Easel Rider: Ian Jehle says the legalese in the Corcoran’s October letter forced him and other artists out. Credit: (Photograph by Charles Steck)

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Improvisation is key to any artist’s work in the studio: making do with cerulean, for instance, when the cobalt blue runs out. Or jury-rigging a drainage system on the roof when the ceiling starts leaking.

The latter’s been the bigger challenge for artists working at the Randall School. For two years starting in July 2004, they had no super to turn to when it came to fixing windows after break-ins, clearing mold after plumbing mishaps, and maintaining the handful of vintage A/C units at the sprawling former junior high in Southwest.

“One burglar ripped out a hot-water pipe while trying to escape the building,” says Ian Jehle, a portrait artist who maintained a studio there. “We had water and steam pumping into one of the nicest rooms in the building before anyone knew anything about it. We ended up with a mold farm in that room within a month.”

The 33 artists in the building cleaned up that disaster as they would any other—that was part of the deal, after all. In exchange for providing repairs, upkeep, and security for the severely neglected facility, the de facto landlords kept classroom-sized studios, rent-free. It was a temporary arrangement: The incoming property owner, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, planned to renovate the space, transforming it into a mixed-use, luxury condominium tower with classroom space and studios below; once that was done, the artists would be invited to return (and start paying rent). The artists maintained the building while the Corcoran navigated the financial straits of a proposed museum expansion and underwent personnel shake-ups. For its part, the city agreed to help the artists find temporary space during the makeover at Half and I Streets SW.

All of the artists planned to return after the renovation. But late last year, the Corcoran put a different challenge to the artists. Now, just five of the original 33 are planning to return to the facility after its redevelopment, even though the city sold the Randall School to the Corcoran, in part, on the condition that these artists would still have a home there.

“We were the stewards of the building,” says Jehle. “Now we’re being treated in a way that we feel amounts to intimidation.”

The Corcoran first expressed an interest in the property back in 2004, when it was still known as the Millennium Arts Center. As the MAC fell on hard times that year (“MAC Daddy,” 1/30/2004), so did the Corcoran. It suffered a humiliating setback when it failed to attract enough funds to build a garish Frank Gehry–designed addition. The subsequent leadership crisis, which saw the resignation of director David C. Levy, further complicated the plan. All this time, the artists kept on keeping on, and, after the MAC’s collapse, kept the Randall School standing.

The arrangement took on a different tenor shortly before the Corcoran’s deal with the city closed last fall. Each of the artists was served with certified letters prompting them to sign a contract to rent studio space, with details such as size, total cost, and date of availability to be determined. The range of potential spaces was wide and murky: According to the Oct. 16 letter, if every artist agreed to return, each would be offered 78 square feet for approximately $1,000 per year.

“The Corcoran has no intention of following through on this arrangement,” says Jehle. “It would be massively expensive. Think about it: Hallways and doors for more than 30 spaces, bathrooms, electricity, water, egress in and out of the building.” The memo promises that each studio would have “some natural light.”

According to MAC artist Richard Dana, lawyers at Arnold & Porter, working pro bono for the artists, challenged that the Corcoran’s letters didn’t amount to contracts at all. While the firm haggled with the museums over the terms of the lease memos, Adrian Fenty won November’s mayoral election. In January, Fenty replaced Office of Property Management head Carol Mitten, with whom MAC artists had been working closely. That was, effectively, the end of the city’s involvement in the matter.

“Since I’ve been with the office, we’ve had no contact with any of the artists at the Randall School,” says new OPM Director Lars Etzkorn. “There’s a covenant that flows with the land—that’s now a property issue between the artists and the Corcoran.”

Jehle and Dana feel that, through ­intimidation and bad-faith negotiation, the Corcoran has leveraged the artists off the land. “The Corcoran’s litigiousness—serving us papers in our offices and homes, posting notices in the facility, sending inspectors into studio spaces, never meeting with us personally—is a way to back out of their ­obligation,” Dana says.

Whether that was the Corcoran’s intent, more artists are ditching than returning.

Jocelyn File, executive assistant to the director at the Corcoran, says the museum went out of its way to keep the artists in the building, extending the time artists had to respond by two months. “In our agreement with the city, we had to notify all the artists about returning to the facility,” she says. “The Corcoran fulfilled its obligation.”

Other tenants had an easier time exiting the building. Rob Waldeck, chairman of the board for Art Enables, an organization that supports mentally challenged artists and held a large space at the MAC, says that the organization took the opportunity to move into bigger digs at 4th Street and New York Avenue NE. “But we had talked with the Corcoran; they were very welcome to us,” Waldeck notes. “We were relatively pleased with the discussions we had with them.”

What those five returning artists can expect of their Randall School studios is difficult to say. With 2,685 square feet up for grabs, ostensibly, the Corcoran could offer each a sizable studio for $7,000 per year. The museum is ironing out the details with the artists, but File says that the total square footage and terms—$13 per square foot—won’t change.

Meanwhile, the other 28 artists are scouring the city for studio space. Dana acknowledges that the Corcoran could come up with an offer he might find more palatable, but even if it did, he’s pessimistic about the likelihood of ever moving in.

“The blueprints won’t be ready for maybe years,” he says. “Artists will make a little noise, but they’ll be able to forget about us.”