Long before the $16.4 million upgrade to downtown Durham’s streets, sidewalks and public spaces, before West Village turned old tobacco warehouses into loft apartments, a lawyer named Dan Ellison bought an old, messy building and put out a welcome mat for artistsand they came. Ellison’s Durham Arts Place building at 305 E. Chapel Hill St. has been going strong for more than 11 years, providing low-cost studio space to painters, photographers, sculptors, paper makers and videographers. People come and go over the years, but the space, like Ellison himself, has been a solid, stable presence.

“It’s actually kind of interesting and rewarding to me to know that a lot of really good artists have had studios in here and I think have grown during their time that they’ve been here,” Ellison says. He believes keeping the space affordable is the key to giving artists that time to work. Downtown Durham Inc., which helps recruit businesses to downtown, estimates office space in the city center district is going for the monthly rate of $12 to $17 per square foot these days. Arts Place rents range from $3.90 to $6.50 per square foot, with most studio spaces going for $150 to $250 per month.

Ellison also runs his solo arts law practice from the building. He mostly deals with copyright and contract issues, advising documentary filmmakers who want to know whether they can use certain archival footage, playwrights who want to collaborate with actors while maintaining clear copyright terms, museums trying to determine whether and how to accept donated works of art. He also gives free public seminars on legal issues and writes a bimonthly column on legal issues for the Southeastern Theater Conference newsletter.

Ellison is mild-mannered above all else. As controversies and internecine battles large and small eruptflame wars on the listserv of the Arts and Business Coalition of Downtown, for exampleEllison maintains a level head and a calm, even demeanor, which perhaps is a secret to his longevity. He’s been a quiet, behind-the-scenes supporter of the city’s arts community for more than 20 years.

“He created something,” says Jim Kellough, one of the earliest tenants of Arts Place, by making an affordable space for artists and encouraging their risk-taking, creative behavior. With Ellison’s support, Kellough launched an exhibition space in his own basement studio called The Modern Museum in 1996. “It’s curious how independent the artists are” in Durham, Kellough says. “They want to have their own world, their own institutions, and Dan’s part of that. He doesn’t direct things. He steps back and lets artists, whoever wants to do something, try.”

Ann Woodward, executive director of the Scrap Exchange, recalls her years as one of the earliest tenants, first with a collective called Artomatic, then with her own sculpture studio. “I was a typical poor artist, had trouble paying my rent and he would sometimes accept sculptures as payment,” she says. “To me, that is really and truly being a patron of the arts: Helping people be creative, being supportive and offering people a space to do that is huge.”

In 2005, a young painter named Andrew Barco launched the Transom Gallery in the second floor hallway space of the building. It quickly became a solid venue in the monthly downtown art walk, and even with Barco’s departure last month for a job in Boston, the exhibition space will continue, Ellison says.

“One of the things that’s been so great about Durham over the years, and I hope this doesn’t change, is that it really is a place that if you want to do something, you can do it,” Ellison says. “I’m not sure that that opportunity exists in lots of other places.”

But if Ellison is a champion of independents, he’s also a believer in institutions. A longtime member of the boards of Durham Arts Council, Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts and the North Carolina Central University Arts Museum, among other groups, he offers his legal knowledge, time and energy to help make those institutions strong and relevant to the artists and public they serve.

“He’s very clearly one of our more loyal and supportive board members,” says NCCU Art Museum director Kenneth Rodgers. Ellison has been a member of the board since its inception, and has contributed artwork from his own personal collection to the museum. Rodgers says Ellison is helping the museum craft a strategy for its future direction, including plans for a new exhibition space. But he stays behind the scenes. “There is absolutely no ego, there is no posturing with Dan,” Rodgers says. “He’s committed to the arts and I think has a genuine love for the arts that’s pretty clear. He goes out of his way to make sure that not only the individual artists are working and have access, but that the City of Durham has a vibrant artistic pulse.”

Roylee Duvall, owner of Through This Lens photography gallery and frame shop, is another Arts Place tenant. He says he’s been surprised by Ellison’s devotion. “If somebody had said, ‘Here’s an attorney who’s involved in the arts,’ I would have thought, OK, he probably collects a little bit and associates with some artists.” But that doesn’t explain Ellison’s constant presence at openings and events, or why he stops into the shop several times a week to chat with Duvall. “Art seems to mean more to him than any other thing.”

After graduating from Duke in the late 1970s, Ellison set up his own darkroom and photography studio downtown, where he managed to lease the entire second floor of a building, about 2,000 square feet of space, for only $25 a month. He invited other artists to start a co-op gallery there called the Art Loft. As he pursued a graduate degree in folklore, then law, at UNC, his work in photography waned. A friend took over the darkroom and Ellison moved to Raleigh to work on historic preservation issues as executive director of the Mordecai Historic Park.

He became interested in museum and arts law issues and was back in Durham within a few years, setting up a solo legal practice in the Snow Building. Soon he decided to start another artists’ space. “It was a way to help and stay involved even though I wasn’t doing artwork very much myself anymore.”

With Downtown Durham Inc.’s help, he found a building at the corner of East Chapel Hill Street and Foster Street that was owned by the city and had once housed the Palms Restaurant. It was a mess. With one confirmed tenant, he bought it for a bargain, and he and his life partner Jim Denney worked to renovate it. By the time the roof, wiring and plumbing were replaced and the cleanup was finished, it was fully leased out.

The recent Durham Rising celebration went on just outside Arts Place’s doorstep. After so many years of pioneering, the space is now situated in the middle of exciting changes for downtown. The longevity of Arts Place has ensured that artists can continue to be part of downtown Durham’s cultural landscape.

“It’s just one of those things that seemed like the right thing to do,” Ellison says, “and in retrospect, it clearly was.”