Transcripts

Pursuing Your Passion -- And Paying the Rent

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

13:07:41
But first, getting by in Washington, D.C. it can be a bit tough sometimes since the city, well, it's kind of pricey. Okay, maybe more than kind of pricey. D.C., after all, consistently ranks among the top ten most expensive cities in the nation. In fact, the cost of living here is nearly 40 percent higher than the national average.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

13:08:04
But the Washingtonians we're about to meet are finding ways to beat the odds and get by while remaining true to their passion, art. In a sun-drenched, paint-spattered studio in Northwest D.C., Raye Leith has just begun a new painting.

MS. RAYE LEITH

13:08:22
Red, it's time for red.

SHEIR

13:08:23
We're on the first floor of 52 O Street, a former warehouse that rents work and some living space to nearly three dozen artists of all stripes, from painters like Leith...

LEITH

13:08:34
Don't be afraid of drips, drips are good.

SHEIR

13:08:36
...to sculptors, musicians, dancers, photographers, there's even a furniture shop in the basement.

LEITH

13:08:44
I'm dangerous.

SHEIR

13:08:46
Since the late 1970s, 52 O Street has sought to provide an affordable place for artists to, you know, do their thing. But even here, the reality of D.C.'s rising cost of living is setting in. Five years ago, Raye Leith was paying $225 a month for a basement studio.

LEITH

13:09:04
Now I'm paying $565, but I've been told it's going up exponentially and I remember our landlord saying, but Raye, you only have to sell one piece a month. And I'm going, uh, are you buying? If he ever asks me to paint a portrait, it's going to be a year's rent.

SHEIR

13:09:21
And that's the thing, like so many artists at 52 O...

LEITH

13:09:25
Am I making any money?

SHEIR

13:09:26
...Leith doesn't make a living off her art.

LEITH

13:09:28
No.

SHEIR

13:09:30
Hence her steady, paid gigs as an art teacher at the Smithsonian and University of Maryland. But her art, she says that's what she lives for.

LEITH

13:09:37
It's imperative that I make art, really.

SHEIR

13:09:39
And that goes for having a space to make that art in, too.

LEITH

13:09:43
And actually, I would be a little bit crazy if I didn't come in here and do this on a regular basis. I mean, this functions to keep me centered. And it's getting really expensive, but I'm just determined to make it work because of the environment.

SHEIR

13:09:57
And because you just don't find a lot of places like 52 O Street in D.C.

LEITH

13:10:03
Every time I meet an artist who is looking for studio space and they're always saying, is there space at 52 O? Because there is no place to work.

SHEIR

13:10:11
Or there are places to work, says Kendall Nordin, a tenant on the third floor who does drawing, performance art and installation work, but most of these places, well, they aren't exactly conducive to creativity.

MS. KENDALL NORDIN

13:10:23
I found this building after a year and a half of looking for studio space. I looked at a lot of places and they were either too expensive or they were really tiny or they were really awkward, like $300 for a ten by five space that people had to walk through with no light.

SHEIR

13:10:40
Which is why Nordin was so happy to stumble upon 52 O. Now, like Raye Leith, she finds the increasing rent tricky.

NORDIN

13:10:48
Actually, I help clean the building here so that I can afford my studio. I am not beyond cleaning toilets so that I have a studio.

SHEIR

13:10:56
And she's become a staunch advocate for converting more of the city's vacant space, be it an old school house or like 52 O, an old warehouse, into work space for local artists.

NORDIN

13:11:07
Because it seems like the priority has been to then turn it over to a developer and turn it into condos and office space. But if you want to retain artists, you need to have space for them to work.

SHEIR

13:11:17
Matt Pearson (sp?) agrees. The D.C. native works and lives at 52 O Street just across the hall from Raye Leith. Pearson is a musician...

MR. MATT PEARSON

13:11:26
I have this upright piano in here where I can...

SHEIR

13:11:30
...and actor.

PEARSON

13:11:32
And I'm actually running off right now to an audition at the Woolly Mammoth Theater.

SHEIR

13:11:34
But his steady paying gig is with the downtown DC Business Improvement District.

PEARSON

13:11:38
And I'm learning what the long-term development priorities are for D.C. and noticing that art is not a high priority in a lot of corridors so I'm interested in seeing how we can change that discussion.

SHEIR

13:11:47
Pearson says he applauds the D.C. Office of Planning's Temporary Urbanism Initiative which funds temporary pop-up artisan stores in unoccupied retail spaces.

PEARSON

13:11:57
But I think what the city needs is more advocates for safe space for artists and affordable space for artists. It's not that anyone is particularly out to get artists or out to shut us out of the city, it's just that no one is arguing forcefully enough for it. The discussion is driven by developers.

SHEIR

13:12:11
And someone who would love to be in on that discussion...

MS. AYRIS SCALES

13:12:14
I'm like, why are we not at the table having conversations with developers?

SHEIR

13:12:18
...is Ayris Scales, the interim executive director of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities or DCCAH.

SCALES

13:12:26
We are the district government's official arm to support arts organizations and individual artists here in the district.

SHEIR

13:12:34
That's traditionally meant awarding grants and offering workshops and professional development.

SCALES

13:12:38
But definitely the direction that we're looking to go with the agency is more conversations with developers, realtors, brokers so you can do an affordable housing project in the district and there's no reason why a block of those units couldn't be targeted to the arts community.

SHEIR

13:12:56
After all, she says the arts community does more than just, you know, paint pretty pictures.

SCALES

13:13:01
We touch so many different areas, in terms of education and public safety and community development. When you're investing in the arts community, you're saying that, you know, you understand the value that it brings to our quality of life.

SHEIR

13:13:14
Of course, in this era of cutbacks, cutbacks, and cutbacks, DCCAH is facing a shrinking budget.

SCALES

13:13:21
In 2010, we're at about a 6.5. And then for 2011, we're about the $5 million mark and for 2012, it's projected that we'll be at about the $4 million mark. These are local dollars.

SHEIR

13:13:34
And shrinking numbers mean fewer funds available to invest in artists, which Scales says is why promoting this idea of creating more space for these artists is all the more crucial. And actually, back at 52 O Street, artist Kendall Nordin is kind of concerned about holding on to the space she already has.

NORDIN

13:13:52
I think there's an understanding with some of the older tenants in the building that the landlord really wants to keep its artists' spaces, but reality is reality. And if property taxes get too much or the repairs on the building get too much or if there is some zoning thing that changes, it could potentially just be gone and turn into, well, you know, new condos.

SHEIR

13:14:13
But painter Raye Leith is staying positive. After all, what other choice does she have?

LEITH

13:14:19
I just can't say it any other, you know, poetic way. I have to be in here or I die. I must make art.

SHEIR

13:14:33
And the hope is she can keep making it here for years to come. Sure, 52 O Street is old, it's rickety, but for Leith and her fellow artistic tenants, the place is nothing short of a masterpiece. 52 O Street Studios holds its annual Open Studios this weekend. For more information on that event and to see photographs of the building, its tenants and some of the art going on over there, visit our website, metroconnection.org
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