Fillmore School, an Arts Incubator for D.C. Creatives

April 5, 2016
WAMU 88.5 American University Radio

The trope of the “starving artist” is an old one, but in the Washington region, the “nomadic artist” might be more accurate. In a hot real estate market, the cost of studio space makes it hard to find an affordable place to paint or sculpt, perfect a play, or write a new song. In the tony Georgetown neighborhood, local artists have a unique opportunity to apply for half a year of studio space — rent free.

Kate Goodall is Chief Operating Officer at S&R Foundation, a D.C.-based nonprofit. “Our mission is to support emerging creatives to make a positive change in the world,” she says, “and that goes for social enterprise and arts and science.”

Goodall is standing in the historic Fillmore School building on 35th Street Northwest. It was built in 1893 and her foundation bought it last year.

“Now we’ve decided to open a studios program, free complimentary studio space to D.C. artists, particularly those focused on social practice,” she says, “And we will enlarge that program after a period of renovations toward the end of this year and throughout most of 2017.”

The goal is to renovate this schoolhouse and turn it into an arts incubator.

“It hasn’t changed at all since we purchased it really in June, so the studio spaces are going to be quite raw, but very large and most of them are quite airy,” she says.

Each floor and room has its own vibe. In one large and well-lit space, a dance troupe could comfortably rehearse. In another, metal ropes connected to electrical outlets hang from the ceiling like strange, symmetrical vines. On other levels, photographers or printmakers could make the environment their own. 

Based on the artists’ feedback, S&R will be able to make informed decisions about what kind of changes the building needs. First, it’ll have to select the people who will spend half a year in the Fillmore School. Goodall says more than 140 artists submitted applications within the first four days of the Studios Program launch.

“We’re trying to strike that balance between people who have need and people who are very talented and people who are working on social practice,” she says, adding that social change will be even more of a focus once S&R establishes its full program at Fillmore School in late 2017.

The foundation is accepting applications from artists in all disciplines.

Artists make D.C. hip, but where can they work?

Victoria Reis is the co-founder and artistic director of Transformer, a non-profit, visual arts organization that aims, in part, to connect and promote emerging visual artists. She’s also on the selection committee for the Fillmore School spaces.

“It’s an incredible opportunity, especially for artists who might have upcoming commitments, exhibition wise or have been trying to achieve a body of work they haven't been able to, because they don't have the space,” she says.

She says the move to create more studio space is important for both artists and the city, especially with private, non-profit corporation Destination DC promoting the nation's capital as a hip place to hang out.

“The idea of DC Cool,” she says with a chuckle, “I mean, where is the cool coming from? It's usually coming from arts and culture, from visual artists, musicians, performing artists.”

Those artists need to be able to create, produce and present their ideas.

“More studio space and more spaces for presentation are vitally needed in our city,” Reis says.

Downstairs at the Katzen Arts Center, American University Museum Director and Curator Jack Rasmussen agrees, saying, “Studio space is the biggest problem for artists in Washington, D.C.”

He says the studios that are available are few and far in between, and the cost? Unless you feel like essentially renting a second apartment, forget about it. He says a lot of people make do at home.

“But there aren't really the kinds of studio buildings where you'd be working with 40 other artists,” he says.

If you're looking for that kind of scene, he says, you'll have much better luck in Baltimore.

“Usually, you look for sort of light industrial spaces that are no longer being used for their original purpose,” he says, “So Baltimore is filled with them and artists take them over and alter the spaces and make it possible for artists to work there in great conditions with a community.”

Rasmussen says D.C. used to have the kind of empty building space that an artists’ community requires.

“You know we have a show up right now, and it's about artists living here in the late '70s, early '80s, when the studios were downtown,” he says. “It was after the riots and there was a lot of unused buildings and it became the center for the arts.”

Galleries moved to the neighborhood. Theater and dance companies set up shop. Rasmussen says it was a prime, central location for artists to form a community, within close proximity to museums and arts organizations.

“But everything got priced out of the market, basically,” he says. “That's typical of artists moving into spaces, renovating, building studios and then becoming too expensive to stay.”

So typical that it's happening again.

Artists finding ways to help themselves?

Desirée Venn Frederic is rearranging furniture in her shop, a bright, colorful space filled with an assortment of curios, clothing, and artwork. Her business, Nomad Yard Collectiv, is part vintage shop, part art gallery. It’s located on the ground level of the Union Arts building in Northeast... but not for long.

Union Arts, a privately owned arts collective, was sold last year. The buyers, D.B. Lee Development and Construction and Brook Rose Development, want to turn the property into an arts boutique hotel — and provide a small number of studios. Venn Frederic says once again, artists are losing out, and indeed some have protested the move.

“We have people within the building, who have been displaced numerous times, who have had to leave numerous studios around the city because someone bought it,” she says. “There are no policies and laws that in fact protect and support artists in securing spaces. There’s little funding that actually supports with artist ownership of buildings.”

Venn Frederic says the critical next step would be for artists to purchase their own building, with help from the city and private institutions.

“Artists are powerful,” she says. “We’re able to sway public opinion, because we communicate and reflect what people feel, and we communicate and reflect what they may not believe they have a voice to say and we’re unafraid and we do so.”

George Koch is president and CEO of the Center for the Creative Economy. He’s also chair emeritus of Artomatic, Inc., which he founded. He says artists are most powerful in numbers. The issue of studio space has been a focus of his for decades.

“Back in 1970, when I wanted a studio space, nobody was talking to me if I was talking to them about 500 to 700 square feet,” he says. “But if a whole floor of the building was about 4000 square feet, and I had a group of friends, they were interested.”

Like Jack Rasmussen, Koch says one problem in D.C. is its limited industrial base. “We don’t have warehouses to recycle like Baltimore, Chicago, Denver or Seattle,” he says. “We just don’t have them.”

In 1999, he created Artomatic. The volunteer-run nonprofit locates temporary spaces, opens them up to artists and the viewing public for a few weeks, then leaves the site. He says Artomatic looks at three kinds of buildings: ones that are about to be torn down, locations that are set to be rehabilitated, or brand new buildings that have never been occupied.

“We teach our fellow artists how to fish, rather than fish for them,” he says, on the organization’s template for securing a building. “Unless you have the kind of status to purchase a building, it’s always going to be temporary,” he says.

Venn Frederic hopes she can defy the odds and do just that. She says there are buildings available in D.C. The challenge is securing them for the creative community. “We don’t need million square foot spaces,” she says. “We just need something that is protected where we don’t have to worry about being kicked out.”

She is considering her options, while keeping her eyes on Union Arts. She and fellow advocates are preparing for a zoning hearing meeting on April 21, where they’ll continue to make their case for altering the developers’ plan. “We really do ask the community to come and stand in solidarity and voice their opinion on this matter,” she says.

Lucky find at the Fillmore

Meanwhile, 10 lucky D.C. artists will settle into free studio space at the Fillmore School building next month.

And that will raise another question: where will they go when their six months there are up?

Artists have until 5 p.m. Wednesday to apply for the free space.

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