

Equinox’s special projects division builds the Mighty Schmackammer for the Georgetown Carnival. Photo by Trevor Gauntlett


Equinox Studios Changes the Arts Landscape

Sam Farrazaino is a sculptor who has spent the last 21 years in Seattle building other peoples’ art spaces. And he’s totally cool with that.

“Yes, it would be great to close my door and do my own work, but I’m so happy to be facilitating this,” he says, walking down the middle of a street in Georgetown, flanked by the many buildings of his rapidly expanding Equinox Studios, affectionately dubbed the Creative Industrial Complex. “I’m kind of creating a giant, interactive art piece, right?”

Equinox exudes energy and activity. The studios are currently home to artists working in metal, wood, leather, painting, photography, glass, ceramics and film, plus there’s two music rehearsal spaces, two dance studios, artisan coffee roasters and makers of small-batch ice pops. “I want it to be inclusive of anything and everything,” Farraziano says. “If you’re putting yourself out there with a passion in your work, whatever that work is, that’s art to me.”

Ten years ago, Farrazaino and 10 fellow artists leased and built out a 29,000-square-foot raw space—the original Equinox building, which still anchors the complex. Five years ago, they bought that original building, with an eye toward expansion. Farrazaino had long chatted with the neighboring landlords to let them know: When you’re ready to get out, we’re ready to get in. In the last two years, three of the surrounding buildings came on the market, and Farrazaino decided to jump on them.

“It’s a mix of serendipity, timing, insanity—or guts, depending on your point of view—and also just not really worrying about failing,” Farrazaino says, laughing.

With the help of some socially conscious lenders and a novel financial model (more on that later), Farrazaino acquired those properties. For the last 18 months, he and a small team have been working around the clock to divide the hulking 1940s buildings into space ranging from 200 to 2,000 square-feet—with input from incoming tenants, to make sure they get what they need. When everyone is finally moved in, Equinox will have around 120 artists working in just under 100,000 square feet of studio space, with a waiting list of artists looking for 50,000 more.

“I’ve always wanted [a space], but I’ve never really felt like it was within reach,” says dancer/choreographer/filmmaker Dayna Hanson, who last month moved into the brand-new, 2,000-square-foot home of Base Studios, along with collaborators Dave Proscia and Peggy Piacenza. Sprung-wood floors, a loft, great light—it’s a dream space. And the sense of excitement that pervades Equinox is just as dreamy, Hanson says. At Base Studios, the trio will create their own work and offer four-week residencies, hourly rentals and more. They’re approaching the first year as a great experiment, to see what works best.

They have time to figure that out. “We’re entering this relationship with [Farrazaino] at a remarkably affordable level,” Hanson says. “I don’t see how we could be doing this anywhere in the city.”

The financial intricacies of a project this big are complex. “I didn’t want it to be a burden on tenants in any way, not administratively or financially or anything else,” Farrazaino says. Tenants pay annual rent and, at the end of each year, are issued stock based on what they paid. They’ll vote as a group on what to do with any annual dividends. If tenants leave Equinox, they’ll lose voting rights, but the stock is theirs to keep.

Farrazaino has spent his entire career building communal work spaces—warehouses from Reno to Boston, 619 Western in Pioneer Square (where he was a tenant from 1995 until it closed in 2011) and, later, Inscape Arts. The most common problem, in his experience, is the landlord.

So he wants to be that landlord, partnered with a group of artists who are all dedicated to building something lasting in a city that’s drowning in development and displacement. “When artists ask me, ‘What’s the city doing for us?’ or ‘What are you doing for us?’ I’m like, What are you doing for you?” he says. “You’ve gotta step up and be willing to say, I want to create this.”

To Farrazaino, being an artistic community member isn’t about fighting the things you don’t want, it’s about creating the things you do want. A thriving space with a vacancy rate of zero can serve as a beacon, showing other developers and land-use decision makers the benefit of creative space. Farrazaino, who sits on the Facilities and Economic Development Committee of the Seattle Arts Commission and the Mayor’s Commercial Affordability Advisory Committee, is spreading the gospel of arts and culture as an undeniable economic engine every chance he gets.

“There’s this old story about artists as deadbeats or broke-ass punks, and that story has got to change,” he says. “Artists are some of the hardest-working people I know. They’ll work two jobs to afford their studio here to do what they love, to try to make it. Those are the people I want as partners.”

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