You know a place has struck a chord with people when everyone describes it differently. The Goat Farm Arts Center, a twelve-acre property tucked away on the Westside, is just such a place.
Ask, exactly what is the Goat Farm?, and the responses will be varied, each held with equal conviction: it’s a rehearsal space, live-work artist studios, workshop central, a place to convene, a venue for live indie music, the spot where so-and-so got married and the locale of an emerging supper club. It’s a mélange of faded brick buildings, walls marked with warm patinas, newly built-out studio spaces and continuous green space with a few spirited hens milling about.
Well, yeah – the Goat Farm is all of those things.
In the three years since the 19th century cotton gin was purchased by real estate developers Anthony Harper and Chris Melhouse, the Goat Farm has achieved a level of customer engagement that some businesses spend decades trying to create. That is, people who go to the Goat Farm leave feeling like a part of the Goat Farm belongs to them. Outsiders get connected to something visceral. You feel plugged in. That lasting sentiment is no accident. Harper and Melhouse, through their company Hallister Development, intend that the community will have a far-reaching impact – not just on the people who live, work and play there, but on the entire city of Atlanta. It seems to be working.
Recent “experiences” as they like to call them, have included performances by Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth fame, theater company Saiah’s presentation of Rua Wülf — a macabre, interactive reworking of Little Red Riding Hood, and creative collaborations between resident artists and major brands like Scout Mob and Coca-Cola. Coming up later this month, the up-and-coming New York duo, Silent Drape Runners, will present their inspired re-scoring of David Lynch’s cult hit Twin Peaks on Monday, May 28.
So just how does an organization pull off “art pushing culture” as the Goat Farm’s mission states? What’s the process behind turning an overgrown, aging property into the “Best Visual and Performing Arts Center on the Rise” awarded by Atlanta magazine? Who better to answer that question than Harper himself – co-owner of the property and accidental godfather of art to hundreds of resident creatives. On a sunny, Saturday afternoon in April, with about a hundred color-coded keys in tow, Harper opened up. Here, in his own words, Harper talks about the before, the now and the future of a creative experiment called the Goat Farm.
One Plus One
Before Harper and Melhouse started Hallister Development in 2003, they both followed an indirect path to the world of real estate. Harper was a drummer for 14 years – he initially flunked out of college, then went back and got into investment banking. Melhouse played guitar, then worked in construction. In their band days, both were accustomed to rehearsing in old warehouses. The Goat Farm reminded them of those days.
Harper said he and Melhouse found the property by accident. “We came across the property – we sort of accidentally tripped over it. We’re real estate developers so we’re always out looking for new projects. We originally were looking at it as a redevelopment opportunity. As we walked around the property over about 30 to 60 days, just sort of doing our due diligence and getting a feel for it, we began to come up with a different type of plan.”
The duo began renting the property as artist work studios, but once there were more than 30 artists on site, Harper said they started to realize that the artists needed a place to show their work.
“We had a few musicians at the time, too. We said, we need to have space where these musicians can play. So that led to our first performance venue. We started booking experiences – we call them “experiences” – concerts and exhibitions. Having the business background and not the visual arts background, we looked at the arts in a way that we are familiar with. We are familiar with business methodologies, we’re not familiar with nonprofits. We’re not a gallery. We’re not a nonprofit. We’re a business entity. What we do is we invest in the arts for a return, rather than [act as a] nonprofit that supports the arts.”
It Takes a Theory to Raise a Village
Because Harper and Melhouse were new to the art world, they began studying theories that could give them a structure to follow as they expanded their vision of what the Goat Farm could be. The developers were inspired by theoretical physicist Geoffrey West, who took Kleiber’s law and applied it to cities. Kleiber’s law essentially says that when an organism gets bigger its metabolism rate gets slower (think elephants). But West thought that a city functioned as a kind of organism – its density is the number of people that inhabit it, and its metabolism rate is how the city expends energy (think the number of gas stations per capita or miles of road per person).
West’s research shows that as a city becomes more dense, it also gets smarter. The intellectual capital increases – patent submissions go up, there are more universities, engineers, scientists, musicians and artists. Harper’s and Melhouse’s wheels started rolling about how to apply the theory to The Goat Farm.
Harper explained it like this: “We decided to approach the [Goat Farm] as a small, pseudo city. And most cities are economically driven at their base through population growth, because people are resources. People move to a city and start companies, get jobs, spend money, pay property taxes – people drive the economic machine of the city. But we had to find a way to do that without compromising the quality of the art. If we needed to make money off of the performances, then the performances inherently start to become less and less interesting. If we have to have 2,000 ticket sales every single performance, then you can no longer push the things that are more edgy, that might only have an audience of ten, twenty or a hundred. So we decided to make our venues operate in such a way where we didn’t need to make money off of them. The cash flow comes from the artists – the ones that pay rent.”
Three hundred fifty artists now rent studios and loft apartments at the Goat Farm. Harper says that the space is at 65 percent capacity, and the owners anticipate that by the time the property is finished, they’ll have room for up to 450 to 500 artists in total. Currently, the loft apartments have a waiting list of more than 200 people.
Getting What You Pay For
The Goat Farm takes a generous chunk of revenue and uses it to support artists’ free use of the venues. Harper describes it as an “investment package” that includes significant fininancial assistance, direct funding, production and marketing assistance and space for rehearsals and performances.
“If you’re a contemporary dance group and you want to perform at the Goat Farm, you submit an application,” he said. “We have a small committee that reviews it, and if we think it fits our profile, it gets accepted into this investment cycle.”
The cost to use the space comes out of funds accrued from studio and apartment rentals. There is no cost to the artist. The Goat Farm takes things on a case by case basis, and every event is unique. They have sound engineers and lighting personnel who live on-site, lots of production equipment readily available – in most cases, no need to leave the farm for anything.
“That means you get free space, and all ticket sales go to your organization,” Harper said. “And we basically become your production backbone — sound, lighting, logistics staff. You get to become part of our marketing machine.”
In the creative world, there are generally two camps: those who want to become commercially successful as their main priority – art-that-makes-you-think be damned, and those who think of the art first, regardless of whether their idea it is an economically viable pursuit. In both cases, many artists (and musicians, writers, designers, dancers) tend to fold into the constraints of our cultural conversation — few artsy folk will really “make it.” The Goat Farm finds itself responding to this pervasive outlook and challenging it by helping artists define for themselves what they mean to a community.
The Goat Farm is preparing to announce, Stimulus Diffusion, a career development and education platform. It includes One Love Generation, a youth mentorship program for underserved teens and The Creatives Project, an arts education outreach program and artists residency. Down the road, Harper hints at innovative programming that will serve artists who both want to create their art for arts sake, and those who want to live off of it.
In the meantime, Harper has become a kind of accidental consulting producer. Walking the grounds, photographers ask him his opinion, he comments on set designs in progress. The past three years have been a kind of baptism by fire for Harper. He and Melhouse have been exposed to productions, programming and infrastructures they never thought twice about before. But to hear Harper tell it, he wouldn’t have it any other way.
For more about The Goat Farm and to see a schedule of upcoming events, visit the Facebook page at this link.