At Auf AEG in Nuremberg, Germany, abandoned factory space has become gallery space that visitors enjoyed during an open house in September.

Manufacturers are often heralded as the economic saviors of the cities where they put factories, but the bigger the initial investment, the bigger the hole in the community if they’re forced to pack up and leave. 

In recent years, companies dealing with the price and productivity pressures of an integrated global economy have found themselves moving across the world in search of cheaper labor and facilities. Often that has meant the decimation of communities built around industries that have been outsourced or outmoded. 

Cities are left with the problem of what to do with the ghosts of factories past: large, often-rundown structures with little potential to be used for their original purposes again. 

Atlanta‘s sister city, NurembergGermany, has found a solution that mixes economic vitality with aesthetic appeal: turning these buildings into cheap space to be rented out to local artists. 

The effort started in 2007, when Electrolux took the option of cheaper labor in Poland, closing its Nuremberg AEG home-appliance factory and leaving behind about 1.8 million square feet of empty factory space.

MIB Funfte Investitionsgesellschaft mbH, a joint venture between property companies MIB AG and Ireland‘s CMC, bought the property and converted the industrial area into usable space, creating the Auf AEG project. Their goal was to use cheap rent to lure nvestors and tenants back to the area. With funding from Nuremberg’s department of culture and leisure, as well as Second Chance, an EU development fund that strives to adapt buildings “from industrial use to creative impulse,” the Zentrifuge e.V. project was born within the Auf AEG. 

Zentrifuge hopes to “bridge the space in between culture and economy,” explained curator and coordinator Michael Schels, who believes that where art starts, business will follow. The project started with the huge converted space of Hall 14, which has already seen more than 20 exhibitions from 200-plus artists. Following that, converted space was made readily available to a variety of artists, startup companies, creative communities, think tanks, and more, with rent that equals about 41 cents per square foot per month, about half the cost of similar space nearby. Auf AEG has since become a keystone in Nuremberg’s creative scene, attracting visitors, ideas and companies to a once-decimated area. 

Atlanta has been showing a similar penchant for artistic regeneration, luring the creative classes to impoverished areas with tempting rental rates in disused buildings. 

One example is the sprawling 12-acre complex of 19th-century cotton gin ruins known as the Goat Farm Arts Center on the burgeoning west side of Midtown. Owners Hallister Development have been helping the artist community make a name for itself, attracting tenants including restaurants and a dance studio. Their performance spaces have been used by the likes of indie rocker Thurston Moore and Atlanta dance company gloATL

Hallister Development’s Anthony Harper stresses that the Goat Farm is not a charity, even if the rent is a flat monthly rate of $1.30 per square foot. Instead, the development invests in artists whose work they have chosen to exhibit, be it theater, dance, sculpture or anything else, by providing them with space, equipment and marketing for free. 

“The venue process is like a granting procedure,” Mr. Harper said. “We invest into (the artists), and it becomes a fund-raising mechanism for them. But it’s part of our business model. It helps us lease space. The result is still giving us a return on investment, because it’s helping keep our spaces leased.”

Like Nuremberg, Atlanta’s French sister city has also picked up on the trend. Last year, during a trip to shore up cultural ties with Toulouse, France, Atlanta Cultural Affairs Director Camille Love visited warehouses on the outskirts of the city where performing artists are provided subsidized space. Later in the year, graffiti artists and dancers came to Atlanta to participate with gloATL in the cultural component of the third annual France-Atlanta program. 

Even cities outside the metro area are seeing the value of art for regeneration. Macon‘s long-running Contemporary Art Exchange offers artists space downtown for $10 per month. In the early 1990s, developer Tony Long Sr. bought up a pre-Civil War building downtown and decided affordable studio space was what downtown needed. 

“Almost every community in the U.S. that brought their downtowns back had a cultural element,” Mr. Long said. “Artists have been in every situation where downtowns started to have a regrowth.”

That fact is not lost on economic developers in Macon, a city with rich musical heritage that was home to the Georgia Music Hall of Fame until it closed in 2011. 

“In Macon, we have an ever growing creative scene – and that has a lot to do with the efforts of the Contemporary Arts Exchange and other arts groups who are reminding us that arts are a value-added commodity in a community,” says Alex Morrison, executive director of the Macon-Bibb County Urban Development Authority. “We are actively trying to promote Macon as an arts and entertainment destination, but also a place for arts and social entrepreneurship, which providing incentives and shared spaces is a big part of. We are trying to grow more ‘incubators’ of this type in our community right now so that we can retain our best and brightest young talents.”

Artist and tenant Eric O’Dell believes that the space gives artists the right mixture of independence and inspiration. 

“Artists and studios do equal energy, and that energy needs to be fueled by having space and the artist’s need to do some work. Then, we share,” says Mr. O’Dell, who teaches art at Macon State College

Writer Leila Regan-Porter traveled to Nuremberg for two weeks in 2012 as part of the Hermann Kesten Grant, a City of Nuremberg program which pays for writers and journalists from Nuremberg’s 14 twin cities to experience its economy and culture. The 2012 theme was focused on “A Year of Art” to coincide with the 350th anniversary of the Nuremberg Academy of Fine Arts. Global Atlanta editor Trevor Williams was the grantee in 2010, when it focused on how cities remember their histories and restore their reputations.

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...