Arts and the City

Highrise Carroll Square (10th and F Streets, NW) is just another Washington office building, except for one thing. It has a small visual arts gallery, but so do other downtown buildings in the Nation’s Capital. What makes Carroll Square different is artists, working artists. There are artist studios in the building; art is made there.

Back when the 9:30 Club was actually at 930 F Street, NW, artists and performers had studios throughout downdown. When speculators ran up the price of downtown real estate and developers planned to rip down the century-old buildings, artist work spaces were displaced. The stubbornest member of the nonprofit Downtown Artists’ Coalition, painter Michael Berman, continued to negotiate with DC Government planners and private developers to maintain studio space for visual artists. It took a decade, but working artists are back on F Street.

Arts and the City
Find the artist in this picture.

Visual artists are returning as F St|Arts, and their studios occupy the rehabbed townhouses that step-back into the high-rise portion of the new development. Paintings, photographs, sculpture, and jewelry and wood craft media are produced there by Michael Berman, Richard Dana, Matthew Falls, Stuart Gosswein, Judy Jashinsky, Gediyon KifleKurt Massé, Mimi Massé, and Beatrice Valdes Paz.

You can see the new studios and the work artists produce there on Saturday, September 13, 2008 during Arts On Foot, the downtown celebration of Washington’s visual and performing arts.  F St|Arts studios will also exhibit work by guest artists Janis Goodman, Joe Hicks, Pepa Leon, Barbara Liotta, Quint Marshall, and Johanna Muelle.

Following misguided national trends, DC-area governments have spent an inordinate amount of time and public money (including tax write-offs) to foster exhibition spaces for the visual and performing arts, as well as some “artist live-work space.” It is clear from the work of University of Minnesota economist Anne Markusen and others that these efforts largely ignore the people who make art, the Human Capital of the Cultural Economy. Artists are not just an “attraction” or “amenity” for “creative class” consumers, but an urban economic engine. 

What artists need most of all is space to create and perfect their work: properly lit and ventilated studios, acoustically-isolated music and drama rehearsal spaces, sprung floors for dance rehearsal. In the countryside, you can make all the racket and stink you want, but you lack the invigorating interaction with a community of artists that has made the metropolis exciting for millennia.

We all  would like to work close to home; it would be a great convenience, but the housing needs of artists are no different from those of other working people. “Artist Live-Work Space” is an extravagant waste of scarce public resources, the result of an absurd, romantic mythology of artistic creation. The preeminent need for any artist is work space; an artist who does no work is a former artist.

Every U.S. city founded in the days of trolley cars has many abandoned movie theaters, and not all of them have become CVS stores (yet).  But if governments spend scarce cultural resources converting  all these sites into performing arts exhibition spaces, and neglect the needs of resident artists for affordable reheasal space, those theaters will only benefit touring companies from more enlightened cities. When vacant downtown storefronts become subsidized visual arts galleries, and resident visual artists cannot find affordable studio space, those galleries fill with imported art from elsewhere. These misguided efforts drain a city’s cultural vitality.

Try and visit F St|Arts during the Arts on Foot festival. And whether or not you visit, think about what your community can do to add affordable artist studio space in your city.


Hear an interview about F St|Arts from WAMU-FM’s MetroConnection here (Windows Media Player).

2 Responses to “Arts and the City”

  1. elisabeth Says:

    Great little article and it raises interesting questions. While studio space is vital to keep any urban community alive, I’m not sure that it is important to create a division between work and living space– for some artists (performaing artists, electronic musicians) this may be vital– but for others, working and living as an intertwined act may be the best solution. Certainly for parents, those with day jobs, and those who work in unpredictable spurts of inspiration, it makes sense to combine living and working space. The best thing about your post is that it recognizes how important it is to regard artists as producers and to take a process-driven rather than commodity-driven view of their needs.

  2. Mike Licht Says:


    Lawyers, accountants, programmers, engineers, business owners, biologists — who among us does not have unpredictable spurts of inspiration? Do these entitle everyone to subsidized live-work space?

    Artists do what everyone else does, make sketches and notes and work on them further when it is practical.

    The separation of living and working space is a reality of the urban environment; attempting to erase the difference for artists only must be seen as a luxury, and the public underwriting it requires simply cannot be justified by the realities of responsible governance.

    It is incredibly expensive to arrange work-live space for artists, in terms of construction, inspections, special installation of utilities, zoning variances, tax giveaways to developers, etc. Better to use scarce public funds and rare tax-write-off opportunities to underwrite more studios for the visual and performing arts, and elect officials who will work to ensure affordable housing for everyone, artist or not.

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