The idea was just crazy enough to work: Take two revamped BODO buildings struggling to find tenants in the recession, fill the empty office spaces with a rotating lineup of artists, then watch as the buildings attract the attention of other, paying creative types.
"When the program started, the 8th Street Marketplace had just been renovated but there was an incredible amount of empty spaces," explained Karen Bubb, public arts manager at the Boise City Department of Arts and History. "And over the three years that we've been doing this program, that has really changed; they have been renting more and more spaces."
Some creative tenants who have moved into the 8th Street Marketplace buildings since the start of the AIR program in 2009 include architecture firms like HZ Studio and Think Architecture, Red Sky Public Relations, Renee Vaughn Design Group and NfiniT Gallery.
"Every time I mention it when I'm showing spaces, 'Oh, the landlord is very benevolent to the arts, he loves the arts and we have this program,' everyone's like, 'Oh, that's so cool,'" said Debbie Smith, 8th Street Marketplace property manager.
But in addition to drawing potential tenants to wander through the BODO buildings every month during First Thursday, the AIR program also provides a launching pad for new artists. The residencies--which take place in spaces sprinkled throughout the Mercantile and Northrup buildings and in Renewal Underground--used to be three months long, but have since been extended to six.
"It continues to be a space where artists can gain visibility," said Bubb. "We've had some artists who have applied repeatedly until they've been selected and others who are brand new to the program--brand new to the area--so I feel like it's a place that continues to be a welcoming beacon as an opportunity for artists."
One of those new-to-Boise artists is Abby Christensen, a mixed-media conceptual visual artist who recently graduated from Trinity Christian College in Chicago. Christensen will occupy a room in the Northrup Building starting First Thursday, Oct. 4, and running through March 2013.
"Her work samples were really varied from what looked like a stack of books on a shelf to something that looked like an outline of a layer to library indexes," explained Bubb. "So she does small installations that make you think about human presence."
Christensen plans to continue exploring the idea of the index in her AIR space.
"I'm excited to just dive in and have a space to work. ... Coming from Chicago, I didn't have a studio there so I was working out of my home so that's going to be very exciting and it will allow me to expand my project, which I think will be nice in a new area to be able to work bigger and work more," she said.
Mixed media sculptor and performance artist Tyler James Bush (Northrup Building) is also amped to have more room.
"The biggest pain in the butt as an artist is always having to re-put everything away and then drag it out the next day," said Bush. "So the cool thing about this is, all I have to do is lock the door, and then when I come back the next day, I can pick up right where I left off."
On First Thursday, Oct. 4, Bush will set up a retrospective of his Home on the Strange series, which included a live performance art installation of poker playing deer ladies at Modern Art in 2011 and an exhibit at the Eagle Performing Arts Center. From there, he will move on to new projects, which will include screen-printing, stop motion animation and 3D video projection mapping.
"I'm going to be doing some celebrity silk screening, like Andy Warhol inspired; that will be kind of the next phase," said Bush.
Other new AIR artists include mixed media visual artist Mary Lantz (Mercantile), who creates woven collages from her cut up watercolor paintings; Pam Demo, also a collage artist, who dyes her own paper and assembles it into layered landscapes (Northrup); and fine arts digital printmaker Tuong Anh Ens (Renewal).
But artists and business owners aren't the only ones invested in the AIR program. Boise State's recently created Department of Community and Regional Planning is using the program as a lens through which to examine arts economic development in Boise.
"What we're basically asking with the project that my students are doing is, has it been an effective downtown economic development tool? And if it can be strengthened or improved, then how do we go about doing that in an efficient and sustainable manner?" explained Amanda Johnson, Boise State assistant professor.
The class, State, Regional and Community Economic Development, has three masters students seeking to quantify the impact the program has had on the community as part of a larger arts ecology within Boise and the region.
"It's really this quest to figure out how the AIR program has shaped creative place-making and development in the core while also trying to figure out how local artists make a living as creative professionals, particularly in a time when innovative economies are such a high priority," said Johnson.
"They'll also be analyzing commercial and nonprofit arts industries and occupation in the city as a whole," she added. "We'll also be interviewing the developers that were really visionary in participating and leading this program to get a sense of what their experiences were. And all of this is in partnership with the city."
At this point, the Arts and History department only provides help with administrative support and artist selection for the 8th Street AIR program, but department officials eventually hope to launch a similar program of their own.
"We don't provide any funding for this program, but we're looking in the future--are there opportunities for us to have spaces that the city invests in as an artists in residence space?" Bubb said. "But to make those kinds of policy and financial shifts, we have to have more data, more information about the economic impact of this program."
And that's exactly what they'll have as Boise State's fall semester draws to a close.