The windows of The Stew are papered over, making it look like any other strip mall recession casualty, which belies the treasures and activity within. The walls are covered in large-scale murals and brightly painted canvases lean against walls around the perimeter. The owner’s dog, Stella, noses around on the paint-splattered carpet, looking for scraps of snacks that fell on the floor at a previous event.
Soon, even these lingering traces of the spot that hosted myriad events and artist gatherings will be no more. The entire strip of buildings on the 600 block of Rhode Island Ave. NE is set to be razed to make way for condos.
The Stew founder Rose Jaffe has built a career as a muralist—her colorful work is hard to miss around town, everywhere from school playgrounds to local restaurants to D.C. General Family Shelter. She originally rented an extra large space in this former H&R Block to accommodate her mural setups when needed, but explains that “I wanted to have one small space and the rest be community space.” Jaffe knew that the shopping plaza would eventually be demolished, but made it hers for as long as possible, hosting workshops and artist showcases and working with local activist organizations.
The Stew isn’t the only spot closing: Three other D.C. studio and community arts spaces have shuttered this summer. Perhaps this is just the circle of life in the arts ecosystem, particularly with DIY spaces. “Venues leave and other venues come, so it’s the ebb and flow,” Jaffe points out. By nature, these kinds of venues exist on the periphery, in temporary or makeshift locations that could be shaken up at any moment.
Artists and makers feel the impact of these shuttering studios most acutely, but the effects reverberate through the city. Arts spaces have been critical to the many burgeoning activist movements in D.C., providing gathering room and necessary visuals. The Women’s March and countless other demonstrations were festooned with signs and banners made in D.C. studios like The Stew.
Speaking about the development that will replace her studio, Jaffe says, “There’s nothing in this new building that will serve the community that’s here now, it’s really meant for the community that’s here in nine years. I think there’s a case to be made to the city about saying, ‘Look, maybe in this 50,000 plus square feet of retail space, there can be a section that you leave for community and arts space.’” She notes the importance of DIY studios like hers, of having “not just creative space, but having a space that feels safe, that feels like people can come and be experimental, that’s not constantly about money.”
Local artists see glimmers of hope in the form of more hospitable conditions in nearby Maryland, and in a couple of new studio and arts spaces opening later this year in D.C., but there’s no question that for District artists trying to serve the community and themselves without compromising their vision and their values, the road will not be easy.
Naeem Khaliq holds up a screen used for printmaking. “Back in the day they used hair, actual human hair to create the mesh,” he says. It’s a Thursday night in August, and about two dozen people have turned up at Open Studio DC to learn how to make silk screen prints, starting all the way back at the invention of the form. Khaliq is something between a master craftsman and a motivational speaker, and the crowd is intently absorbing this information, many studiously taking notes or reference photos.
He describes growing up in D.C., being encouraged by his parents to pursue creative passions, and finding ways to make money selling his art. He came to Open Studio DC for the first time about a year ago, learning the basics of screen printing and instantly getting hooked. He never formally rented a personal studio space there because they were always booked up, but he’s stopped by to work on projects several times a week, and has also hosted five workshops and mentored other wannabe silkscreeners one-on-one.
Now all of these workshop participants, guest artists, and studio renters will need to find a new place to work—Open Studio DC closed down at the end of August. Open Studio DC originally operated at a small corner storefront on Florida Avenue NE, which has since been replaced by luxury condos, before moving to a larger industrial building in Ivy City in 2014. Owner Carolyn Hartmann was smart to bank on Ivy City when she did. Once a sleepy residential neighborhood, these days craft distillers, Michelin-nodded restaurants, and big box retailers covet the area. But this also means that Hartmann is facing property taxes nearly eight times what they were when she first moved into the building. “I can’t afford it and charge the prices that I charge,” she says. “And then it stops being the place that I want it to be.”
What Hartmann wanted it to be was a place where young or untested artists could get a foot in the door, either by taking a printmaking workshop, using the studio space on a drop-in basis, or putting on a gallery show with hardly any oversight. Though the studio was primarily for printmakers, artists working in other mediums were often welcome, and by Hartmann’s count, hundreds of artists made use of the facilities.
Makeshift studio arrangements can be useful to established artists as well. Michael Crossett has a personal painting studio in Mount Pleasant, but when he was commissioned to do a mural for Bancroft Elementary School as a part of the Department of General Services school modernization project, he knew he couldn’t fit the panels he needed to make in that space. He found himself in need of “space that’s a flex space, that can be used by artists who take on a bigger project,” and so he set up shop in Open Studio DC for a few weeks.
Open Studio DC also played host to organizations and marchers that needed space to set up banners and other large scale installations. “Printmakers, we end up kind of being really political and community-involved. We’re all involved in the Peoples Climate Change movement, been involved in fighting to save Barry Farm,” says Hartmann. (Barry Farm is a public housing project long tied up in controversial redevelopment plans.) For mass producing silk screen posters for demonstrations or wheatpaste campaigns, Open Studio was uniquely equipped with the necessary resources, like drying racks that could hold dozens of wet prints.
These facilities are partly what make it so difficult to find buildings that can work as studio spaces—Open Studio DC has sinks, lightboxes that measure several feet across, and dozens of cabinets with wide, flat sets of drawers to store prints. Hartmann moved much of this equipment four years ago when she relocated, but she laments the impermanence. “I can’t do that every three or four years,” she says. “I can’t financially do it, but also … it sucks me dry every time I do it.”
D.C. has a rich history of scrappy group houses turning themselves into concert halls and galleries, with amps dragged into kitchens and canvases leaned against living room baseboards. Until recently, one such domicile was The Shed Gallery, an offshoot of Brookland DIY music venue Bathtub Republic. Nick Stavely lived at Bathtub and was involved in the city’s music scene, but found himself with a nagging itch to return to making visual art. He started making wire sculptures, and found that his unwieldy creations could easily fit and hang in the shed in the back of the house.
The digs were convenient and decidedly low-rent. “I mean, you gotta clean that thing. It gets very full of leaves and crap and trash and stuff,” Stavely says. The nonchalance was part of the point, with the organizers intending it to be “a bit of a slight at the gallery scene in D.C., which is stereotypically stuffy. Like, here’s my gallery in this open-air carport, but this is my gallery.”
It turned out that other budding artists were eager for low-pressure opportunities to show their work, open air lean-to or not. The Shed put out an open call for their first show, and according to Stavely, “it was actually surprising how many people responded to it. I guess it was an interesting request.” The informality of the venue “attracted people that you wouldn’t traditionally find in a gallery.”
Not only are up-and-coming artists looking for avenues to show their work that don’t require navigating the thorny gallery scene, they’re also looking to commiserate and have their work critiqued. Mark Hoelscher, a videographer and photographer who also lived at Bathtub and photographed exhibits at The Shed, says, “We had people who were looking for feedback. We gave them a space to exhibit work that wasn’t necessarily finished.”
Unfortunately, Bathtub Republic, and by extension The Shed, has had its last hurrah. The dissolution was partly caused by some housemates disembarking for new living arrangements. The remaining members were figuring out their next move and attempting to stay when they found out that rent was going up, prompting the venue to break apart. Bathtub Republic did a two-day lineup of farewell concerts, and The Shed was able to fit in two summer shows, including one last informal gathering to show works-in-progress.
Uptown Art House has also closed its doors, but the founding members are taking it in stride. “Art House Without Borders is the mindset,” explains Jamal Gray, a musician and activist. He always knew that having a physical location in Cleveland Park would be temporary, anyway: It began as a place to set up large scale artworks for the People’s Climate March in April 2017. Gray and other event organizers were invited to make better use of the space, and he set about bringing in other artists and musicians to put on programming.
Gray says, “I wanted to reach out to black artists first because I felt we were underrepresented in the world, specifically when it comes to the big art projects that come with the different movements that are coming through. I want to make sure that first, what I feel is the life blood of D.C. is represented.” Having grown out of an activist movement, the organizers kept a focus on direct actions and partnering with like-minded causes, as well as prioritizing showing work with a socially conscious bent.
Uptown operated with an open door policy, and some of its earliest events were open houses and coworking days when artists of all stripes could come by to work on projects. They expanded the scope of the events, and at any given time, there could be experimental music sets, massive sculptural installations, or dance and performance art pieces.
The same radically free-spirited model that made Uptown so welcoming could sometimes become a downside for the organizers. Maxwell Young, who is the media director for Uptown, says “People were able to sort of take advantage of us, because it was so loose. We had a half-pipe in there for three months. That’s not really how we envisioned it.” Maps Glover, an artist-in-residence and show curator at Uptown, says, “There’s conflict when you personally have a vision, but then everybody isn’t responding to that vision. I wish there were multiple spaces in D.C. where you can go and create freely but didn’t have the pressure of needing to do other things to keep the doors open.”
Ultimately, the location and the constant churn to make rent came to be at odds with the overall mission of the space. “The majority of the funds we’re able to make are going right back to paying rent,” Gray explains. “I feel like the resources we were getting could be used in better ways outside of just the space, and especially in the enclave in that neighborhood. The people that lived in that neighborhood aren’t the ones that needed our help. It wasn’t the audience.”
Where might area artists find it easier to keep their doors open while advancing a mission? It could be in Maryland. In nearby Prince George’s County, there are numerous business incentives and grant opportunities for arts organizations. While D.C. offers grants for individuals, nonprofits, and specific projects through the DC Commision on Arts and Humanities, Prince George’s County tends to have more support for facilities and businesses that aren’t 501(c)(3)s.
As such, Hyattsville and the Gateway Arts District along Route 1 are dotted with commercial buildings and storage facilities that have been converted to artist studios and independent creative businesses. Until recently, one of these was Distinctly Creative, which began as a social media venture showcasing black artists and creative entrepreneurs in the DMV. After hosting several successful events at Cloak and Dagger in D.C., founder Morgan Davis decided to set up shop in the Brentwood area of the Gateway Arts District to accommodate her growing business. Now, she’s moving south to a larger space in Suitland, where she’ll offer studio space and numerous resources.
The spot in Brentwood served her well as she was gearing up and fine tuning her events strategy, and she was able to take advantage of some of the incentives that the Gateway Arts District provided. “There is a very vibrant art scene here, Hyattsville, Mt. Rainier,” Davis says. “It’s been nice having that camaraderie and community.” This first “starter home” proved to be a useful springboard to her ultimate goal of designing a large creative incubator. “There’s so many people that have been asking to use the space for things that the space can’t really do,” she says of her first studio.
The new space in Suitland will be able to do a lot, and will offer tiered studio pricing and a plethora of equipment and amenities. Davis plans to have several communal areas with equipment: a photography and videography studio, a sewing and fabric printing studio, an audio recording studio, and a computer lab outfitted with design software and printers. In addition to all of that, there will be individual artist studios for roughly 20 people, plus a gallery and meeting space.
Being able to create space for others is personal to Davis, having had her own challenges finding workspace. She’s able to do her work as a graphic designer from just about anywhere, but as a fashion designer, she points out, “I can’t go to a coworking space with my sewing machine. I don’t see a lot of spaces for people who do fashion, for someone who just wants to print T-shirts, for certain forms of visual art.”
It’s particularly important to her to do this work in Maryland and specifically in Suitland as an extension of Distinctly Creative’s mission. “Southern Maryland, P.G. County has a huge population of black people and I just felt like I’d be doing my community a disservice if I wasn’t in that area. In order to have access to professional level creative equipment you have to go to D.C. The reality is that some people are not fortunate enough to be able to get to that. So I wanted to bring those out to an area that deserves something of that nature just as much as in Hyattsville or H Street or U Street.”
The state of Maryland as a whole may prove more fruitful for artists who become frustrated with the difficulty of forging a path in D.C. Joseph Orzal is a D.C. native and Open Studio DC artist who’s currently completing his MFA at the Maryland Institute College of Art, commuting to Baltimore for classes. In addition to his own printmaking work, he curates group exhibits in spaces that are increasingly hard to come by, and it’s clear to him that his work would be much easier to do in Baltimore. Losing his hub of Open Studio, he says, “is kind of the last straw, but I want to be here. This is my home.”
Growing up in D.C., Orzal saw it as a place where he could pursue an artistic career. Now he laments the once-vibrant gallery scene that is languishing, and properties that sit vacant while the owners figure out how to maximize their profits. “I feel like developers should be seeking artists to do things in these abandoned, empty places. I don’t know why they’d rather just let it sit,” he says. He points to the vast numbers of artists he’s known who skip town “and then blow up in another city. It’s just frustrating to know how much talent could have been fostered here.”
Hartmann is decamping to Baltimore, hoping to start up a new iteration of Open Studio. She identifies the city’s Vacants 2 Value program as a key feature that attracted her to the city. “If there’s a building that you can put some money in to refurbish it then you can get it for very low cost, and a lot of artists know how to use tools and they can do the work themselves, and then own them at the end of that. Even if the neighborhoods do change and the costs go up, you’ve got a better shot at hanging onto it.”
One strategy for arts spaces determined to stay in the District is to team up with existing organizations that can lend independent groups both resources and a sense of legitimacy. Uptown has done events and performances at a range of venues: Dupont Underground, the Phillips Collection, the Kennedy Center, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. No longer having a physical space, they’ll rely on these organizations and other spaces to continue their programming. “We’re going to be taking over space, we’re going to be very present,” says Glover. Coming up, they’ll be doing multimedia experiences at U Street Music Hall and continued collaborations with the Kennedy Center, and Glover is curating a gallery show at Transformer.
These types of collaborations may be a necessary way forward for arts organizations that want to hang on in D.C. STABLE is a new artist space opening in Eckington in the fall, and will contain a gallery, community artist space, and studios for about 40 artists. Around a third of those studios will be reserved for artists working with STABLE’s partner organizations, including arts nonprofit Halcyon, artist fellowship program Hamiltonian Artists, and the Phillips Collection modern art museum. STABLE doesn’t yet have plans for shared equipment—artists will have to outfit their studios to their own specific needs—but STABLE founding member Linn Meyers suggests, “we’re sharing resources with our partners, so hopefully some equipment will be available that way.”
STABLE also struck a deal with the development company that owns the property, Boundary Partners, wherein they’d receive a 10-year lease, provided they could raise $300,000 by the beginning of 2018. They’ve well exceeded that goal. Registering as a 501(c)(3) opened up the ability to fundraise and solicit donors. “I think it would be much harder [to raise funds] if people couldn’t claim it as a charitable donation,” says Meyers.
In establishing STABLE, the founders wanted to help solve the problem of lack of affordable studio space, while also creating a community hub for artists. “Here,” says Meyers, referring to D.C. in general, “everything is sort of spread out, and people have studios in their garages, in their basements, and the architecture really has an impact on how those communities form.” She’s passionate in her belief that STABLE will fill a crucial need, and will serve dozens of artists. At the same time, she notes, “the problem is there’s only 20 spaces. We’ll have hopefully about 40 artists in there. But it still seems like such a small thing in the face of losing so many spaces.”
Despite the proliferation of closures, many in the scene are still upbeat about the potential for DIY venues to thrive in the future, and those who lost space are plotting their next ventures.
The Shed Gallery will continue to live on in spirit, if not a consistent form. “The Shed is also a mindset,” Stavely asserts. In the future, he plans “to do some more events into the fall or winter. There is a carport in the backyard of my new house which is close enough to The Shed to count [as a continuation].”
The Uptown collective is happy to take their work mobile for a while, but they’re hopeful that they might find another space in the future, in a better-suited area. “If we could do it in Cleveland Park, where nothing else is really going on, imagine in U Street or Columbia Heights, or Northeast, Southeast, where people are congregating and need our help,” says Gray. In the meantime, Uptown Art House will continue to operate, because as Young explains, “the Art House is bigger than just the space, it has become the people just as much as the space. It’s a collective now.”
And Khaliq, of Open Studios DC, is currently looking for a place to house his design agency, Lordy Agency. As a part of that, he hopes to offer more screen printing classes and include amenities for the local skateboarding community. He already has much of the equipment, now he just needs a place to put it. “We’ll continue looking till we find something.”