Dean Kessmann installation at Furthermore, Courtesy Jose Ruiz

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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