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From the beginning, the artists who built STABLE promised a different kind of studio experience. The founders of the artist-run studio and exhibition space in Eckington hoped to start a community, one that more closely resembled the diverse population of D.C. than the art world, and one that was more closely knit to boot.
For the 30 or so artists who were selected to join—a highly competitive process that drew hundreds of applications—STABLE represented a rare opportunity for visibility, camaraderie, and affordable space to make work. Yet less than a year after STABLE’s opening last October, a number of artists have come forward to say that the culture is already broken. A private rift emerged into public view on Sept. 16, when several artists launched a social media campaign accusing STABLE of fostering a hostile work environment, namely for Black artists and artists of color.
This campaign is calling on STABLE’s founders—artists Tim Doud, Linn Meyers, and Caitlin Teal Price, who have worked together on the project since 2016—to step down from the nonprofit’s board. An open letter circulating within D.C.’s arts community had garnered some 340 signatures by Sunday.
“They said they were more than studios,” says Adrienne Gaither, a painter and STABLE resident. “They said they would provide opportunities for artists. They run down this long laundry list of promises that a lot of us signed on with the expectation of receiving, seeing, and being a part of.”
Doud stepped down in June, around the time the board first became aware of brewing conflicts. Meyers stepped down last week. Kali Wasenko, STABLE’s director of advancement and operations—and the nonprofit’s sole employee—is leaving at the end of the month. And Price announced her resignation on Wednesday. The dissenting “Artists of STABLE” are still pressing several more demands, including restitution in the form of refunded rent.
Yet the apparent rift between the artists and founders at STABLE is not so clear cut. Several resident artists at STABLE who spoke to Washington City Paper but declined to use their names, including Black artists who have not signed the petition, said they felt uneasy with the group’s demands. One of them described the disagreement as a “personal vendetta,” the result of “growing pains” at the institution.
In tone, the strife at STABLE resembles the broader reckoning over power in the art world. In July, an esteemed curator for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Gary Garrels, resigned in the wake of an uproar after he used the term “reverse discrimination” during a Zoom meeting. In August, the Whitney Museum of American Art canceled an exhibition of artworks from Black Lives Matter demonstrations after the artists involved learned that the museum had purchased those works below cost through charitable fundraisers. On Instagram, accounts such as @cancelartgalleries and @changethemuseum relay the (anonymous) accounts of harassment endured by staffers from marginalized groups.
D.C.’s arts community is watching as several of these issues come to a head in Eckington—labor, equity, respect, anonymity. The argument at STABLE is different in at least one respect, however: STABLE is not a powerful arts institution or a prominent employer. It’s not even a year old yet.
High stakes and hurt feelings contrast with the day-to-day reality at STABLE, a studio building that has remained largely empty since the coronavirus pandemic forced a lockdown in D.C. and turned city life upside down. Conflicts that have evolved entirely over virtual forums now put the organization’s mission at risk.
The consequences are no less real for being remote. At least one resident, multidisciplinary artist Tsedaye Makonnen, who was featured in City Paper’s 2019 “People Issue,” is leaving her studio. And according to one board member, two Black women artists who were planning to show their work at the space—one in an outdoor exhibit, one in a gallery setting—are now holding off.
Akio Tagawa, the chair of the board at STABLE since June, says that the organization is taking accusations of microaggressions and other interpersonal conflicts seriously.
“I certainly don’t think that we’ve let the foot off the pedal in terms of trying to move forward,” he says. “Unfortunately, with the pandemic, it’s clear that we’re not moving fast enough.”
The site launched by Artists of STABLE on Sept. 16 includes snippets of texts, emails, and other internal communications—a “receipts” page laying out the transgressions at 336 Randolph Place NE. They reveal partial interactions between Gaither, Makonnen, and others with the organization’s leaders, relayed in fragmented form.
Complaints have been gathering since at least February, when Gaither says that she and Makonnen watched warily as STABLE organized discussion panels that appeared to assign the organization’s Black artists to events for Black History Month. The panels didn’t line up with their respective strengths, Gaither says, and they didn’t offer compensation. Gaither and Makonnen are Black; all three founders are White. The eight or so people central to the collective effort—all of whom are women, some of whom are people of color—speak to similar slights that fall under the broad category of cultural insensitivity.
One major incident happened on June 1, just as protests over the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were taking hold across the U.S. That day, STABLE sent out a statement in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. The Artists of STABLE found the email quoting James Baldwin cringeworthy. The next day, during an online meeting to discuss COVID-19 protocols at the studio, several artists launched into a discussion about reparations—not just endorsing reparations for American descendants of slavery, but effecting reparations within the studio organization.
“I asked the question of what it would look like to actually address the issue of reparations within this community. Would it mean that Black artists would get free rent? Or what would it mean?” says artist Mojdeh Rezaeipour. “Everyone was taken aback.”
Accusations of tokenism, insincerity, and performative wokeness served as the backdrop for another argument that escalated tensions. In mid-June, STABLE held a virtual panel featuring artist Sheldon Scott, collector Reuben Charles, and Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden public engagement manager Amy Bower. During the event, Makonnen put a question to the group chat: Why was the Smithsonian American Art Museum hitting up Black artists around town for unpaid think pieces for Juneteenth?
Neither Meyers nor Makonnen spoke to City Paper for this story, so it’s hard to say for sure what happened next, but it went something like this: Meyers direct messaged Makonnen to cheer on this line of questioning. Makonnen challenged Meyers regarding STABLE’s own shortcomings. Meyers objected, describing Makonnen as angry.
“Her allegation was a microassault, verbally, done through a private chat window,” says Tagawa, referring to Makonnen’s description of the incident. “The allegations are very serious. That is why we addressed them, or tried to address them. We also spoke with Linn [Meyers] and tried to understand what happened.”
Tagawa adds, “Their accounts are irreconcilable. They’re entirely the opposite of one another.”
Gaither, who shares a studio with Makonnen, was present for the incident. She says Meyers was policing Makonnen’s tone. “When we read it, we knew what it was, because we’ve experienced this so many times,” says Gaither. “It doesn’t matter if [Meyers] knew what she was doing or not. It was a microaggression. It’s something to just try to shut things down that White women are really good at doing, but we weren’t here for it. We weren’t having it.”
The conflict spiraled from there. Makonnen asked for a transcript of the chat session. Tagawa says that neither the host of a Zoom meeting nor the company itself can retrieve any records of private chats (which a Zoom spokesperson confirms via email). At the same time, Meyers asked the board to put out a statement supporting her, a request that would have dragged the entire organization into her argument; the board declined to do so.
A separate rift opened at STABLE over the same period, this one concerning contracts. As far back as 2017, the founders of STABLE planned to offer certain spaces to embassies or other institutions to rent as residencies, a way to draw in revenue and international flavor. Rather than hold these spaces empty while they approached embassies, STABLE offered them up to artists on one-year leases.
Photographer Nancy Daly says she was told up front that it was always a possibility that she might need to give up her studio. Still, when she got an email from Wasenko on Feb. 12 informing her that the Embassy of Austria would be taking over her studio in September, a few months after Daly’s lease ended, she says she was caught by surprise. Nothing in her lease specifically mentioned any pre-existing agreement for her space, and she wanted to stay.
“They kept trying to single me out and make me feel like my situation was different,” Daly says. “My lease says exactly what everyone else’s lease says.”
A reader learning about the situation from the receipts page might conclude that an artist was being kicked out for speaking up. But Daly is White and beyond being an ally to her fellow Artists of STABLE, her specific complaint doesn’t necessarily fit with theirs. No single through-line characterizes the STABLE artists’ grievances, exactly. But their demands are stark: One graphic on the group’s Instagram feed shows a hit list of the founders’ names crossed out in red ink.
Leadership at STABLE is reluctant to frame the issue as any real divide at all. Instead, they describe shared goals marred by missed opportunities, miscommunication, and plain missteps.
“I supported and continue to support Tsedaye [Makonnen] and Adrienne’s [Gaither] protest,” says Doud. “Having an engaged community that’s asking an organization to abide by their foundational values is powerful.”
Several factors have impeded the organization’s ability to respond more nimbly. Leaders at STABLE admit to not having the bandwidth to steer the institution. Doud says that the board chair who preceded Tagawa wasn’t suited for the task. Since taking the reins, Tagawa has worked with other board members to meet some of the artists’ demands, in particular with regard to shaking up the board. But the work is slow.
“They’re very good requests. We’re trying to implement them,” Tagawa says. “I’d like to think we’re much more agile than a larger organization, but in the end, we have 10 or 12 people.”
A lack of communication is certainly a factor: Before the Artists of STABLE put up their protest site, resident artists hadn’t heard from the founders or the board about any of these issues since June. (STABLE has since released a public statement about their plans going forward.) On certain topics, the two sides appear to be speaking past one another. For example, the Artists of STABLE want to see artist board members compensated for their labor, but nonprofits rarely ever pay board members. STABLE’s 2018 tax returns don’t show revenues capable of sustaining months of refunded rents.
One of the biggest factors in STABLE’s failure to meet their critics is COVID-19. Back in March, the organization came close to hiring a director of art and programming, a full-time employee who would have been responsible for liaising directly with artists (which was never part of the job description for Wasenko, the departing staffer). STABLE made an offer to a candidate—a woman of color based in San Francisco—just as coronavirus erupted in the U.S. The pandemic forced the candidate to reconsider moving cross-country; ultimately, she didn’t take the position.
The ongoing national reckoning over racial injustice impacted STABLE, too, albeit more indirectly. The studio is far from the only Washington institution that has badly bungled its messaging about diversity, equity, and inclusion. There are currently long waiting lists for consultants who specialize in equity-informed mediation and anti-racist training. The board can’t fulfill demands for those services yet—because demand for those services is so high.
From a legal standpoint, STABLE can’t require anybody to take an anti-racist training course. But the organization is mulling a code of conduct for member artists that might make that possible. The board is also considering the creation of an art board, separate from the fiduciary board, to address these matters. Tagawa says they’re working to honor every request, even guaranteeing Daly’s studio space, but each step is a process.
Not every STABLE artist sees the board’s efforts as gestures in bad faith. One STABLE resident describes the dissenting group as engaging in a “smear campaign and a performance piece,” adding, “I feel sorry for STABLE’s reputation.”
The Artists of STABLE point to more ephemeral issues that will be harder for any board to fix. When Hirshhorn donors showed up for studio visits in November, STABLE asked that as many artists be present as possible. For artists, that meant blocking off a night for what might be a five-minute visit from an institution that spent considerably more time consulting the artists with work in national or international collections—namely the founders.
It’s up for debate whether the studios should be guaranteeing everyone the same amount of attention. For their part, members of the board say that they actually agree with the substance of the artists’ demand, almost to a T. But with the campaign still adding signatures and posting receipts, leaders at the studios describe a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t environment that has contributed to feelings of frustration for everyone involved with no clear road forward.
“When we talk about things we are in support of, we are being accused of being performative. When we make a request, sometimes it’s being met as tokenism,” Tagawa says. “Sometimes we feel there is very little room to act that would be met in a way that leads to a conversation that is constructive.”
From the start, STABLE’s founders might have set themselves up as art landlords who merely collect the rent check on the first. But they didn’t, for good reason. Now they’re out. The artists who drove them out want a say in STABLE’s future and a share of STABLE’s stature.
“We’re buying into a mission and a vision that is not living up to its own creed,” Gaither says. “We’re paying to be there and this is how we’re being treated.”
Editor’s note: This story was initially published with a photo that included Rebekah Pineda, who departed STABLE prior to the events in this story and is not currently involved with the organization. We apologize for the error.