Get our free newsletter

When Jon Gann heard that Goethe-Institut was leaving its Penn Quarter space, the DC Shorts film festival creator had one major concern: that the former arts space might be snatched up by the restaurant industry.

So Gann called former West End Cinema owner Josh Levin with a plan: to turn the space into the District Cinema, a place where local film festivals wouldn’t have to break the bank or strain to fill massive stadium seating rows for smaller events. “Our goal, whether we get it or not, is to save it as an arts space,” Gann says.

The location was established as a designated arts space through a 1992 mayoral letter, in accordance with the Support for Art in Public Places Amendment Act of 1986. The issue, Gann says, is that the city’s definition of an arts space is so broad that it includes “culinary arts,” creating the possibility that a restaurant—in an area that’s already overpopulated with them—could take over the building.

Right now, Levin and Gann have been in talks with the new owner’s leasing agent, who is open to the idea of dedicating part of the building as an arts space. Their main obstacle: rent prices. The owner wants to lease the space at market value, which would exceed $200,000 annually, a near-impossible figure for Gann and Levin to afford for their intended art rental space.

To meet their budget, the duo has been appealing to local arts groups, and sent a message to the D.C. Council to pressure its members into reserving the location as an arts space. “The city is quick to label an area or say this is a set-aside, but there’s no one in the city to enforce the renovations,” Gann says.

Their plan, if it’s able to get fully funded and supported, is to renovate the 120-seat theater on the first floor and convert the upstairs gallery into another 150-seat theater that could also function as a performance space. With that, they hope, the building could house the film and smaller arts festivals that come through D.C. and often struggle to find a space that’s affordable and appropriate. Ideally, festivals such as the AFI Docs, the Washington Jewish Film Festival, and Gann’s own DC Shorts festival would all be ideal contenders to use the space.

“We want something that makes sense for all the parties and all the arts organizations in the city,” Levin says,” because at the end of the day, keeping vibrant arts spaces in the city is good for D.C. residents, is good for the creative community, and it’s good for business downtown as well.”

Photo by Flickr user ep_jhu under a Creative Commons License.