52 O Street Open Studios

Washington, D.C. | by May 15, 2014

Upon entering the annual Open Studios at 52 O Street NW in D.C this past Saturday, May 10, Leyal Barakat, the 5 year-old-niece of resident painter Monier Barakat, elicited my thoughts on a single work she was displaying in the hallway.  She asked if I’d hang the  2’x 4’ cardboard structure (also know  as a box) painted on all surfaces with an abstract composition of large swaths of color in a stripped down primary palette in my home. She initially asked $1003 for the piece, but quickly reduced her price to $0.00 in an almost performative gesture that I found pretty evocative.

But I hadn’t come to the Open Studios as a collector. I came as a fellow local artist, a friend, and — for the first time — a former tenant of what is a fast-changing space. The event serves a multitude of purposes, from selling moderately-priced small works, to providing exposure for artists to potential collectors or even addressing questions of community engagement. However, the opportunity to see and touch materials that my peers are working with, witness the beginnings of new bodies of works and sit with the growth of projects having been developed over the previous twelve months has become somewhat of a rare and satisfying ritual for me.

I saw Rachel Farbiarz’s major collage and text-based works at Heiner Contemporary last fall, for example,  but was fascinated to see the sculptural pieces she’s been creating out of vernacular objects, such as thrifted glassware. I’m familiar with Caitlin Teal’s Price’s ubiquitous photos, ranging from serious of mysterious women shrouded in implied narratives, to individual specimen-like portraits of sunbathers. Her most recent work, documenting and flattening preserved bird carcases photographically seems like a departure; yet, throughout our brief conversation she was able to illuminate some interesting conceptual links.

Some context: O Street was founded in 1978 by a cast of of individual working artists that converted the warehouse into affordable artist workspaces. Until a few years ago, that remained the main function of the building. Eames Armstrong did performance art and was a key leader of fellow artists. Lisa Rosenstein made 3D paintings on the third floor.

Several artists remain —  Lisa Marie Thalhammer, Dan Treado, Cianne Fragione, and Thom Flynn, to name a few. But there’s been an exodus of sorts. In February, after being a studio tenant at O Street for just 3 years, my studiomates, including DC-based emerging artist chukwumaa, and I faced a sudden 25% rent hike.

We were being invited to leave.

In our place — and in the place of many of the other artists who have left in recent years, seem to be more explicitly commercial endeavors. Newer tenants like Mutiny D.C., for example, function predominantly as a retail outlet, whereas design firms such as Typecase Industries offer full-scale design services, letterpress printing, and educational workshops. If this is indeed the trend — as it seems to be — this wouldn’t be the first time that groups of artists have moved into an area undesirable to investors, shaped the area’s cultural identity, and eventually priced themselves out.

It certainly seems that housing spaces used in a multitude of ways — from design firms to lifestyle brands to  artists studios — could achieve a healthy, diverse arts microecology in the building, bringing together a variety of audiences.

Furthermore, for example, seems like an ideal example of such a prospect, simultaneously offering fine art printing services, exhibition space, and programming to the immediate building residents, DC’s BFA and MFA candidates, academics, activists, producers and audiences in other fields. I’m not sure if any of it’s founders currently maintain an individual art-making practice, yet they incubate dialogue and discourse that is highly relevant to artists working across disciplines.

BoomHammer, another project space run by resident artists Lisa Marie Thalhammer and dj Ebony Dumas, similarly strikes a balance between functioning as individual studio space, as well as offering exhibitions for local, national, and international artists.

Ultimately, it’s up to owner Marty Youmans to manage the building in a way that will continue to provide balance for it’s residents. In 2012, when Youmans announced plans to turn the first floor of O Street into a youth hostel, Kristen Capps of the Washington City Paper, posed a question: “Is it the beginning of the end for the resident art studios at 52 O Street NW?” It wasn’t. Not yet, anyway.

These days, it seems Youmans has gotten the picture that bringing in commercial ventures is wildly more profitable than housing artists wrangling intangible questions of craft and concept. There’s still great, inventive, provocative art happening at O Street. But that seems to be in spite of Youmans, not because he’s showed any inclination to perpetuate founder Eric Rudd’s vision of the warehouse as providing affordable workspaces for artists.

Maybe I should go back and buy Leyal’s cardboard sculpture. By the time she’s old enough for an art studio in DC, there might not be a space for her to go.


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