Marta Staudinger in front of Humdrum by Katie Pumphrey, 2018 Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Drop into the average apartment lobby or business waiting area in the D.C. region, and one is bound to see some black-and-white photographs of area landmarks, a flat attempt to communicate a specificity of locale. Higher end condos and law office lobbies might feature some original art, sometimes of the liquid asset sort, selected more for how much the piece may appreciate than for its aesthetic value. Avec on H Street, a new apartment building opening on H Street NE, will hang art that’s a bit more meaningful—it’s all made by local artists. 

Marta Staudinger of Latela Curatorial, which curates and acquires art for residential and corporate clients, is helming the project. Latela also offers career development opportunities and workshops for artists, and mounts group exhibits. Across the multiple aspects of her business, Staudinger aims to support and hire local creatives. “Local art in general is really important to our business model,” she says. “The more art consultants, the more artists, the more galleries, the better for this city,” she says. 

Staudinger talked up the idea of using only local talent when pitching developer WC Smith, and set about finding enough pieces to present multiple options for various areas in the Avec complex, scouring local studios and galleries and putting out calls on social media, as well as tapping into her existing network of artists she’d worked with or shown in Latela’s gallery. “We totally opened the net,” she says. “We easily reached out to a hundred local artists to see how much we could place. It was a nice opportunity to work with artists we hadn’t worked with yet.” 

The result is a mix of works by established artists as well as some relative newcomers, ranging from series of paintings to shadow boxes filled with playful fiber art to a mural on the underside of a staircase. She describes it as “kind of like being in a group show.” Samantha Branchaud, vice president of property management for Avec at WC Smith, says that in choosing from selected works, “there’s so much that D.C. artists have to offer that it didn’t feel limiting whatsoever.” 

At Avec, the works in common areas will be accompanied by placards with artists’ names and titles, and there are plans to produce a handout as part of the move-in package with information about all the works in the building. Branchaud also says that Avec management is “open to working with artists to do events in the building, or to help promote shows that they’re a part of,” as well as spotlighting the artists across their social media platforms. The installation of most of the artworks is finishing this week, with some to-be-completed mural projects. 

Though an apartment building may seem an unconventional spot for an artist to hang their creations, it’s really not so different from a home sale. Staudinger points out that in a residential building, unlike a gallery show which typically only stays up for a month or two, “there’s a real root. It’s not just up temporarily.” Franklin Thompson, a painter who often works under the moniker of Apt 50 and who will have a painting at Avec, says “I think this is a great way to share art with the world, because people live in apartments.” He’s no stranger to showing in a home space—when he started out painting, he had difficulty finding gallery opportunities that didn’t require paying a hefty membership fee, and started doing residential art showings in private homes. 

D.C. has become an increasingly challenging place to make it as an artist, partially due to a lack of studio and gallery space to produce and show work, as well as rising rents that make the city less affordable for everyone. It’s perhaps ironic that a luxury development like Avec can offer a viable place to display work, as well as an opportunity for local artists to make real sales. As Staudinger sees it, the ongoing construction and development of D.C. isn’t stopping anytime soon, so the local creative economy should get a piece of the pie. “I’m hoping to get more artists into buildings like this; developers have money and they need to use it,” she explains. “If they can use local art, why not?” 

By now it’s a cliche to examine the breakneck pace of the city’s metamorphosis, but looking at the newly cast shadows of buildings along the H Street corridor, it’s nearly impossible not to marvel that the mammoth two-block-long site of Avec was a strip mall with a 7-Eleven and carryout joints just a few years ago. Developers like WC Smith are partly responsible for this transformation, and so artists and curators need to consider whether a relationship with developers benefits the creative community in the long run, and how projects like this fit into the surrounding neighborhood. 

Newcomers to the city have sometimes clashed with longtime residents or attempted to alter the fabric of an existing neighborhood, and newer developments have occasionally been at the center of such disputes. Last year, residents of The Shay apartments in Shaw complained about the go-go music played at a Metro PCS store across the street, which sparked the Don’t Mute DC movement, and new apartments and condos can be regarded with suspicion. The art hanging in Avec may look like something tailored to suit changing tastes for a changing demographic. But the story of using the work of local artists could be a signal of investment in the surrounding community.

Artists like Thompson, who is a D.C. native, are excited about the concept of using homegrown talent in a new development, pointing out that a collection of this many local artists in a space like this is a rarity. “It’s cool that Marta’s representing local talent, because it’s easy to overlook something that was already here and utilize something that has just touched down in the city,” he says. “It’s great to have people who still care about what was happening here before ‘here’ was deemed the cool spot to live.” 

As a D.C.-based business, the management of Avec felt an obligation to use other businesses in the area. Branchaud described the process of sourcing local artists as “the right thing to do, but also enjoyable to us.” Branchaud says that this is a concept that WC Smith would consider replicating at future properties, and Staudinger wants to see it spread even further. “Avec is totally a leader, but they shouldn’t be the only ones,” she argues. 

It’s true that the habit of working with local producers has become more common, particularly among the ever-growing crop of public murals around the city, but a commitment to using only local artists would be a small but doable measure for developers. Staudinger concedes that trying to source local is not the easiest way to go about projects like this. “It’s a lot of work,” she says. “I think it’s easier to just pick from a website. When you’re shopping online you can do that in a fourth of the time.” But having pulled it off once, she’s itching to do it again and utilize even more local artists she’s discovered. As she puts it, “could you imagine what kind of creative economy we would have if every building you went in featured 20 local artists’ work?”

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