Much Dithering at the Building Museum and O Street Studios About Artist Spaces
Last week, I wrote a City Lights pick about a panel being hosted by the National Building Museum to discuss artist and DIY spaces in D.C. I pegged it to the closing of Subterranean A, one of the city’s best-loved DIY spaces.
In retrospect, this was a mistake.
I’ve been to panels at the Building Museum before; this one was part of a long-running lecture series called D.C. Builds. D.C. Builds lectures aren’t supposed to solve problems, to my understanding: They’re supposed to explain to people (like Building Museum members) facets of D.C. they probably don’t know about. Yes, this is boilerplate. Yes, D.C. Builds lectures cost $20 ($12 for members or students with ID). Yes, the series makes “experts” talk about stuff that might be better discussed by the people in the thick of the things that expertise is built on.
It’s also a Building Museum event. It’s supposed to be useful in a look-at-this-thing-here way, not in an activist-change way. I went to the panel, and it was everything I expected: People who deal with arts spaces from the top down, talking to other people who deal with arts spaces from the top down, to an audience that, largely, didn’t know much about arts spaces, period.
Given the backgrounds of the panelists—President and CEO of Abdo Development Jim Abdo, Interim Executive Director of CulturalDC Travis Bowerman, Associate Director of Citywide Planning at the D.C. Office of Planning Kimberly Bowman, and artist Maggie Michael—the conversation was skewed toward public-private partnerships and other efforts, like the Office of Planning’s temporium programs, that loop artists into the world of government agencies. Comparatively off-grid DIY spaces, while still arts spaces, aren’t the same beast.
But a number of DIYers showed up to heckle, touting in particular the now-defunct Gold Leaf Studios as an apex of creative space in D.C. (It should be noted that Gold Leaf, while awesome, was always borrowed space owned by private interests.) Abdo was a particular target, especially when he couldn’t recall what calculation of the area median income—D.C. only, or regional—the affordable artist units his Brookland Arts Walk project was built around.
So, whither D.C.’s DIY spaces?
Eames Armstrong, who lives and works at 52 O St., hosted a post-Building Museum discussion, which was organized on Facebook with the mentality that artists, not developers and government officials, should be the ones talking about where artists work in a city with astoundingly high costs of living.
But just because artists were doing the talking didn’t mean that a clear, a one-size-fits-all solution emerged. After about two hours of very respectful discussion, I got the not entirely surprising impression that nearly everyone in the room wanted an affordable, stabilized space in which they felt safe to pursue their craft. Priorities diverged from there: Some wanted to disentangle themselves from developers altogether and pursue ownership, some wanted to fill up unused space (even if that meant dealing with the likes of Abdo).
There’s an argument to be made for policy that forces developers to turn over space they’re sitting on to people who want to use it—basically, legislating Gold Leaf-esque scenarios. Outside of that, artists are dependent on benevolent landlords. Actual ownership, whether via an outright purchase or the conversion of space into cooperative housing, requires much more red tape than just signing a lease.
Now what? No arts spaces are in imminent danger, so the sense of urgency on Monday night may have only come from the collection of bigwigs discussing the livelihood of a culture that leans DIY. Still, if a coterie of D.C. artists figures out a way to get a hold of and sustain affordable live/work spaces and replicates that model, that would be just as impressive as the temporiums and below-market-rate spaces those bigwigs were touting as successes.
Photograph by Darrow Montgomery