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Start a kids-only lending library of donated instruments from established musicians. Team up with local affordable housing activists to lobby for responsible development. Sell art through subscription services. Amend zoning laws to carve out space for art studios.
That’s how D.C. arts will stay solvent in the future, according to the guests at last night’s District of Change: Making D.C. Better for the Arts panel. The event, which featured performance artist Holly Bass, Fugazi’s Brendan Canty, and Transformer’s Victoria Reis in conversation with Vox Executive Editor Matt Yglesias, was produced by local power couple Hanna Rosin, a national correspondent for the Atlantic, and David Plotz, the editor of Slate (and a former WCP staffer). In a short address, Plotz called this panel series the first step in their plan to turn the soon-to-be-renovated Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library into a center for cultural enrichment in the style of the New York Public Library.
The audience got an honest, but hopeful, look at the current state of the arts in the city and some speculation on future prospects for local creatives and art enthusiasts. All three panelists, longtime contributors to the D.C. arts scene, offered dovetailing reflections on the city’s rapid growth. Canty praised D.C.’s liberal alcohol regulation policies that still allow for all-ages shows in church basements and big venues alike. “D.C. is a fertile place for young bands,” he said. But he’s starting to sympathize with property owners who might not want to share a city block with radical punk group houses: “I can’t imagine living next to myself 25 years ago.”
Bass concurred: While D.C. is rife with opportunities for emerging visual artists to advance their careers and support themselves, according to Bass, older, more established artists are struggling, making for a glass ceiling of sorts that pushes artists out to bigger ponds, like—-don’t make me say it—-New York. There are still places where the young and the broke can find shared housing and studio space, she said, naming Hole in the Sky and a few neighborhoods further north and east than the arts hubs of yore (see: Mount Pleasant in Canty’s days). But when artists grow up, have kids, or don’t want to have to go to a neighboring building to use the bathroom, their housing options plummet.
Reis noted that the space neighboring Transformer, long occupied by a fish market that’s been vacant for the past two years, will soon house a new Dolcezza gelato shop. That’s a good thing for the gallery, which benefits from the new audience drawn to the 14th Street corridor, but as Canty pointed out, most galleries in the area rent their spaces, making them vulnerable to financial woes when those spaces become more desirable. He commended Black Cat owner Dante Ferrando on his smart decision to buy the 14th Street NW venue straightaway, before the area’s real estate boom, and suggested that the D.C. government should do more to help artists and arts administrators buy their own buildings.
Any conversation about arts in the context of gentrification pushes up against some irony: Arts are so often the driver of neighborhood development, but as rents rise and wealthier residents want fancier amenities, art venues and artists’ residences get priced out. Reis recommended artists take a cue from Boston’s Design Studio for Social Intervention and build alliances with affordable housing advocacy groups.
The absence of a representative from the world of theater on the panel seemed an obvious omission, and small-scale performers and playwrights would have benefited from a voice in the conversation. But the discussion was smart and specific, the subsequent Q&A session constructive and affirming. If it’s any indication of future Rosin/Plotz programming at the library, there’s reason to celebrate.
Bass, in particular, seems to represent the adaptive, collaborative ingenuity that the panelists agreed today’s arts community needs to cultivate. She’s negotiated with Dupont’s Eighteenth Street Lounge to use its rooms as free-of-charge dance rehearsal space during off hours, and the D.C. government gave her a contract to choreograph a dance with 60 sanitation workers and garbage trucks for D.C.’s annual Truck Touch for kids. There’s no one solution to the financial struggles of an artist in a booming city, but new funding ideas and alliances among diverse interest groups seem to hold the most promise.