In 2004, artist Mark Biletnikoff set up his first studio in a tiny space above The Caterie, a bar, restaurant and music venue near LSU that has since burned down. At that time, there wasn’t much infrastructure supporting the local arts scene.
In the 13 years since that small space has come and gone, Biletnikoff has consistently worked to showcase his art in Baton Rouge. The difficulties of selling art in the capital city are still present, but that hasn’t stopped him from creating a community.
Biletnikoff owns N the Art Space, a 14,000-square-foot studio, workspace and arts education complex in Bocage.
“People kept telling me, ‘You’re never going to get studio spaces to work in that part of town,’ ” Biletnikoff said. “I basically created what I wanted for myself then invited others to join.”
N the Art Space started in Mid City as a house that Biletnikoff leased and converted to spaces for other artists. Soon after opening, he was ready to expand, and he scoured Baton Rouge for a suitable site.
Downtown might have seemed a logical choice. The state Office of Cultural Development in 2008 designated several downtown blocks as the Baton Rouge Arts & Entertainment Cultural District, and there was a lot of talk then about the role the arts would play in the city center’s resurgence.
But downtown real estate was “astronomically expensive,” Biletnikoff said. “Downtown wasn’t as welcoming as I would have thought."
On Jefferson Highway, just south of Towne Center, he found a location with room to grow and an owner who bought into his vision. He leased a 5,000-square-foot building there in 2010 and quickly populated it with 17 artists.
In seven years since opening in its current location, N the Art Space has grown to three buildings, housing more than three dozen tenants ranging in age from mid-20s to late 70s, including part-time artists and full-time professionals. The complex also hosts a yoga studio, an artist-friendly marketing business and arts education classes.
The atmosphere is familial and supportive, Biletnikoff said.
“It’s nice to be able to bounce [ideas] off other artists,” said Elizabeth Martin, a tenant for three years who crafts jewelry for her Firefly brand. “It’s just a good creative environment.”
In 2014, Biletnikoff became founding president of the Bocage Cultural District, which provides a tax break for sales of original artwork. He also encourages sales by holding open house events, so the friends, family and clients of a photographer, for example, might be exposed to the work of an abstract painter.
Early last year, Biletnikoff opened The Biletnikoff Gallery, hoping to add to the limited amount of gallery space available to local artists. But he closed the physical gallery this summer, although the website remains active.
“The brick-and-mortar gallery is slowly disappearing,” in favor of virtual and “pop-up” galleries, he said.
Biletnikoff said further expansion of N the Art Space is possible. His tenants are working on organizing a recurring public arts market.
There are more opportunities for exposure at art hops and art-centric gatherings in Baton Rouge than when Biletnikoff launched his career. But outside of such events, many local artists struggle to find places to display their work.
“One of the most difficult things an artist here in Baton Rouge has to deal with is selling an actual piece of original artwork,” he said. “It’s very, very difficult to find buyers.”
He realizes original art isn’t in everyone’s budget and that many locals still are recovering from last year’s catastrophic flood.
“But if people aren’t buying original artwork, at some point, artists may decide this area isn’t for them and move on,” he said. “You can talk about the importance of the arts, but what can you do to fuel the sustainability of the actual artists?”