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D.C., Developers Struggling To Meet The Moment In Building Art Space

Washington, D.C., has been the hub of several artistic movements over the last century, from the jazz clubs of Black Broadway in the 1920s to the abstract expressionist Washington Color School movement of the 1960s to the go-go music that took off in the 1970s and is enshrined in the city’s culture today.

CulturalDC’s Walter Reed Dreams Community Block Party at The Parks at Walter Reed in April 2017

But as the city has exploded in population, some artists have grown to view it as unaffordable, decamping to cheaper locales like Baltimore and Philadelphia — since 2005, 70 galleries have closed in Washington. And despite a 2015 D.C. law designed to spur more investment into affordable spaces for artists, the arts community in the District is still at risk of further erosion.

“The Washington Sculptors Guild moved out, the Glass School, a number of artists have moved out to Baltimore because it's much cheaper to live,” said Duane Gautier, executive director of the Honfleur Gallery. “So if we’re not careful, we’re going to lose the artist base that’s here in D.C.”

So far, the city’s efforts to address this challenge have been limited by the coronavirus pandemic. D.C.’s original fiscal year 2020 budget included more money for the D.C. Commission on Arts and Humanities, including a new $5M Cultural Facilities Fund to lower costs for maintaining artist space.

But the creative community almost immediately expressed concerns that the new funding streams, which largely took the form of loan programs, wouldn’t be enough to keep artists in the city. Then, the pandemic temporarily slashed the budget for the D.C. Commission on Arts and Humanities, which oversees many of the enhanced programming suggested by the plan.

Now, the city is playing catch-up as it leverages public-private partnerships to build the kinds of spaces that its dwindling arts community needs before it’s gone. 

In 2015, the D.C. Council ordered the municipal government to begin the process of creating the city’s first-ever Cultural Plan to guide public investment in the arts. Six years ago, the creative industry accounted for roughly 5% of businesses in the city, above the national average, but city officials worried that could decrease without direct investment.

The Bowser administration released the plan in 2019, calling for increased access to and investment in affordable spaces for arts organizations. The plan noted the city was home to almost 150,000 workers in the creative industry, but that many struggled to afford to live within its borders. 

Two key areas of real estate needs for artists emerged from the Cultural Plan: affordable housing and studio space. While programs exist to support the creation of below-market-rate residential units, developers are finding it is far trickier to meet the commercial needs of the creative community, which struggles with permitting and access to capital. 

The Anacostia Arts Center, which opened in 2013.

Gautier, who has worked to support the arts community in Anacostia for decades, said live/work spaces are low-hanging fruit for developers looking to support the arts community, and they are relatively straightforward to fill. But he said much of the progress made on that front has come from D.C.-led initiatives, while developers are in the dark about how to meet the needs of artists.

“I think the District is doing a better job. There's no question,” Gautier said. “I think the private sector is abysmal.”

Affordable living spaces have begun to crop up within D.C., albeit slowly. Nine new rental units at the ONE501 development in Eckington were set aside specifically for artist housing, five for artists making 60% or less of the area median income, when it opened this year. But other plans made by developers, like the upcoming Art Place at Fort Totten, have struggled — the developer plans to provide 30 live/work units for artists, but it has pushed back the completion date after losing experiential creative tenant Meow Wolf. 

More recently, nonprofit developer Artspace delivered its Artspace Silver Spring development Nov. 23, featuring 68 apartments for artists with rents affordable to those earning up to 60% of AMI. The development also includes seven market-rate townhouses and four townhouses sold through Montgomery County’s Workforce Housing program. 

The building, which incorporates the decommissioned Third Precinct Police Station, will include studio and gallery space that can incorporate work from both the residents and artists in the broader community.

Artspace Vice President of Government Affairs Stacey Mickelson told Bisnow that the developer had no trouble filling up its residential units, in part because word of mouth spread quickly in the tight-knit D.C. arts community.

“There’s really talented people here… but they do need space, affordable space,” Mickelson said. “D.C. isn’t exactly known for its affordability, and I think a lot of artists struggle to make it when they come here.”

Developers have gotten better in recent years at identifying resources to bring in creative workers that actually bring foot traffic from the surrounding community, said Kristi Maiselman, who took over as CulturalDC’s executive director in 2018. 

“They have realized that it’s important to be authentic,” Maiselman said. “Where developers go wrong is they say, ‘Oh great, people want art,’ and they bring in a muralist from somewhere else to do it. That’s where I’ve seen it go wrong.”

Townhouses on the Artspace Silver Spring campus

CulturalDC, a 20-year-old nonprofit that has had a hand in several major developments incorporating art space, including Monroe Street Market and several other projects in the Brookland area, was enlisted to help curate the arts program at the Parks at Walter Reed, the long-awaited redevelopment of the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center

Under plans submitted by the development team of Hines, Urban Atlantic and Triden Development Group, part of the redevelopment of the 66-acre campus would include the Aspen Arts Park, which opens up a former firehouse and plaza for creative and cultural uses, according to the development team’s website.

CulturalDC received a grant from the District’s Office of Planning to conduct a feasibility study for arts space and get feedback from the project’s neighbors on what art they would like to see incorporated when the 20K SF project opens. Maiselman said the process was instructive, particularly now that the developers are looking to move forward in a post-vaccine world. 

“I think what Covid will teach us is people are being much more creative about the way they lease space. We are thinking about that, different things at different spaces,” Maiselman said.

Mickelson said Artspace has learned from its previous projects in the region, the Brookland Artspace Lots and the Mount Rainier Artist Lofts, not to overdo it on retail space in its initial development in order to ensure they reach capacity. 

Its Silver Spring campus will also have a staff member who will help curate the public gallery space in the building, something Gautier said is lacking at other developments like the Brookland Arts Walk at Monroe Street Market.

“[Developers] get subsidies, and they say, ‘Well OK, we're going to open this space up and we've done our job because we're giving people affordable space for a certain period of time as long as our subsidies are there,’” Gautier said. “But what did they do with that space? Do they curate it? Do they publicize it? Do they promote once the project is completed? The answer is no.”

Gautier said the Cultural Plan has led to an improvement in the level of support smaller galleries are receiving from the city. He noted in particular that it shifted some of the money that went to well-funded institutions like the Phillips Collection and Arena Stage toward smaller spaces throughout the city.

Because of those developments, though, Gautier said the greatest needs in the artistic community have shifted away from live/work units and toward dedicated studio space. 

“Live/work space, if you're a ceramist, if you're a sculptor, that is difficult,” Gautier said. “Workspace that can accommodate sculptors or artists, etc., that is definitely needed.”