By Kayleigh Bryant-Greenwell
With the threat of Union Arts’ space closing, the recent shuttering of studios on H St, and the general lack of available spaces in D.C. the biggest, or at least loudest, woe from artists at ArtTable’s recent second installment of State of Art/DC: A Conversation at Longview Gallery, was the lack of space for artists to do their work.
The evening saw artist after artist after artist lament the continued loss of artist spaces within the District, firming the tired, and much-exaggerated, stereotype of D.C. as no more than a transient city. But also presented, though perhaps more quietly, were the many other issues surrounding the artistic livelihood of the District. Issues like the lack of infrastructure to support artists with or without studio space and the continued system of arts-siloes that we persistently, almost fundamentally, decide to work under.
Perhaps the most disturbing emergence of the night was the shocking misconceptions of how the majority of arts funding, i.e. the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, is distributed across the District. In the nation’s capital we are at the heart of political sensationalism. Where we live determines how we think. In politics the willful dissemination of inaccuracies is acceptable. As artists and arts patrons we must do better.
The question of the night was, “Where do you see the arts in D.C. in 5 years?” Such a question is hard to quantify as we saw in the varied, but generically optimistic responses. But perhaps directly addressing some of our accepted inaccuracies is a good place to start.
In 5 years, the arts in the District should:
1. Stop saying D.C. is transient.
As were noted by the overwhelming majority of hands raised to the question, “Who has been in D.C. for more than 20 years?” D.C. is a city of longtime residents and arts lovers. The “inherent transience” of D.C. is a myth and while it might seem like a small misconception, actually denies the presence of the long-rooted arts organizations such as DCAC and WPA who have worked tirelessly to improve our much beloved arts scene.
2. Stop blaming the DCCAH for all our problems.
First, let’s address how the DCCAH actually works. Grants are peer reviewed. That’s right, it is your peers: arts managers, writers, and artists in the city who carefully comb through the plethora of typos and grammatical errors presented in each grant application, to put forth a suggested list of deserving potential grantees. The Commissioners, unpaid appointed officials, that is, then take those suggestions into consideration for final funding.
So let’s get one thing straight, it is neither accurate nor appropriate to publicly blame newly-appointed DCCAH Executive Director Arthur Espinoza, Jr. for any possible changes in funding to long-standing arts organizations or others.
3. Stop lamenting the ongoing artist exodus to the nearby suburbs.
Yes, many artists are leaving the limited 6-mile wide D.C. borders for cheaper studio spaces just one Metro stop out of the District. While this is certainly mildly annoying for very few District neighborhoods, we need to understand the cumbersome decision it is for any artist to move their residency outside the boundaries of the District, while choosing to still work and contribute to the D.C. art scene. Leaving the District for cheaper rent and studio space means denying oneself access to the deluge of grant monies provided by DCCAH. Electing to save money is actually a dramatically costly choice deserving of empathy not severity. We need to understand that artists that make the choice to live outside the District borders are willingly denying themselves access to DCCAH dollars, while still providing their art services to D.C.
4. Furthermore, we need to accept that we are a tri-state area.
As such, great art, whether we want to believe it or not, is being made outside the District, but can–and does–still contribute to our cultivating art scene. For example, everyone in D.C. can agree that sculptor Foon Sham is a local treasure. His work is made in Lorton, VA, where there is space to mount room-sized wooden sculpture. He also teaches at the University of Maryland. None of these facts belittle his work. Nor should proximity to NoVA and urban Maryland be a “con” in considering the diversity of art being made in and around the city.
5. We need to start supporting each other cross-institutionally with full resources.
In action that looks like this: Transformer needs support for one of their artists who is about to be evicted from their studio, so they call WPA for help. When WPA picks up the phone, instead of saying, “Well, it’s really not best practices to send an eblast to our members about a non-WPA issue…,” they say, “Of course we’ll send your electronic petition around, because we’re all in this together.”
6. We need to start thinking strategically as a unified creative D.C.
We need to take advantage of our geography, that we sit at the center of the American political circus. While it does get crazy out there, we need to understand how the political system works and then work it to our advantage. It’s time to gather in numbers and get involved in the “ick” because the way we’ve been working thus far: as siloed entities, at the mercy of developers, without quantifiable data to support our claims, isn’t working.
We all love the arts in D.C. and we want the arts to thrive. We need a much-improved arts infrastructure in the next 5 years. But we have to change our attitudes to do so. We need to accept that space for artists is not the only issue holding us back. We need to collectively enter into a new head space. We need to re-brand.
Kayleigh Bryant-Greenwell is an independent curator, writer, arts manager and District native. She implements feminist programs for Women, Arts and Social Change as the public programs coordinator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. She is the programs chair for DC Chapter of ArtTable. Views are her own.