Pursuing Your Passion - And Paying The Rent (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Coming Together To Make Art: 52 O Street

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:09
Welcome back to "Metro Connection." I'm Rebecca Sheir. And as we continue today's theme of coming together, we're gonna actually revisit some folks in Washington who are coming together to pursue a shared passion against some pretty tough odds. Back in May on our getting by and getting ahead show, we heard how the district 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

00:00:36
But these Washingtonians are determined to get by and get ahead in this town while remaining true to their art. In a sun-drenched, paint-spattered studio in Northwest D.C., Raye Leith has just begun a new painting.

MS. RAYE LEITH

00:00:52
Red, it's time for red.

SHEIR

00:00:54
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

00:01:05
Don't be afraid of drips, drips are good.

SHEIR

00:01:08
...to sculptors, musicians, dancers, photographers, there's even a furniture shop in the basement.

LEITH

00:01:15
I'm dangerous.

SHEIR

00:01:18
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

00:01:36
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

00:01:53
And that's the thing, like so many artists at 52 O...

LEITH

00:01:56
Am I making any money?

SHEIR

00:01:58
...Leith doesn't make a living off her art.

LEITH

00:02:01
No.

SHEIR

00:02:02
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

00:02:10
It's imperative that I make art, really.

SHEIR

00:02:12
And that goes for having a space to make that art in, too.

LEITH

00:02:15
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

00:02:30
And because you just don't find a lot of places like 52 O Street in D.C.

LEITH

00:02:35
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

00:02:43
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

00:02:54
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

00:03:12
Which is why Nordin was so happy to stumble upon 52 O. Now, like Raye Leith, she finds the increasing rent tricky.

NORDIN

00:03:20
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

00:03:28
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

00:03:39
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

00:03:49
Matt Pearson 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

00:03:57
I have this upright piano in here where I can...

SHEIR

00:04:03
...and actor.

PEARSON

00:04:03
And I'm actually running off right now to an audition at the Woolly Mammoth Theater.

SHEIR

00:04:06
But his steady paying gig is with the downtown DC Business Improvement District.

PEARSON

00:04:10
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

00:04:20
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

00:04:29
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

00:04:43
And someone who would love to be in on that discussion...

MS. AYRIS SCALES

00:04:47
I'm like, why are we not at the table having conversations with developers?

SHEIR

00:04:51
...is Ayris Scales, the interim executive director of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities or DCCAH.

SCALES

00:04:58
We are the district government's official arm to support arts organizations and individual artists here in the district.

SHEIR

00:05:06
That's traditionally meant awarding grants and offering workshops and professional development.

SCALES

00:05:10
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

00:05:28
After all, she says the arts community does more than just, you know, paint pretty pictures.

SCALES

00:05:33
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

00:05:46
Of course, in this era of cutbacks, cutbacks, cutbacks, DCCAH is facing a shrinking budget.

SCALES

00:05:53
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

00:06:06
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

00:06:24
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

00:06:45
But painter Raye Leith is staying positive. After all, what other choice does she have?

LEITH

00:06:51
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

00:07:05
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.
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