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Back when Brookland Studios still stood at 3305 8th St. NE, the sound of passing Metro cars sometimes made its way into the art. Listen closely to “A Traitor in My Mind,” a song the D.C. indie rock band Last Tide recorded in 2009 at what was then an artists’ warehouse. The track starts gently, with a skeletal guitar figure and the gorgeous, wave-like crash of a train moving by, captured in a moment of recording-studio serendipity.
Two years later, the warehouse has been torn down. In place of the artists who worked there are a new class of artists who live at the address, too: The Brookland Artspace Lofts, which opened this summer, houses 39 subsidized apartments designed to do double duty as studios and homes.
Guiding me through his spacious new efficiency, artist Matt Malone points toward a set of recently completed charcoal drawings he made after hearing the Metro through his walls. At least one creative inspiration hasn’t changed.
But otherwise Artspace, which is next door to the studios of Dance Place, is a remarkable departure from the old dilapidated warehouse. Its mosaic centerpiece aside, the glassy, space-maximizing exterior could be swapped for any of D.C.’s newest, blandest pop-contemporary residential buildings. The pastel interior walls have the feel of a college dormitory.
And at Artspace’s first open house last week, the vibe was less open-studio than elementary-school-parents-night, with paintings and poems from many of the artists adorning the wide hallways. Crowds shuffled through the 20 or so apartments that were open to explore.
There are a handful of other dedicated art residences in the D.C. area. Artspace, a Minnesota-based non-profit, also operates a building of artist housing in Mount Rainier’s burgeoning Gateway Arts District. The Loree Grand in NoMa has leased 15 subsidized live/work units for artists, down from an initial set-aside of 30. Proponents are quick to tout the spaces’ economic importance: Having an art-friendly environment, development nostrums say, makes a town more attractive to everyone else. “For our city to thrive we need to retain affordable housing opportunities, but at the same time we need to support creativity and entrepreneurship,” says Anne Corbett, the executive director of the Cultural Development Corporation, a nonprofit that operates a number of local performance and work spaces and also consulted on the new Artspace. “An affordable live/work building supports those purposes.”
With Brookland Artspace, operators are hoping to help the area near Catholic University become the city’s next hub for artists. “The creation of an arts district is very much our intent,” Heidi Kurtze, Artspace’s director of property development, told Washington City Paper earlier this year.
In D.C., where rent is high and industrial space is scarce, arts hubs flower in insular pockets; we don’t have artist neighborhoods. So it’s telling to take a look at what kinds of artists actually populate the new Brookland version. Walking around Artspace last Tuesday, I encountered the names of painters, electronic musicians, sculptors, poets, street artists, a lighting designer, a jazz trumpeter—and a few residents whose work probably stretches what most people consider art, like a catering outfit and a purse designer. Every bohemia has to start with something.
But per the artists, there are few flaws to be found in the building: The efficiencies are spacious and comfortable, and one- and two-bedroom spaces are even larger. Designer Soyini George—a D.C. native whose line of children’s clothing is for sale in regional Whole Foods stores—moved to Artspace from “this horrible place on Benning Road,” she said. “This place is better for creativity.”
Subsidized rents, of course, can still be expensive.
In order to live in Artspace, Malone had to earn no more than 60 percent of the area’s median income—which, according estimates on the building’s website, means $43,500 or less. But in order to demonstrate that he was good for the efficiency’s $970 rent, he also had to show he made at least $25,866. Then, he had to go before a panel of residents and artists from the community to prove he’s an artist.
Since moving in, Malone has divided his efficiency into a few distinct areas: an area to sleep, an area to eat, an entertainment area, and the largest area for working. He grabs two canvases that are hinged together—a Jasper Johns-esque American flag, painted over a backdrop of newspaper front pages from Sept. 12, 2011. He has to reach above his head to hold it up. He says the space has allowed him to create larger works than he has in the past.
Malone has been making art for about 10 years, ever since an accident in college left him paralyzed below the neck for several months. “Art sort of filled my time,” he says. Before moving to Artspace, he worked in an ad-hoc studio in his brother’s basement. Although he sells some art through gallery and DIY shows, most of his income is from his day job, selling foreign currency for the firm Tempest Consulting.
Mia Feuer, who has generated lots of buzz on the local gallery scene in recent years, was slightly more screwed before she secured an apartment in Artspace. She spent the summer at the Bemis Center of Contemporary Art in Omaha as an artist in resident, having given up her cheap room in a Wylie Street NE group house ($340 a month) and her closet-sized studio space in Arlington ($240). She was planning to return to D.C. in September, and had some pressing deadlines—she was a finalist in Bethesda’s Trawick Prize, and had committed works to a Flashpoint group show and the (e)merge art fair.
Feuer works as an adjunct professor at local universities, where she teaches sculpture. She’d only lined up two gigs by August for this semester and says Artspace was worried she was too low-income to make the rent. Eventually, Feuer got a third teaching job and won the Trawick’s $10,000 first-place prize. “I just never thought I would land such an amazing space,” she says.
Because Feuer creates large-scale sculptures, high ceilings and lots of floor space are musts—and give her even fewer options within D.C.’s regular studio market. “I have a bunch of dismembered sculpture parts,” she says of her new efficiency, which she describes as “mostly a big beautiful workspace…I like waking up in the morning and seeing what I’m building.”
The artists who have gotten in look like they’re set for quite a while: Brookland Artspace had more than 100 applicants, and has filled all of its 39 live/work spaces. Although rents can rise at Artspace, guidelines set by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development will keep increases small. The $13.1 million space was mostly funded by the District’s Department of Housing and Community Development.
Things look a little riskier for artists who occupy privately owned art spaces, where there’s no government money guaranteeing their artiness. As first reported by WAMU, rents at the 52 O Street Studios—a warehouse space that contains both live/work and work spaces—are on the rise. Matt Pearson, a resident who composes music for theater, has only lived there a year, but he’s had one rent increase and expects another next year. He says the building, which was converted to artists spaces in 1979 and has many older artists, has seen more turnover than usual in recent years. “It’s possible a lot of artists won’t be able to work in O Street anymore,” he says. (The building’s management did not respond to requests for comment.)
Kendall Nordin, a multidisciplinary artist, says when she started using her 400-square foot workspace at O Street four years ago, rent was $12 per square foot. Now it’s $15. She helps clean the building to offset her rent.
Last year, Nordin considered applying to live at the Loree Grand, but decided it was too expensive; she made the same decision about Artspace, which is cheaper. Now, Nordin says an emphasis on artist live/work spaces over work spaces is misguided. Affordable housing and places for artists to work are separate problems, she says.
Nordin says some rooms at O Street have been carved into smaller, less functional spaces over time. Although there are a few well-organized work spaces in D.C., others are being swallowed by their changing surroundings. Gold Leaf Studios, a multipurpose space in Mount Vernon Square, is closing in January, and will be replaced by a large residential complex. On the other hand, another Brookland development near Artspace will include 27 work studios once it’s built.
All of which is nice, if you like neat walls and polished, approachable exteriors, says Nordin. “There are people who prefer glossy new spaces. Sometimes if you try to really fabricate an artist’s space, it doesn’t really lead to people being able to make things in the same way.” She’d rather see raw, vacant buildings be given over temporarily to artists. “I think there’s other ways of trying to solve the space problem,” she says. “If the city could come into agreements with developers sitting on properties—you don’t have to worry about the upkeep.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery.
Due to a reporting error, the article originally misspelled Kendall Nordin’s name.