No Still Life: D.C. artists look for new options to work amidst cycle of displacement

Originally published May 2016

On the first night of February this year, Aaron Martin marched his way to the front of the D.C. Zoning and Planning Commission as if it were routine –as customary as filling his thermos with coffee on his way to band practice.

“Do I look familiar?” He asked the commission.

That night was the first of many hearings for Martin and many more paint-splattered, sign-carrying men and women that packed the hearing room beyond capacity to protest the fate of Union Arts, an arts space on New York Ave. set to suffer the same fate as many before it: redevelopment.

But for many crowding the hearing room, the issue is not just this building, but a greater narrative of displacement.

Artists at the D.C. Zoning Commission Hearing voice their opinions on the closing of Union Arts from the crowd. (Photo by Eli Fosl)
Artists at the D.C. Zoning Commission Hearing voice their opinions on the closing of Union Arts from the crowd. (Photo by Eli Fosl)

Over the past year, District artists have more and more begun to distress over a lack of affordable working spaces. The city’s finite boundaries and rising rent prices have led to a pattern of creative workers moving from one place to the next, being unable to secure a long-term space. Though some have tried to create communities within this nomadic framework, others hope the city government will chip in to stop the cycle.

Martin himself was forced out of the DIY venue Gold Leaf Studios in 2012, but now he said when he passes the old Gold Leaf building on bike rides with his daughter, it’s still completely empty. He’s worried the same will happen to Union Arts, and again to whatever place he finds next.

Martin is a veteran of this process. He’s seen many studio spaces come and go. And he’s far from alone in that.

A temporary fix, permanently.

George Koch, President and CEO of the Center for the Creative Economy, has been dealing with the problem of space in the D.C. area for years. He sees the District in a uniquely difficult situation: no large industrial warehouse space and no possibility of expanding the city’s size.

“If I went to Baltimore I could get five times the space I could get here because Baltimore’s had a warehouse district” Koch said. “D.C. has never had that, so we don’t have buildings to recycle.”

Koch has led the establishment of multiple spaces he said are still in the hands of artists such as the Jackson School or the Takoma Metro Arts Center. But for now in D.C. he finds hope in a different plan: something he calls the “incubation method.”

What Koch means is this: though there are many buildings reserved for development in D.C., some of those spaces won’t be developed for years. Koch hopes artists and real estate entrepreneurs can work together to turn these buildings into temporary art spaces.

“As D.C. continues to develop, these opportunities [for the long term] are going to diminish,” Koch said. “But the fact that there’s temporary space isn’t. There will always be temporary space that can be utilized.”

Even in the short time since the announcement of Union Arts’ redevelopment, a few of these incubation spaces have already begun to sprout.

The S&R Foundation, a D.C.-based non-profit, recently announced it would be opening the doors of its Fillmore School building, a recently acquired historic studio building in Georgetown, for artists to use free of charge.

Ten up-and-coming artists whose work demonstrates both skill and attention to social issues will be chosen to join the free program and given six months of free studio space this coming year.

Following in the footsteps of S&R, philanthropic giant The Morris & Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation announced a similar –but much larger– project called Art Place at Fort Totten. This multi-faceted development plan is set to include over 900 apartments as well as 170,000 square feet of cultural and art spaces, as reported by Inside Philanthropy.

Although these projects show promise for a more accessible future for artists –141 of the apartment units in the Fort Totten plans are listed as “affordable”– there are still concerns in the long term.

In terms of space and numbers, the openings for 10 artists at Fillmore school building can’t compete with the closing Union Arts, which served as a space for dozens.

And, most importantly of course, there is always the question of where the artists will go when their six months are up.

In addition, some who work in art spaces have their reservations about private development.

Jack Rasmussen, the director and curator for the Katzen Arts Center museum, has worked to make space for arts in the District since he moved here in 1973. Framed by his bookshelves in his American University office, he said he thinks the city should be stepping in to subsidize the arts, not just private enterprise.

“The question is always who’s gonna pay for it,” Rasmussen said. “The Fillmore School will be a philanthropic endeavor, the Fort Totten project might be a speculative venture by entrepreneurs, but it will be doomed by its own success sooner or later.”

Rasmussen clarified this latter point in an email, saying that the prices in these areas are too high to be self-sustaining, and therefore they must rely on philanthropy: an unstable predicament, he pointed out, because philanthropic interests change.

But for Emily Arden, the potential for artists and real estate entrepreneurs to work together may be the best way for artists to make it work in the area.

In order to find available spaces, Arden worked with her friend and fellow D.C. artist to start ReCreative Spaces, an organization designed to find unused spaces and turn them into creative environments.

But, even for Arden, the preferred end goal would still be a permanent space, because finding cooperative spaces can be difficult.

“A lot of business owners don’t like the idea of having artists in their space,” she said. “For a long time we took what we could get.”

Arden paints a picture of this displacement cycle similar to that emphasized by Martin, Koch and many others. Artists look for an affordable place to be creative, she said, which is often in a lower-income neighborhood. But soon, the neighborhood becomes their community too, and then it isn’t long until developers jump at the opportunity.

“I think we all know intuitively arts and culture is what makes a vibrant neighborhood or city,” Arden said. “A lot of times development follows that, then capitalizes on that.”

Arden said many artists don’t move to a neighborhood in order to make huge financial gains, but to get more space and inspiration to create, so once development begins to increase the prices, they can’t stay.

Searching for state support in the long term

The issue of gentrification in the arts is not confined to the District’s nomadic young artists.

Quique Aviles, who came to D.C. from El Salvador in the 80s and has worked here since, is the youth leader at Gala Hispanic Theatre’s Paso Nuevo Youth Program.

Aviles uses theater and the humanities to teach kids about their own identities, a task he said has become increasingly more important in the face of gentrification.

“You have to be able to use your voice, to speak up, to say what you need to say about your own situation and your own reality,” Aviles urges. “You have to do it with a sense of dignity. We teach the kids that we don’t owe anything to anybody.”

Although Gala has stood overlooking 14th St. for decades, the neighborhood around it has changed drastically over the past few years. Whereas the families that make the Paso Nuevo community used to live walking distance from the theater, they now live far away, in the Northeast or the South. For some parents, it’s too far to continue sending their kids to Gala.

As for the new residents, Aviles said there has been a serious disconnect between them and those who have lived their for years.

“Why move into a cultural neighborhood just to hang out with your own? Because that’s what’s happening,” Aviles said. “You go to bars and restaurants and you see large congregations of just white professionals.”

Aviles, along with many protestors of the Union Arts closure, places a generous portion of blame on D.C. Government.

Even though, Aviles said, it has worked in other places like Brooklyn and Baltimore, the D.C. government has failed to ensure the longevity of the arts by giving insubstantial economic incentives for artists.

“You don’t need to reinvent the wheel,” Aviles explained. “You just have to convince and make a condition for developers that if they’re going to develop certain sections of the city,  certain numbers of that square footage should be reserved for artist working space.”

Rasmussen points to similar examples –Mount Rainier and Maryland neighborhoods specifically– where artists are more likely to work because the state government has encouraged the arts. Whereas in D.C., Rasmussen said there is practically no commensurate encouragement for the arts, thus making long-term affordable arts spaces very difficult to come by.

More financial encouragement may be on the horizon, though.

Last November, Arthur Espinoza was enlisted as the newest director for the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. Siting the space limitations of D.C. of both its borders and its height ordinance, Director Espinoza addressed in an email statement the unique challenge D.C. artists face when looking for affordable space.

This issue, he wrote, is one he plans to see addressed in the city’s first Cultural Plan, which is currently being drafted by the Office of Planning in consultation with the DCCAH and forecasted to be released in early 2017.

“Through our grant programs and professional development opportunities,” Espinoza wrote. “The D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities seeks to ensure that those who are interested in pursuing their passions are supported in a way that allows them to do that for the benefit of District residents.”

Looking forward while looking back

Without the possibility of a long-term space with help from the D.C. government, many facing displacement at Union Arts fear they will lose the sense of community they hold dear.

For Martin, the inevitably loud nature of his art –alto saxophone and freeform jazz– will make the hunt for a new space more difficult, as many places have noise ordinances.

On top of that, the nomadic lifestyle is unappealing to Martin, who is happy to stay where he is with the people he’s surrounded by.

Aaron Martin practicing in his studio. (Photo by Eli Fosl)
Aaron Martin practicing in his Union Arts studio. (Photo by Eli Fosl)

“A whole community vibe will be lost,” he mused to himself, preemptively mourning the walls around him in his small, equipment-filled studio. “Here we are again. I love this place.”

Even for Arden, who works most often in short-term spaces, community can be difficult to uphold. But, she said, they make every attempt to keep community strong even while relocating again and again.

“Whether you’re doing this for three weeks or three years or 30 years, it’s about staying connected with those people afterwards,” Arden said.

Arden added that the key was not only staying in touch, but also being open to new neighborhoods, meeting the people and learning popular places whenever you move into a space in order to add to that community rather than just live there.

Ava LaTanya Hilton hopes artists will be able to hold onto their community as well. Hilton is the interim director for CulturalDC, the arts group working with the developers of the Union Arts building to include a creative element in the building’s new design as an arts hotel.

“There are all types of ways to preserve these cultures,” Hilton said. “It can be preserved regardless of where [the artists] may be.”

Hilton said they have reached out to the artists at Union Arts to include them in the new project in order to retain their goal of creating long-term opportunities for artists.

But Martin said he isn’t interested. Instead, he’ll try to find some new place to practice, whether it’s a new independent studio or a university that will let him practice if, he said, he got on his knees and begged. Either way, he’ll carry on his work.

“You can get in here for 5 bucks! You don’t need money to see a quality performance,” Martin said. “This is going to be hard to replace.”

For now, whether it’s with ReCreative Spaces, at the Fillmore School, at Fort Totten, or in creating a new space, artists leaving Union Arts will have to find a new temporary fix, a bandage for a wound that needs more proper care. That’s the only option, Arden said, at least until they can reach the goal of a long-term opportunity.

“What it’s going to take is artists not only feeling they have a stake in the face of what’s happening, but that they really have a place at the table,” Arden said. “There’s a lot of good intention with setting up these artists spaces, but if artists in the area haven’t been consulted or aren’t part of the process or don’t have access to that space, it’s not actually creating anything helpful.”